Last year was a strange year to be an Avalanche fan. Our team was being universally picked to come in last place in just about everything that they could come in last place for - I'm sure if Sports Illustrated could have picked the Avs as the last runner in the Vezina trophy race they would have - and the team was filled with young unknown players, which meant that the team was pretty damn close to slapping the dreaded-in-some-circles R word on everything. The team was going to be a rebuilding project, probably for the next several years. Our bodies were ready, though our minds may not have liked it.
We all know what happened next. Craig Anderson suddenly turned into three times the goalie he ever had been before, the offense began to click in ways we never imagined and young guys like David Jones, Chris Stewart and TJ Galiardi began to emerge as minor stars instead of the gang of rascally role players they seemed like they were before. It was fun for a year as Andy overplayed his little heart out and masked a mediocre defense and an offense of players who couldn't shoot but still managed to score a bunch snuck into the playoffs. As we can see now, it didn't last all that long. There is nothing wrong with saying that the Avalanche of last year were a fluke, because with any luck we may have had last year it's all run out about now.
Looking back, the team's growth has retarded thanks to last years overachieving nature. In fact, it's easy to argue that last year pretty much ruined our chances of being real competitors any time soon. Fortunately, the sign that we've been waiting for has finally arrived.
The second thing I thought when I heard about the trade that sent Erik Johnson, Jay McClement and a first round pick to Colorado - because the first thing I thought was something along the lines of "WHAT IN THE FLYING SON OF MY MOTHER?!" - was that this was it. This was the official point where the GM was ripping off the bandage. Colorado is now officially in rebuilding mode and the fact that the GM so casually traded away the guy who was supposed to be our leading scorer in our playoff run is why I can say that. Last year at this time, the future of the franchise's cup winning ability was starting this year, and was featuring Anderson and Stewart as two of the most key members. They're gone, replaced with new pieces who don't particularly fit into a specific genre but are obviously parts that the front office will have to throw into the jigsaw that is the future of this team.
Actually, Jigsaw Puzzle is a pretty good description of what the Avalanche currently have. There is talent on this team in pretty much every area except goalkeeper, we've seen it. Defensively? We have size now with Erik Johnson and ROB to compliment the menagerie of other, smaller offensive defensive talent that the Avs have laying around. Quincey, Holos, Cumisky, Gaunce... and that's just the ones who have been called up already. Throw in another big guy or two with elite talent and suddenly we might have ourselves a top tier defense.
Offensively, the Avalanche are pretty much set at Center for
ever a very long time barring another big time trade. Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly and eventually Joey Hishon at some point next year ideally is a fearsome group to think about for sure. On the wing the team has some talent - Jones, Galiardi, perhaps Mueller and Flash, et al. can hold the fort down if Hejduk retires this year or next. During the rebuilding process, getting new, talented guys to play wings is going to have to be the #1 priority. (I hear some guy named Ilya Kovalchuk might be available for a mere 60 million a year.)
Why isn't goaltending the #1 priority? The Avs already have the guy they hope can be the future at the GK position coming up through the system in Calvin Pickard, and considering the fact that he's actually playing quite well in the minors and not immediately fizzling out like... well, just about every other Avalanche goaltending prospect we've ever had ever, there's a chance that in two or three years the Avalanche will have their #1 guy. And for the first time in franchise history it would be a HOMEGROWN #1 guy. I think I'm the only person who's actually excited about this.
Fortunately, the Avs will have three first round picks in the next two years thanks to the Stewart/Shatty trade. Getting that extra pick will be key to this rebuilding process and the Avs are going to have to get hits instead of misses with those picks. If they do, I think we see the Avalanche in the playoffs without having to sneak in on a fluke year no later than 2014. Three years, folks. If they're going to rebuild, they're going to have to do it right and they're going to have to take their time with it. Whether they do it with a new coach or the same coach, a new system or whatever the hell the old system is, stand behind the team and remember that this is the beginning of what could be something big in a few years.