used to talk a lot about the vision he had for the Colorado Avalanche
. It started out with the stars he assembled in that first season in Denver -- Patrick Roy
in goal, Adam Foote
on defense and Joe Sakic
and Peter Forsberg
up front -- to complete the foundation of his grand plan.
Over the years, that foundation remained pretty constant -- a strong mix of leaders, supplemented by youngsters Lacroix counted as cornerstone players like Chris Drury, Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay.
It resulted in Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001, plus nine consecutive first-place divisional finishes from 1995-96 through 2002-03 and the aura of success, Mile High style.
When a Drury left, a Ray Bourque
or Rob Blake
was added as a foundation contributor. But after Bourque and Roy retired, Forsberg, Foote and Blake left via free agency and Tanguay in a trade, the game plan became muddled ... until a new bunch of Avalanche youngsters showed a “Back to the Future” resurgence, standing on the shoulders of Sakic and a young goaltender name Peter Budaj
Then, all of a sudden, on July 2, GM Francois Giguere, Lacroix’s right-hand man for years dating back to the team’s days in Quebec City, aggressively established a new vision of his own by signing left winger Ryan Smyth and defenseman Scott Hannan as free agents -- Smyth signing a five-year, $31.25 million, no-trade contract and Hannan getting a new four-year, $18 million deal. It seemed just like old times for the Avalanche, who made a habit under Lacroix of bringing in marquee names before the post-lockout collective bargaining agreement and salary-cap system came into play.
"We were energized by the way the team had just two regulation losses in the last 19 games (going 15-2-2 and missing the playoffs by just one point)," Giguere said. "We worked long and hard to identify what we needed to make the next step. Everyone agreed we needed more grit and leadership and character.
"How can you not talk about all three of those intangibles without talking about Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan? These two players make us feel like we’re a team that’s going to compete for the Stanley Cup."
The foundation, if you will, still starts and ends with Joe Sakic and now, you could say, “Super Joe” is complemented nicely by veterans Smyth, Hannan, Hejduk, joining youngsters like goalie Peter Budaj, defenseman John-Michael Liles, center Paul Stastny and winger Wojtek Wolski.
Sakic and Stastny as Nos. 1-2 centers may not strike fear into the hearts of other teams around the NHL the way Sakic and Forsberg once did, but it’s not a bad combo by any stretch. Sakic is still one of the premier centers in the League and one of the great leaders in the game.
"When Joe Sakic called me, I began to remember some of those great battles we had with the Avs when I was in Edmonton," Smyth recalled. "They beat us in the playoffs in 1997 and we won a seven-game series from them the next year. But every time we played them it was a battle.
"I wouldn’t say Joe recruited me to Denver, but when a player like that picks up the phone and calls you to say; ‘We’d love to have you and we think we are close to having something special here.’ Well, you start to weigh the possibilities. That when the Avs began to look too good to pass up to me."
It’s clear that Lacroix used to weigh skill and talent right up there with heart and soul and passion and character. And it’s also clear that seeing Giguere spend big bucks to sign Smyth and Hannan is a sign of good things in the Mile High City.
If you are looking at Ryan Smyth simply as a 36-goal scorer in each of the last two seasons, which he was, well, then, you’ve missed the boat because he’s always played more like a 50- or 60-goal guy when you calculate the fact that he’s a fearless force in front of the opponent’s net and in the corners and he gives you about 200 percent every game. He was the face of the Edmonton Oilers since his breakout year of 39 goals in 1996-97. He proved time and again that it wasn’t just the stats that he should be judged on.
"He's old-school," Detroit Red Wings checker supreme Kirk Maltby once told me. "He's got the hockey hair, wild and out of control. Straight stick, when everyone else tests the limits with the curve on their blade. He just plays hard, tough. Loves to bump with you. It's like someone wound him up with titanium batteries or something strong like that ... and he never stops working."
|"When I look into a mirror, I see a guy who just loves to pay the price it takes to win. I'm not out to win a modeling job."
-- Ryan Smyth
Skill ... determination ... passion ... grit ... playing on the edge. Some players are just born with the mindset to play on the edge, to do whatever it takes to win.
"He's a throwback to the old Oilers, when a Glenn Anderson or Mark Messier or Esa Tikkanen would drive hard to the net with speed every time they were on the ice," Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said. "With Smytty, you know you're going to get a competitive shift ... every time. In a tight, competitive game, I could give him up to 25 minutes of ice time and he'd come to me and say, 'Give me 30.'
"Ryan is at a point in his career where he no longer has to get a goal or a point to help his team win. Just being on the ice, he can be a leader, a presence."
Wild hair, wet from the hard work he put in. He had those red badges of courage -- a cut above his lip and an ice pack.
"When I look into a mirror," he laughed, "I see a guy who just loves to pay the price it takes to win. I'm not out to win a modeling job."
Ryan Smyth is the kind of player every team wants -- a warrior, who plays to win no matter who he is playing against or whether it is the first week of the season, or the last.
Coach Joel Quenneville is said to be leaning toward an all-veteran line of Sakic-Andrew Brunette-Smyth with a second line of Stastny-Wolski-Hejduk, followed by a mix of skill and talent with a player like Marek Svatos looking to return to his rookie season form of 32 goals in just 68 games in 2005-06, along with the likes of Tyler Arnason and Ian Laperriere and Brad Richardson. The team also signed 30-year-old forward Jaroslav Hlinka, whom Hejduk described as the best player in the Czech Elite League the last two seasons. On defense, Hannan will be used as a shutdown blueliner as he had been in San Jose for the seven seasons. He quickly improves a quickly-rising group on defense that includes the offensive-minded John-Michael Liles, injured veteran Jordan Leopold (just 15 games last season), along with gritty Brett Clark and Karlis Skrastins.
The bottom line here is finding out if Budaj is anything close to a good Patrick Roy replacement. Or can Jose Theodore get back into the picture in goal.
"They’ve got great tradition here ... two Stanley Cups," said Smyth. "I wanted to be a part of their next one."
"Colorado really took it to the next level," Hannan said of spending big bucks for himself and Smyth. "I've battled against this team over the years -- and I'm looking forward to playing with them now. The team's dedication to winning is big."
Mile High big?
Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan definitely make for good foundation pieces as the Avs look to go “Back to the Future” as Stanley Cup contenders.
|NHL.com's 2007-08 Avalanche Season Preview Package:
|Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster