November 28, 2008 marked the end of an era. The Avs were playing the Coyotes in Glendale, and during Joe Sakic's first shift, he re-injured a herniated disk in his back. The 28 seconds he managed to play before he left would be the last that Super Joe would ever log as a player for the Avs. An incident with a snowblower a few weeks later would sideline him further, causing the 39-year-old to choose to hang them up at the end of that season.
As the Avs limped along, captainless, through the rest of that year, one thing became very clear: the past was gone. Sure, core members from the glory teams, such as Milan Hejduk and Adam Foote, were still around, but they too were nearing the end of their playing days. Years upon years of bad drafting or trading away picks for Cup runs had resulted in virtually zero prospect depth to replace them, and poor management had stocked the Avs roster with players that had no future with the organization.
The entire franchise needed to wipe the slate clean and start again.
The management and coaches were the first to go. Giguere and Granato were out, and Greg Sherman (General Manager), Joe Sacco (Head Coach), Sylvain Lefebvre (Assistant Coach), Steve Konowalchuk (Assistant Coach), Eric Lacroix (Director of Hockey Operations), and Rick Pracey (Director of Amateur Scouting) were in. Many player's contracts were released that year, and drafting became the primary focus of the organization. A rebuild had begun.
Nearly three years later we're still in the middle of that rebuild, but it's looking more and more like we're nearing its completion. It's been a long road, and there have been a bunch of bumps and wrong turns along the way. However, the Avs now have a new core to build their team around - a set of young and skilled players with a bright future in the league.
Yet the rebuild hasn't just been about bringing in new players - it's been about a fundamental shift in the way that this entire organization thinks about hockey and how it conducts business. From management to coaching to the identity of the team both on and off the ice, the changes made in the last three years have been sweeping and dramatic. I've included a more in-depth analysis after the jump if you're interested. Just be warned - it's a fairly lengthy read.
Current Roster and Top Prospect Additions:
|Pre-Rebuild||'09 Summer||'09-'10 Season||'10 Summer||'10-'11 Season||'11 Summer||'11-'12 Season|
|Hejduk||O'Reilly||Porter||Aittokallio (P)||Hunwick||Siemens (P)||McGinn|
|Jones||Elliott (P)||Johnson||Varlamov||Connolly (P)|
|McLeod||Barrie (P)||McClement||Giguere||Sgarbossa (P)|
*(P) denotes players that were non-roster players (prospects) during the first Avs game after their acquisition.
Through the roster moves of the past few years, it's very clear that the Avs' management is still learning what it takes to win just as much as the players are. Embracing the rebuild was the first major change in thinking they made, but it hasn't been the only one. In the years leading up to the salary cap, the Avs could afford the best players and won two Cups because of it. But after the Cap went through, they kept the spend-spend-spend attitude which resulted in bloated contracts for mediocre players. That changed in 2009. Since that summer, the largest contract the Avs have signed has been the 3-year, $3.575 million entry level deal for Landeskog. Since their concentration has been more on finding competent young players for the roster instead of pricier options already in or past their prime, the Avs have managed to put together a team that fits well below the salary cap and has room to grow and change. Big deals for many of their star players will come to pass this summer, but the days of spending $7+ million for auxiliary players like Ryan Smith have passed. Even though they have been labeled "cheap" by some, there is no doubt that the Avs have become a more fiscally responsible team and have learned how to successfully operate within the constraints of the cap system.
Management's goals when acquiring players have also shifted over the past few years. For example, during the 2010-'11 season, they constructed a team that would allow for one puck-moving defenseman to be paired with a shut-down one. When that experiment crashed and burned, they traded away the majority of their puck-movers (Shattenkirk, Liles, Cumiskey) and began to acquire larger, more physical defensemen instead (Johnson, O'Brien, Hejda, Siemens). And when it became clear that the Avs were still getting pushed around due to their small and non-gritty forward corps, they made an impact near this year's deadline by trading for two physical players that also addressed the team's frightening lack of quality winger depth. Up until that point, they had targeted smallish skill-based wingers like Mueller and Fleischmann, but the recently increased snarl of this team's front end seems to have already had an impact.
The coaching staff has been learning as well. For the first two years of the Sacco era, the team played a "run and gun" style - a system based off speed and breakaways. It worked really well for the team until the other clubs in the league figured out how to beat it. Because the young players didn't know how to run anything else, the Avs imploded during the second half of the '10-'11 season. However, over the course of the past few months, they've been taught how to play a more disciplined and gritty puck-possession game. This style, combined with the speed and hard work of the players, has started to pay off. In fact, it's beginning to look like all of the players that both Pracey and Sherman are bringing onto this team are the type that will flourish in that type of system. This run-and-gun and puck possession hybrid is one that we will probably be seeing for years to come.
The evolution of the roster has been interesting as well. We went from one of the oldest teams in the league to one of the youngest between the '08-'09 and '09-'10 seasons. As a result, most of our key players are under the age of 24; in fact, many would still be prospects with other clubs. Instead, we have guys like O'Reilly, Landeskog, Duchene, Stastny Johnson and Varlamov carrying this team with practically no help (Giguere and Hejduk being the only exceptions). They've had a lot of pressure put on them early, and it's really forced them to mature at an accelerated rate. Luckily, Sherman just keeps finding young players to help them out. This is a team that's being primarily built to win two years from now instead of this season, which is a major shift from the way business was conducted pre-rebuild. However, it's also a team that's also designed to stay together for the next 10-15 years. A core group of players is being assembled, and an identity is being forged.
That new identity is really what this entire rebuild is about. The days of simply being able to out-superstar the rest of the league are over. Instead, the Avalanche are becoming a team based on speed, skill, grit, and hard work. From top to bottom, they play a two-way game focused on both scoring and defense. No longer is it just the forwards' job to score or the blueliner's job to defend - everyone is expected to contribute to both. Physical play is becoming more and more of a norm, a necessity in the hard hitting Western Conference. This team is also extremely fast, and they're beginning to get really good at switching into a controlled and rapid cycle if they don't score on the rush. On top of that, they're learning how to use their speed to wear down the other team. Basically, the Avs' goal every night is to outskate, outhit, and outwork the opposition while capitalizing on the resulting havoc and frustration of the other team.
Yet it's not just an identity on the ice that the organization is forming - it's one in the locker room as well. The Avs only want players that want to be here, players that are more interested in the needs of the team than their own. Nasty contract negotiations or feeling entitled to playing minutes are quick ways to get yourself shipped out of Denver - just ask Anderson or Quincey. Instead, the Avs are quickly becoming a team full of character guys, guys that are just grateful each and every day to be playing the sport they love. They're hard workers who aren't afraid to put in the extra time to make themselves better. Almost all of them are wise beyond their age and seem extremely down to earth, even by hockey player standards. There are a lot of leaders coming into their own right now, and everyone is held accountable for their good or bad play. And on top of that, they all seem like genuinely good people. Their character off the ice make them as easy to root for as their performance on it.
In essence, the final form of this team is starting to become clear. The rebuild is almost over. The core of players are almost all here - there are only a few holes in the roster that still need to be addressed. Mistakes have been made and corrected, and the team has gotten stronger because of them. Are we a contender yet? No. But we are quickly becoming a team that's a lot of fun to watch and is easy to cheer for because of both the skill and personality of the players. We might be built on youth right now, but in a few years, that youth will become experienced players in the prime of their careers. Good times are on the horizon while the worst seems to be behind us.