by Ray Warner
This is long-winded, so take deep breath.
A clean slate? Maybe.
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss? Maybe.
We don't get fooled again? Don't bet on it.
The Colorado Avalanche appear to have cleaned house. Six members of their hockey staff were "relieved of their duties" on June 3 including head coach Tony Granato and his assistants. The new management team of Greg Sherman (GM) and Craig Billington (Assistant GM) were named. Both men were promoted from within.
One could say that the (expletive deleted) hath hitteth the fan. Let's face it, a few of these people, Jacques Cloutier and Michel Goulet chief among them, have been with the organization for a long time.
But a cynic, like yours truly, could also say that Greg Sherman has a striking resemblance (resumé-wise) to Francois Giguere, another victim of the house-cleaning. He has significant focus on accounting in his background and worked on player contracts and salary cap issues in his previous position with the Avs. The same Avs that seem to be running short on cap flexibility every year since the CBA was ratified. Yep, those ones. The cynic would say "I believe I've seen this movie before, Mr. Spielberg."
The truth of the matter may lie somewhere in the middle.
At the very least, the appearance of sweeping changes ("appearance" being the key word) makes for better PR than the Avs have had in the weeks prior to the housecleaning. With the report that Patrick Roy had said "thanks, but no thanks" to former agent and GM Pierre Lacroix, the PR disaster that has been the last 12 months for the Avs went from bad to worse to worser to worsest...or something of that nature.
Does the new management structure and new coaching staff (whomever that may be) mean that there is light at the end of the tunnel? Well, after the last year, even a flicker of hope would be welcome to Avs fans.
Let's review. A year ago, the Avs upset Northwest Division champion Minnesota in the first round. Things seemed to be going well. Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote were back. Jose Theodore had stolen the series for Colorado, leading Avs fans to believe that maybe there was life after St. Patrick after all. Next up was the hated Detroit Red Wings. Rivalry renewed. Repeat or Revenge. All that good stuff.
Then, the wheels came flying off. Unfortunately for Avs fans, those wheels weren't the winged ones on the red sweaters of Detroit. It started immediately as fans were alerted that Forsberg would miss the first game. The piling on continued as Jose Theodore was struck with the flu, seriously limiting his abilities to stop the puck. Injuries to Paul Stastny, Ryan Smyth, Wojtek Wolski and Scott Hannan would even further debilitate the Avs. It was eerily similar to the "South Park" episode where the Avs "volunteer" to let Stan's pee-wee team play the Red Wings in the 3rd period of a game. Final score, 32-2, Detroit.
Shortly after the Wings dispatched the Avs, GM Francois Giguere and head coach Joel Quenneville "mutually agreed" to part ways. After an "exhaustive search", the Avs recycled Tony Granato into the coach's spot (apologies for all of the quote marks, but I'm not exactly known for a lack of cynicism).
Then came the summer. Joe Sakic was given all the time he needed to decide whether to return and he took it. Now, don't assume that I'm bitter about Super Joe's long process. I'm not. The Avs could have found a way to conduct the business of building a competetive team, salary cap or no salary cap. In the event that Sakic decided to play another season (which he did), they could have adjusted their salary situation at that time. Remember when the Philadelphia Flyers signed Peter Forsberg after the lockout. The move put them over the cap. They knew it would and they adjusted accordingly. I don't understand why the Avs couldn't have been smarter in free agency and done the same when Sakic chose to return.
Instead, Giguere used Sakic's situation as an excuse to allow Jose Theodore to walk over a $1 million per year difference and chose to replace durable and reliable Andrew Brunette with Leafs castoff Darcy Tucker. Add another Leafs buyout alum in Andrew Raycroft and you got yourself a team, baby!
The Avalanche also used Sakic's situation as an excuse to overrate their organizational depth. They thought Peter Budaj could be a top goalie. STEEEERIIKE ONE! They thought T.J. Hensick could be a top six forward. STEEEERIIKE TWO! They thought Cody McLeod, Ben Guite and Cody McCormick could showcase that new "up-tempo" style they were going to play. One hundred and ninety-nine goals later, you guessed it: STEEEERIIKE THREE, YOU'RE OUTTA HERE!
While I will grant you that long term injuries to Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny robbed the team of their top two centers, the Avs were not playing that well at the beginning of the season when injuries were not a factor. Besides, it's injuries that allow you to find out how much organizational depth you have. I think we know the answer to that one. While Giguere's tenure as GM may ultimately prove to be a boon when it comes to the team's drafting of quality defencemen (i.e. Kevin Shattenkirk, Colby Cohen, Cameron Gaunce), there is just is much chance that they won't live up to expectations. Regardless, it may have been more Craig Billington's work that resulted in those players being drafted.
So, after many miscalculations, the Avs finished with the third worst record in the league and dead last in the Western Conference. The regular season wasn't over for 24 hours when Lacroix gave Giguere the hook. "The results of this season are unacceptable," Lacroix said in the press release. He then went on to say that the team needed "a new direction" that would re-emphasize the "standards of excellence our fans have grown accustomed to since 1995." He then promised diligent work to that end. He also said that "Ownership and the dedicated Avalanche fans throughout the region deserve better results." (Notice that the first word in that sentence was "ownership"). He also expressed concern for the "immediate future" of the team. His actions since then have not been indicative of that concern.
Add to all of this, Avs fans have to sit and watch their hated enemy Detroit march back to the Stanley Cup Finals. Not only do they have to see their team become a laughing stock, but they can't logically deny that the Red Wings are the model franchise of the league, a spot the Avs seemed to have not so long ago.
But the PR disaster wasn't over. Enter (or re-enter) Patrick Roy.
For two weeks, Lacroix dangled the keys to the castle in front of Roy. He also forgot to mention it to the current tenant, Tony Granato. He probably didn't have to tell owner E. Stanley Kroenke, who was so busy watching his Denver Nuggets actually win (not to mention fighting his own PR war with WWE buffoon Vince McMahon), he has pre-programmed responses that read "That's fine, Pierre", "That's great, Pierre".
But that's not what was so strange about it. The weirdness came from the public manner in which the dalliance took place. Pierre Lacroix is notoriously secretive and the Avalanche as an organization have always followed suit. Granted, it could have been the Roy camp leaking all the information, but that doesn't seem to have been a problem in previous Lacroix dealings.
But it was all for naught. Roy flirted with the idea for two weeks and then chose to decline. He cited "family reasons". Translation: the history he has with the franchise does not come into play when he sees the sorry state it is in.
Whether you thought Roy would be good fit or not, it certainly looked like his refusal would cause more immediate damage than would have his acceptance. It remains to be seen if the new management structure will fulfill that prophecy.
So, Lacroix had to go back to the drawing board. He had to resolve the situation with Tony Granato. Whatever your feelings are about Tony Granato as a head coach, he has not been treated well by the team in this fiasco. It seems clear that Lacroix's flirtation with Roy means that he had no faith in Granato as his coach. The moment he lost that faith, he should have dismissed Granato as respectfully as possible. No one wants to get fired. It's not a pleasant event. But there is no respect in being jerked around. Not only did Lacroix leave Granato hanging for the better part of two months, he robbed him of time the now former coach could have been using to firm up his own future plans. Granted, Granato has two years left on his contract and he will be paid for it, but he at least deserved as much time as possible.
And the whole "who's coach?" fiasco certainly didn't help the Avs' PR department. All that Lacroix succeeded in doing during that time was to further dissuade quality people (players, coaches and management) from joining the organization. It may not be much of a wonder why the new management staff came from the old management staff.
The Avs are reportedly in the running to sign highly-touted Swedish goaltending prospect Jonas Gustavsson. After seeing the way the team is being run into the ground, the young Swede has to be re-thinking his position. The same can probably be said for any other prospective free agents and maybe even draft prospects. Having a tight cap situation as it is, the Avs didn't need to give themselves more stumbling blocks in the building of their team for the next few seasons.
The one thing the Avs used to be able to count on was avid fan support. But even that has deteriorated. The organization has done itself no favors by the Orwellian manner in which they have been conducting their business. While most things should be conducted in private, it is not endearing to fans to appear to be bumbling your way through the process and then act as though everything is just fine. For the most part, the fans aren't that stupid, or wasn't that made obvious by the dwindling attendance figures?
Lacroix's presence used to make fans believe that there was always a plan in place. But since the lockout, the organization has given no indication that it is being properly run. Yes, there is only one team that wins the Stanley Cup, but when that is no longer a realistic goal, the team has to adapt. That has just not happened.
The Avalanche are now rivaling the mismanagement of the Rockies and the current circus that is the Denver Broncos. Denver sports fans probably didn't think they'd see the day when the Nuggets were far and away the
best run team in town, but it's here.
Which brings us to the new management structure. It certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility that Sherman, Billington and player personnel director Brad Smith (who will have "a more active role in personnel decisions") may act as a unit, each applying their own skill set to the task. There seems to be merit in that approach.
However, all three of these men were part of the same management team that has had the Avs circling the drain for the past 4 years. Have they essentially hired an arsonist to be the fire marshall?
The Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins are two examples of teams that chose to go in a different direction and have it work. The Pens sought out Ray Shero from the Predators. The Bruins sought out Peter Chiarelli from Ottawa. For the Avs, the new management structure has the stench of "same old" to it. It may prove to be otherwise, but don't be surprised if it doesn't.
Remember when Giguere was hired, how there were many jokes about how he was going to be Lacroix's puppet. It didn't seem to turn out that way. Now, Lacroix stresses that Greg Sherman will be working under his "supervision". Are those jokes more applicable now?
While it is logical to give Sherman and company a chance to succeed, the patience of Avs fans is running short. It helps to remember the Einstein quote: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting
different results." One has to wonder if we're seeing that here.