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Sacco takes the reins in Colorado

by Rick Sadowski

"Our goal next year will be to make the playoffs," he said. "We will be doing everything we can in the next week or so, with the hockey operations staff, to get things organized and move forward with our team for next year. We'll have a better idea then of what we need to do."
-- Colorado coach Joe Sacco

DENVER – The Colorado Avalanche previously struck gold – or, rather, Stanley Cup silver – by promoting a head coach from an American Hockey League affiliate.

Now, two months after failing to qualify for the playoffs for the second time in three years while finishing last in the Western Conference, the Avalanche is banking on Joe Sacco to duplicate the feats of former Colorado coaches Marc Crawford and Bob Hartley, who guided the team to Stanley Cup championships in 1996 and 2001, respectively.

"Our franchise has gone that route very successfully in the past," new Avalanche General Manager Greg Sherman said Thursday during a news conference at the Pepsi Center while introducing Sacco, 40, as the team's fifth head coach since it arrived in Denver from Quebec for the 1995-96 season.

Sacco, who coached the Lake Erie Monsters in the AHL the past two seasons, succeeds Tony Granato, who was fired Wednesday in a major organization overhaul.  Assistants Dave Barr, Jacques Cloutier and Jeff Hackett also were dismissed, along with Assistant to the General Manager Michel Goulet and video coordinator P.J. DeLuca.

"The situation that came across with moving forward, we decided as a group to go in a different direction with the coaching staff," said Sherman, who replaced Francois Giguere, fired April 13. "We felt it was in the best interests of the franchise to go in a new direction."

Nearly everything about the Avalanche's management and coaching staff is new in the wake of the team's disastrous 2008-09 season, which ended with a 32-45-5 record, the third-worst mark in the League.

After courting Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy, who turned down the Avalanche's head-coaching offer, Colorado has chosen a coach who failed to make the playoffs in his two seasons with Lake Erie to resurrect the team from the ashes.

Sacco, who posted a 34-38-3-5 record with the Monsters last season, is undeterred.

"Our goal next year will be to make the playoffs," he said. "We will be doing everything we can in the next week or so, with the hockey operations staff, to get things organized and move forward with our team for next year. We'll have a better idea then of what we need to do."

Former Avalanche defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre was named Thursday as an assistant coach. Lefebvre, 41, spent the past two seasons as an assistant under Sacco with the Monsters. He played 14 seasons in the NHL and was a member of the Avalanche's Stanley Cup championship team in 1996.

"It's awesome being back in Colorado," Lefebvre said.

Sacco, a native of Medford, Mass., was contacted by the Avalanche Tuesday afternoon at his Cleveland home. He flew to Denver that night, interviewed Wednesday and shortly after accepted Sherman's offer.

"This opportunity unfolded very quickly," Sacco said. "It's been a whirlwind of events for me the past couple days. I'm still trying to soak everything in right now. I'm excited and anxious to get started.

"We'll be taking the appropriate steps to create an identity of a hard-working, energetic team that is difficult to play against on a consistent basis. We want to be a team that plays with lots of energy. We want to be a team that attacks. We want to be a team that doesn't sit back and let the opposition dictate the style of play.

"We want to watch this team grow into a contender again. When you start coaching, your ultimate goal is to coach in the NHL. I'm here now and I want to do everything I can to prove to this franchise that they had all the reasons to believe in my capabilities."

A feisty right wing during his playing days, Sacco played collegiate hockey at Boston University and skated 13 seasons in the NHL, collecting 94 goals and 119 assists. A fourth-round pick (71st overall) of Toronto in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft, Sacco played for the Maple Leafs, Anaheim, the New York Islanders, Washington and Philadelphia.

Sacco was an assistant coach with Avalanche affiliates in Lowell, Mass., in 2005-06 and Albany, N.Y., in 2006-07 before his promotion to head coach with Lake Erie.

Sherman said he began to put together a list of potential head coaches last weekend, and Sacco was his top candidate.

"Joe Sacco is a blue-collar, hard-working guy," Sherman said. "He's very passionate about the game. I think his passion and his desire and his attitude of being positive in wanting to find solutions and working hard is going to exemplify a lot of what we have already in-house."

Sacco's familiarity with many of the Avalanche's young players and prospects was one of the factors that endeared him to Sherman.

The Avalanche lost a staggering 366 man games to injuries or illness last season; eight rookies who began the year with Sacco in Lake Erie were on the Colorado roster by the time the season ended.

"I think his familiarity is going to be good for both the players and the coach," Sherman said. "Joe is a coach who holds players accountable, and I think the players know that. Joe is fair and I know he's hard-working, so I believe it's going to be a good situation for all involved."

Said Sacco: "Over the last four years I've worked with many young players on this team and I'm excited about coaching this team at the NHL level."

While expressing confidence in their abilities to return the Avalanche among the NHL's elite, Sherman and Sacco are realistic enough to acknowledge that plenty of work and improvement will be necessary for that to happen.

"There's no shortage of challenges and we realize that," Sherman said. "There's not going to be any shortcuts. The challenge is ahead of us. We're not hiding behind that. But we're very confident that we're going to get back to a scenario where our fans expect and what we expect."

Sherman's management team, along with Sacco and Lefebvre, will evaluate the organization's players and needs during staff meetings in the next week.

"We're going to address our entire roster, from our minor league roster to our NHL roster," said Sherman, who also must prepare for the June 25-26 Entry Draft in Montreal.

The Avalanche owns the third overall pick, the highest for a Quebec/Colorado team since the Nordiques selected Eric Lindros with the first pick in 1991.

"I think (the upcoming draft) is certainly a springboard," Sherman said. "It's paramount for us and we're going to focus on it. It's a big piece of our franchise moving forward and we're excited about it."

The Avalanche also is awaiting word from longtime captain Joe Sakic, who played in only 15 games last season because of injuries and has yet to decide whether to return for a 21st NHL season or retire.

But Sherman won't hold Sakic to any deadline.

"We owe Joe all the respect," he said. "Joe can make the decision on his terms. Joe has certainly earned the respect to take his time and make his decision as to what his future holds."

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