What's been painfully lacking on the Avalanche the past couple of seasons is the presence of a really effective two-way center on the third line. Ben Guite does a great job on the fourth, but the third line shutdown role is one that just doesn't suit Tyler Arnason, despite Joel Quenneville's mind-boggling efforts to force him into it.
The Avs used to have a center who perfectly fit that role, back in the day.
It's fitting that Adrian Dater just posted a piece calling for the Avs to re-sign aging center Stephane Yelle, who has played with the Calgary Flames since 2002-03, because Yeller is next on our list of the Top 19 Avalanche Players of All Time.
At times a brilliant defensive player, especially during his tenure with the Avalanche between 1995-96 and 2001-02, Yelle was the anchor of the third line that frustrated opponents and kept Patrick Roy on cruise control most of the time. Yelle was on both Cup-winning Avalanche teams and it was hard for most fans when he eventually left for Calgary.
But Yelle isn't notable just for his defensive abilities, he's also known as a previous wearer of the hallowed 26.
In the history of the Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche franchise, the uniform number 26 is best known for being worn by both Hall Of Fame legend Peter Stastny and now his superstar son, Paul. 26 was also worn by John-Michael Liles, male model and offensive defenseman extraordinaire, before he gave it to Son Of Stastny in 2005-06.
But before Liles had it, it belonged to Stephane Yelle.
Yelle was drafted in the 8th round (186th overall) by the New Jersey Devils in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft after scoring just 26 points in 55 games with the Oshawa Generals of the OHL. Though never known as a major scoring threat, Yelle did manage to score 104 points in 66 games with Oshawa during the 1993-94 season, the same year he was traded by the Devils to the Nordiques.
Before he got a chance to play in Quebec, however, the franchise relocated to Denver just prior to the 1995-96 season. Luckily for Yelle, that was the same year he was called up to the NHL. He played 71 games in his rookie season with the Avs, scored 13 goals and 27 points, and the team went on to win the Stanley Cup. Though hardly an offensive standout during the playoffs, Yelle did tally 5 points in 22 games including a game-tying, unassisted short-handed goal as part of a 3-2 overtime win in game one of that infamous series between Colorado and the Detroit Red Wings.
In another standout playoff appearance, this time in 2001 as the Avalanche streaked to their second Stanley Cup, Yelle---despite only scoring 3 points in 23 games---scored a game-winning overtime goal against the St. Louis Blues, moving Colorado to 3-1 in a series they would win with another OT victory in the very next game.
Stephane Yelle never scored more than 27 total points in a season during his seven years with the Avalanche, but his legacy with the team was defined by his gritty, physical play. The prototypical workhorse, Yelle's entire NHL career has been marked by effortless skating, gutsy shot blocking, hard hits and on-ice discipline---the ultimate checking line center. Despite landing 140 body checks during the 1999-2000 season, Yelle was assessed only 28 penalty minutes, a testament to his invaluable worth as a skilled grinder.
Unfortunately, Stephane Yelle's departure from the Avalanche is now infamous. Along with clutch superstar Chris Drury, Colorado traded Yelle to the Calgary Flames in 2002 for Derrick Morris, Dean McAmmond and Jeff Shantz. In other words, for nothing. Though most of the outrage toward the trade from Avalanche fans was inspired by the loss of Drury, the loss of Yelle was not an easy blow to take. Dan Hinote, who later filled in as checking line center for Colorado, never quite lived up to Yelle's legacy in that role. Hinote was no slouch, but also no Yelle. In fact, the Avalanche has yet to find another center as skilled or as valuable to the third line as Stephane Yelle.
Would the Avalanche be interested in re-signing him? Considering that Tyler Arnason still has one year left on his contract, and the fact that Yelle is now 34 as a free agent, the likelihood of the latter's return to Colorado is low. General manager Francois Giguere has made no indication that he will pursue the former Avalanche player.
Regardless of whether or not he ever plays for the Avs again, Yelle's legacy of gritty hard work and two Stanley Cups will always be held in high regard by fans of Colorado.
(A shorter version of this post appeared on MHH last year. It has been expanded and revised.)
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Stephane Yelle at Hockey-reference.com