These days, when anyone mentions the term "offensive defenseman" in the same breath as "Colorado Avalanche," they're usually talking about John-Michael Liles. But the original Avalanche offensive defenseman was Latvian legend Sandis Ozolinsh, one of the highest-scoring blueliners of the 1990s.
Traded from the San Jose Sharks for Owen Nolan, Ozolinsh joined the Avalanche during their first season in Denver, and became an integral part of that Cup-winning team. His impressive offensive contributions, not to mention his capable defensive efforts, firmly place him in the middle tier of the Top 19 Avalanche Players Of All Time.
Ozolinsh, born in Latvia, played his earliest hockey for the Soviet Union, which was still in existence in 1990-91. By 1992, the team was playing under the new flag of the Coalition of Independent States (CIS) and won the World Junior Championships, giving Ozolinsh his only medal from international competition.
Just prior to that win, Ozolinsh was drafted 30th overall by the San Jose Sharks in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft and had already started playing for the Kansas City Blades, a minor league team in the International Hockey League. Ozolinsh didn't stay in the minors very long, though, joining the Sharks in 1992-93. Immediately his scoring touch was revealed. He scored 23 points in 37 games his rookie season, and followed that with an 81 game, 64 point sophomore effort. That points total would be the second-highest of his career.
Ozolinsh stayed with the Sharks for just one more full season, and at the start of the 1995-96 campaign, San Jose traded him for Nordiques/Avalanche forward Owen Nolan. The addition of Sandis to the blueline of the Avalanche was a godsend for the team. Before his arrival, Craig Wolanin and Uwe Krupp were the closest things Colorado had to offensive defensmen. Yeah.
To say that Ozolinsh completely transformed the Avalanche power play would be an understatement. His fast skating, superb passing and nose for offense made the Avs a potent force with the man advantage, and virtually ensured a deep run in the playoffs. In 66 games, Sandis scored 50 total points, with more than half on the power play. He also got to raise the Stanley Cup above his head, something Owen Nolan has never done.
But if 1995-96 was a good year for Sandis Ozolinsh, 1996-97 was an incredible year. He got even better on the power play. That season, he scored 68 points in 80 games (the best showing of his career), including 13 goals and 29 assists with the man advantage. He led the league in team power play goals scored while on the ice, with 69. And he became a rock solid defenseman, too, only rarely caught out of position during opposing rushes. Many offensive defenseman can be serious defensive liabilities, but Ozolinsh never was. He was a first team All-Star, and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy.
The following three seasons with the Avalanche weren't as superb as his second, but he continued to contribute significantly to both the offensive superiority of the team as well as Patrick Roy's solid line of defense. He only dipped below .70 points per game in 1999-2000, his final year in Denver. Though he still scored 52 points in 82 games, he became more valuable to the Avs as trade bait, or that was the thought, at least.
During the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, Ozolinsh was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for Nolan Pratt and draft picks that became Vaclav Nedorost, Jared Aulin, and Agris Saviels. So yeah, Colorado got a whole lot of nothing for him. In a weird coincidence, the best player chosen by the Avalanche in that draft was John-Michael Liles, the 159th pick in the 5th round. Of the 13 players picked by the Avs that year, only Kurt Sauer and Liles ever made any impact on the team. But I digress.
Ozolinsh played just one and a half seasons with Carolina before being traded to the Florida Panthers. During 2001-02, the Panthers sent him to Anaheim. During this time, his offense began to tail off a bit, as age slowed his skating and made his passing a little less precise. He still enjoyed an appearance in the 2002-03 Stanley Cup Finals with the Mighty Ducks, but his second Cup would prove elusive.
During the 2005-06 season, Sandis was traded from Anaheim to the Rangers, but his battle with alcohol and injury began to unravel his career. A serious knee problem, his entry into the league's substance abuse program and a drunk driving arrest looked to be the end of the road for him.
However, after some serious therapy and rehab on his knee, Ozolinsh was able to make a return to the NHL last season, this time with his original team, the San Jose Sharks. He signed a one-year contract and had a respectable showing, scoring 16 points in 39 games at the age of 35. However, as of August 2008, he remains an unsigned free agent and may soon retire from the NHL.
But while recent years have been tough on him, his early career with the Colorado Avalanche remains an impressive testament to his abilities. He was a key contributor to the first Stanley Cup win for the team and continued to play an important role in their regular season success through the late 1990s. His achievements as an offensive defenseman live on in franchise lore. For these reasons, he will always be firmly situated among the Top 19 Avalanche Players of All Time.
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