There’s a lot of talk in sports (you hear it every year when a team wins a championship) about what exactly it takes to be a winner. Why do some teams find that extra gear while others falter? Why do some players rise to challenges that other equally talented and equally driven players fail at? When two teams of approximately equal strength on paper meet and one team is systematically slaughtered by the other (see the Pittsburgh-Boston series for an example)why should that be? Is it drive? Maybe but in that particular case one doubts it; you’d be hard pressed to find a more driven athlete than Sidney Crosby. Where do champions come from and consequently why do teams that appear statistically solid flounder when the games matter?
In the case of the Colorado Avalanche the second of those questions bears a great deal of scrutiny. The Avs were coming off a 2011-2012 season that, aside from a disastrous ending, looked promising. They were a young, skilled team that had improved themselves at the trading deadline with the acquisition of Steve Downie and Jamie McGinn. Their star players were young and rising and they had made great strides even though their best player, Matt Duchene, had gone through a nightmarish year. If Duchene could bounce back and if P.A. Parenteau could find chemistry with the young center then why shouldn’t the Avs improve?
You could point to any number of reasons why the Avs floundered in the 2012-2013 season. Their best defensemen, Erik Johnson and Ryan Wilson, spent much of the year hurt and to be brutally honest EJ was not terribly effective when he did play. The rest of the d-corps suffered what was, at best, a setback year. Duchene and Parenteau were all that was advertised and yet no other player seemed to find their offensive stride (excluding John Mitchell, whose offensive stride, while a pleasant surprise, is hardly first line material). Landeskog was concussed and the leading scorer of the previous year, Ryan O’Reilly was locked in an ugly contract dispute. Semyon Varlamov was brilliant in spots but largely his year went much the way the rest of the teams did. Joe Sacco managed the special teams and roster decisions in a fashion that made one question his intelligence. Steve Downie was hurt and his physicality and energy were missed.
The list of areas where the Avs went wrong is long and painful and resulted in them having the means to draft Nate Mackinnon yesterday.
Ultimately however the largest reason the Avs lost this past season, as hard as this is to pin down, came out in a very public tirade (and one that I have no doubt helped awaken a sluggish management and ownership to the real depth of the issues besetting the team, issues the fans had already noticed in the shoddy on ice product) from goaltender Jean-Sebastian Giguere. The reason was simple; the Avs lost because most of them didn’t know how to do anything else.
This is one of the reasons that teams like the Atlanta Thrashers had so much trouble winning: players, after a while, simply got used to losing and for management and even for some fans, losing became anticipated and even accepted. This stigma of losing is the reason the current Winnipeg Jets (speaking as a Jets fan as well as an Avs fan) have so much work to do in fixing the franchise. This isn’t the first time this has happened; the Islanders were as bad as bad gets for a lot of years and only now after years of high draft picks and organizational overhaul are returning to respectability. It’s easy to forget that the Chicago Blackhawks were this way for a long time as well, as were the Pittsburgh Penguins. When the loser’s mentality sets in it’s hard to get rid of. I’m not saying the issues with these teams were one hundred percent mental; all of these teams had major ownership issues at one time or another and management made some decisions that in hindsight were painfully stupid, but while these decisions may get a team into the loss column it’s the losers mentality that keeps them there and Giguere’s tirade was proof enough for me that the Avs had allowed the apathy that accompanies this mentality to take root in their locker room.
Fortunately for the Avs the teams I mentioned have proven that, through proper drafting and shrewd managerial decisions (the opposite of which set teams up for the loser’s mentality in the first place) you can lose that mentality and turn into a champion. Winnipeg’s management is learning to draft shrewdly and carefully bring their young players along in a way the Thrashers never did, as are the New York Islanders as evidenced by their stable of young talent. The Penguins and Blackhawks ultimately needed changes to their front office and ownership groups but in the end both became champions after years of futility. The Penguins 2003-2004 season makes the Avs most recent season look positively charming by comparison and now the Pens are a powerhouse in the East.
The need to lose that losers mentality is not, thankfully, lost on Joe Sakic or Patrick Roy and it should surprise nobody that these two consummate professionals, who have won at every level, understand the need to not only have the talent to win but to believe that you can win and instill this belief in the fans as well as the team. There were nights at the start of the year when that belief was evident in the team and the fans but as the year wore on it was noticeably lacking and most games felt to the fans like foregone conclusions before they ever started. From the way the shoulders slumped on the bench after every goal against and Joe Sacco’s mundane post-game interviews in which he sounded thoroughly downtrodden it looked like the team thought so too.
This is one reason why I’m so excited to have Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy aboard. Previous instilments of the Avs team simply haven’t seemed to know how to win, from the GM right on down to the players but Sakic and Roy don’t know how to do anything else. Forget for a moment that Roy has no experience as a coach at the NHL level. Does anyone think for an instant that he would have allowed jovial talk about Vegas trips in the locker room after a loss, or that a losing streak would have set as well with him as it seemed to with Sacco? The years have changed some things about Patrick Roy but his competitiveness, a trait sorely lacking from the Avs at all levels last year, has not been a victim of the years. There would have been no need for J.S. Giguere to call his teammates out so publically because Patrick Roy would never have accepted anything less than their best. No, losses would not have sat well with him and there would have been losses (the Avs porous d would have seen to that, winners mentality or not) but a loss in which every player was as apathetic as the Avs were at times last year would have been met with a strong enough response that the players would know better than to do it again. Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic not only know how to win; in their days with the Avs winning was expected of them by the fans and they expected it of themselves.
As a side note I’d like to add that it’s no coincidence that J.S. Giguere was the one to so publically call out the team. Giguere was one of the few players on that team who really understood what it took to win at the NHL level and the idea of losing being met with a shrug and, apparently, a conversation about Vegas vacations, would have been unthinkable to him. No wonder he was so angry!
Really, who else on the Avs team of last year could say they understand winning the way J.S. Giguere does? Milan Hejduk probably is the next closest player, having won a cup himself and been part of some truly great teams, but Hejduk is too quiet a person to be an effective stimulant to players when they need that extra motivational boost and getting too old to really lead by example. Duchene, Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly are talented players but young, as is Gabriel Landeskog. Most of the Avs free agent signings have come from environments where they have hardly ever made the playoffs, never mind won anything of importance, ditto for their trade acquisitions. Shane O’Brien was on a Stanley Cup winning team, the Anaheim Ducks but he was traded before the Ducks won anything and beyond that playoff experience would have been hard to come by. There was a need for players who understood what it means to be a professional to guide those young players to the bigger and better things we all hope they’re destined for.
This need to lose the loser’s mentality explains a lot of what the Avs have been doing lately. The trade of David Jones and Shane O’Brien is easily explained this way; Jones looked disinterested last season to the point where he was benched often and scratched an alarming amount for a player with that size of contract. Whether or not you believe the now-infamous ‘Vegas trip’ comment was directed at Shane O’Brien the fact remains he was rarely used and rarely effective when he was used. Coming back is a player from the days of old (who can still play) Alex Tanguay, who hopefully remembers what it took to be a winner with the Avs in years past and imparts that knowledge on to the Avs youngsters. If the trade is viewed in that light then Corey Sarich is not just a throw-in; the punishing defenseman won a Stanley Cup of his own with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004.
This also explains the drafting of Nathan MacKinnon over Seth Jones. Watching MacKinnon play one gets the same feeling as when watching Jonathan Toews or Sidney Crosby: this player hates losing with all his heart and soul and wants to win every time he steps foot on the ice. His competitiveness and his puck hound mentality will be as much an asset to the Avs as his speed. Watching Seth Jones play doesn’t give the watcher the same impression. This is not to knock Seth Jones, who will be a quality defensemen for years to come but the competitive fire that burns within MacKinnon, which Sakic noted several times prior to drafting him, no doubt helped the young man on draft day. The Avs need that hate-to-lose mindset and they need it now.
It also helps the Avs realize that more work is yet to be done. Certain players still need to be removed from the roster not only from a mental standpoint but from a hockey standpoint. There is simply no place on this team anymore for Greg Zanon or Matt Hunwick for example and it is unlikely that Aaron Palushaj sticks around for too much longer either. Each piece of the puzzle must have a purpose and know that purpose and all year long you never got the sense that those players did. The Avs have some work to do in free agency, signing players ideally who know what it takes to win and who are willing to do so and have done so before. Players like Andrew Ference and Danny Briere come to mind though the Avs are unlikely to sign Briere.
The Avs are not going to win the Stanley Cup this year and even making the playoffs is going to be an uphill fight but in adding a management structure that knows the cost of winning and the methods to do so and in drafting a player that wants to win no matter what they have taken some big steps for the future. It’s time for that Avs to abandon the idea that losing is something that can be tolerated or expected and it’s time for them to start expecting to win. Paradoxically, until they expect themselves to be winners they never will be.