By ADRIAN DATER
Right now, it’s an abusive relationship between the Colorado Avalanche and their most loyal fans. The die-hards keep showing up,on the pledge that things will be better this time around. No more fooling around this time, promise.
And then, like the philandering bum, the Avs go right back on their word. How much more will the fans take?
Judging by the nearly empty arena right before the start of Thursday’s latest loss, 3-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, not much more. (There was an accident on I-25 before the game, which club apologists insisted was the big reason for the shockingly sparse crowd, but what is the excuse for the other nights of late?).
After 22 games, the Avs had the lowest winning percentage of any team in the NHL, tied with the Arizona Coyotes for the fewest points (19) in the league. Their 49 goals were second-fewest in the league. They have two forwards (John Mitchell and Cody McLeod) who’ve played a combined 31 games and haven’t gotten a single point. They are paying four players this year a combined $23.8 million (Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Tyson Barre and Erik Johnson) who have given owner Josh Kroenke 15 goals in 88 combined games. And they are still the team’s top four point leaders.
At the close of Wednesday’s practice, veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin slammed his stick on the ice and yelled “Show that you (bleeping) care!” First-year coach Jared Bednar ripped into his players too, saying there were “too many passengers” and questioning the overall “passion” of the group.
And the response of the top players the next night against the Blue Jackets? Yawn. It was 2-0 before some of the stragglers from I-25 exited onto 1000 Chopper Place to take their seats.
Colorado’s offense for the night consisted of a power-play goal from third-liner Blake “Perry” Comeau and Sam “Sunset Grill” Henley, playing his first career NHL game.
For now, Avs GM Joe Sakic is maintaining something of the stance of the Herbert Hoover administration, that prosperity is just around the corner. Except, the fans are in one great big depression again. A team whose appearance in either the conference or Stanley Cup Finals used to seem like a constitutional right has not been past the second round since 2002, and has missed the playoffs in six of the last eight years.
After a summer in which the analytics gurus said the big problem was Patrick Roy and his “system”, that a coach who finally got the modern game would be the ticket back to happy days again, well, they’re starting to realize that maybe the problem wasn’t any “lack of a system.”
A lot of people ask me: what is the real problem, and what should be done? Here is what I think:
– I think Bednar is and will prove to be a good coach eventually. But not with this core group of players. I think Bednar is finally starting to learn just what Roy did toward the end of last season: that there is a fundamental deficit in the collective passion and desire of his core players.
– I honestly think too many of the Avs’ top young players got rewarded too big, too soon with big, fat contracts. Maybe I’m totally wrong, but I just believe that players today are too richly rewarded on their second contracts, and that it kills some of their drive. I’m not saying guys like Gabe Landeskog and Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon and Semyon Varlamov and Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson dog it out there, not by any means. All are smart, good guys who care. But do they burn to succeed, when they’re all under 30 and being paid a minimum of $5.5 million for this and several more years?
No, there’s not much Sakic and other NHL GMs can do, other than give in to the system that demands young, talented players be locked up early, lest they leave for nothing after their seventh season. When Sakic was a superstar, the earliest a player could become an unrestricted free agent was 31. Now, it can be as young as 25.
None of the aforementioned have ever played beyond the second round of the playoffs, and yet they’re all insanely rich already and will continue to be guaranteed many tens of millions more combined in the next few years.
It’s just my opinion, and it might be wrong, but I just don’t think the Avs’ young core is truly hungry enough, partially because their wallets are already nice and fat. It might be only by a matter of a few degrees, but I think these big, rich, long-term contracts they all got as relatively young players made them a bit spoiled. Not in a brat kind of way, but in a lazy trust-fund-kid kind of way. Hockey players normally aren’t like that, but we’ve never before seen this kind of culture in hockey, where the youngest are often the richest. Sakic never got a truly huge payday until his ninth season and fourth or fifth contract. Now, many young guys are getting huge deals no later than their second contract, and I think it hurts some of their burning desire, whether they want to realize it or not.
– I think it’s time to move Duchene. I think the Avs should shop him around for the very best defenseman they can find, and make the change. Sakic thought about trading him early last season, but to Duchene’s credit he worked his way out of a slump and into the best scoring year of his career.
But I just see a guy who looks beat down from all the losing here. I see a guy who, even though he loves the Avs as a franchise, looks like he needs the change himself. I think he’s tired of moving back and forth, back and forth, from center to wing all the time. I might be wrong on this, but I also see a guy who has the same look about him playing under Bednar as he often did under Joe Sacco. I think, just like he was with Sacco, he looks frustrated trying to play Bednar’s conservative, pack-it-in defensive system and not the guy who played a lot freer under Roy.
But I don’t think Bednar is going anywhere for at least a couple years, and I don’t think that foretells good things between him and Duchene. I don’t think Bednar thinks Duchene might be a good fit for his desired system, and I think Duchene might feel the same way in reverse.
But this is Duchene’s eighth season here, and the Avs have yet to win a playoff series with him. He doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt as much as he did earlier in his career. He’s frustrated by that, management is no doubt frustrated by that and so maybe it’s just time for the two sides to part ways. It might prove to be the best thing for both.
– I think it’s time to try and move Varlamov too. I think he’s a good, sensitive young person who works hard and doesn’t make any excuses. But I do think he gives off something of a hangdog vibe whenever he allows an early goal or two, which has often been the case this year, and that translates some to the rest of the team. Varly just never seems to show much emotion out there. Some of that might be cultural, but whatever it is, you’d like to see him just smash his stick against a goal post once or rip his mask off and maybe yell at somebody. I don’t know, maybe that sounds stupid. But you just want to see some….passion… out there once in a while.
The expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights plays into some of my decision to want to move Varlamov. The Avs are going to have to expose either him or Calvin Pickard when Vegas picks its team, and it wouldn’t be good if they lost either one for nothing – and I think Varly might be a tempting target for Vegas GM George McPhee if he were the one exposed. He’s the one who drafted him as GM of the Washington Capitals, don’t forget. But I also think Pickard might be an even more tempting choice if he were the one exposed, considering his age and salary. So, better to try and get something for Varly now, another good D-man preferably, and take a chance on the capable Pickard as the top guy.
– As much as I’ll always be partial to Our Joe, I think maybe it’s time Sakic think about turning power over to a guy with more GM experience. It’s always seemed something of an awkward fit, Sakic as GM. I’m not sure he lives and breathes the job like many of his contemporaries do. I’m not saying Sakic doesn’t work as hard, I’m saying I just don’t know if he loves being a GM as much as others might.
Avs fans want some changes. It might be painful, it might get worse before it gets better, but this thing just isn’t working out anymore. This core group has jilted the faithful too many times by now.
(Adrian Dater is one of North America’s premier hockey writers. The Barre, Vt., native grew partially in a Vermont commune. As a child living in a teepee, Adrian became, and remains, a Boston sports addict, although “”I realized several years ago I was one of those Boston transplant asses always pining for the good ol’ days. Now I consider myself a Coloradan.” Dater has covered sports — particularly hockey, the Colorado Avalanche, the National Hockey League and the Stanley Cup Finals — for 28 years for the Concord Monitor, The Denver Post, SI.com, The Hockey News, The Sporting News and, currently, Bleacher Report and woodypaige.com.)