It's no secret that the past five years have been "less than outstanding" for the Avalanche. Between injuries, lack of spending, on-ice apathy, and a coaching staff that couldn't get results, this franchise experienced some incredibly dark days, culminating in a 29th overall finish and a 1st overall draft pick last summer. Amid Vegas rumors and their third early summer in a row, the team had seemingly bottomed out.
Realizing that something needed to change, the organization cleaned house from the highest levels down. In doing so, they set the stage for a complete culture change. After only two short months under new head coach Patrick Roy, the team the hockey world wrote off as a basement dweller at the beginning of the season is near the top of the NHL. Confidence has returned to the Avalanche dressing room, and the old proverb "it's always darkest before the dawn" could easily be the Avs motto this year.
However, the team has settled on a different rallying cry instead.
Joe [Sakic] and I wanted to have a [road] dinner with all the players together, and we were looking at the schedule. Because we have so many players from the Toronto area, we said maybe we should just leave them with their families and do it on the next game, which is Boston. And at the same time, we could go to Ray's [Bourque] restaurant, and have fun with it.
Actually we went to the restaurant with Ray, and Ray said "would you mind if say a few words to the players?" And then Ray stood up and started to talk to the players, and he was great! He was more than great - I thought he was exactly what we needed to reinforce the message that we're trying to give to our players, Joe and I. And Ray said "why not us?".
And then from that day, we have kept this one. This has almost become our line, "why not us". Every day we're saying it after the practice, "Hey guys, why not us? Let's keep going." Then our players start to say it, and I guess our fans are going to start saying it, and everybody seems to have a lot of fun with it.-Patrick Roy, Oct. 24
There are plenty of reasons why the team's success may be short lived, but after a series of critical changes made since last spring, perhaps it's finally time to start asking "Why Not Us?"
The team's problems in the previous years haven't been limited to the ice. As long-time team President Pierre Lacroix's health deteriorated, he drew further and further away from the club. Once the hands-on architect of both the 1996 and 2001 Stanley Cup teams, he's spent most of his time since 2009 at his home in Nevada trying to recover from multiple surgeries and tumors. While he remained available as a resource for the organization, the bulk of managing day-to-day affairs fell to inexperienced General Manager Greg Sherman, a capologist who was promoted to the position after Lacroix stepped aside.
Sherman was faced with an uphill battle complicated by seemingly distant ownership. The Avs were purchased by Stan Kroenke in 2000, but due to an NFL by-law, he had to turn his four Denver franchises over to his son in 2010. Josh Kroenke, a former basketball player and already a member of the NBA Denver Nuggets front office, quickly took over as their President & Governor and devoted most of his time and energy into reshaping Denver's professional basketball scene. Across the hall, the Avs were largely left to fend for themselves as payroll and attendance dropped.
Everything was crumbling on the ice as well. After years of trying to keep the club afloat by trading draft picks for established players, the farm team of the Avs was completely depleted. As the Avs core players headed for retirement, the organization had no choice but to start over with a full-scale rebuild. High draft picks replaced playoff wins, but very few veterans were added to help ease the young players' transition into the NHL. Joe Sacco, a former player with a grand total of two losing seasons of AHL coaching experience, was hired as head coach in 2009. During his four year tenure, he made the playoffs only once thanks to a hot goaltender. Without a doubt, the ownership, leadership, coaching, and personnel were all deeply flawed and destined for failure during his time.
Fortunately, that all changed this summer.
Our ownership reengaged when Lacroix finally stepped aside and Josh Kroenke took over as Team President. The Wal-Mart heir emphasized his commitment to the club beyond simply signing their checks, and he even joined the team on a road trip this season to assist in a roster decision.
Our former core players also took back control of the franchise they once helped build. After two years of interning in our front office, long-time Avs Captain Joe Sakic stepped in as Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations, replacing Lacroix as the guiding hockey mind of the organization. His first move was to bring back goaltending great Patrick Roy to be his head coach and front office partner. After 10 years of owning, managing, coaching, and winning with the Quebec Ramparts, Roy had honed his ability to work with young players and run a hockey team. The tandem of Sakic and Roy took over many of Greg Sherman's GM duties, lightening his load and allowing him to concentrate on his strength of cap management. Avs blueline stalwart Adam Foote also joined on as an assistant defensive coach, providing much needed guidance to the team's weakest on-ice position, and even Ray Bourque has chipped in, providing the best catchphrase this team has had since "Mission 16W".
The Avs also bucked their trend of "Building from Within" by bringing in some fresh faces. Roy's former mentor, Francois Allaire, was recruited to work with the struggling goalies, and rival QMJHL coaches Andre Tourigny and Mario Duhamel signed on to help out behind the bench and with video. In fact, the only person who didn't see his role change was assistant coach Tim Army.
Across the board, the incestuous, secretive, spiteful, and distant elements that had plagued the team for years were cast out and replaced by an open, honest, directed, and unified approach to running a hockey team. This set the stage for a drastic culture change.
Reshaping the Roster
Over the summer, the Avs subtracted 7 players from its roster: three forwards with unclear roles (Jones, Hejduk, and Kobasew) and four mediocre defensemen (O'Byrne, O'Brien, Zanon, and Hunwick). In exchange, they added first overall Nathan MacKinnon, three surprisingly reliable defenseman (Sarich, Benoit, and Guenin), a well-loved veteran forward (Tanguay), a PK specialist (Cliche), and two players returning from season-ending injuries (Downie and Wilson). Ryan O'Reilly was also asked to transfer from center to wing.
With these moves, the team took a quiet but substantial bump in talent, but more importantly, they clarified the roles of each player on the team. No longer is there a question about what each individual, line, or pairing is supposed to be accomplishing on any given night. For the first time in 5 years, the Avs have a complete lineup instead of a random hodge-podge of warm bodies.
The additions of Tanguay and Sarich also helped offset the lack of veteran leadership. While the role of "veteran presence" is often overblown, watching the Avs finish last season 4-3-2 after Giguere's scathing comments about lack of focus only emphasized the fact that the team needed more of those voices in the lockerroom. Between Tanguay, Sarich, and Giguere, the team now has a Cup winner with 10+ years of NHL experience in every position to help provide guidance to the young players.
But the changes made to the roster go well beyond personnel moves.
Some of it's just bounces, some of it's luck, and a lot of it is Patrick instilling the confidence in us to go out there and jump in the rush and make the plays and believe in yourself. I think that when he started preaching that to me this season, everyone's just had that air of confidence in their game and trust in their abilities, and he's instilled that in everyone. It's made a big difference. -Erik Johnson, Oct. 25
The one thing with Patrick is, there's no doghouse. If you're not doing what you're supposed to do, he's going to bring you in, he's going to sit you down and you're going to correct it constructively and then you're going to move on from there. You don't stay in that doghouse. -Matt Duchene, Oct. 20
Under Sacco, players were scared of making a mistake because they knew he'd bench them. As a result, they played a very tense and hesitant game that often backfired and caused them to underachieve. Once they started dropping in the standings, their attention turned to the off-season instead of the next game, creating a vicious cycle of losing. It was their mentality, not their talent, that caused them to finish 29th.
Roy has fixed that problem. Instead of punishing them, he's worked with them as a partner to patch up faults in their game. He's removed fear from the equation and has replaced it with understanding and praise. The players now feel comfortable enough to just relax and play their game, and their confidence is showing on the ice and in our record. Couple that with Roy's demand for hard work and a "Stanley Cup Winning Attitude", and he's finally bringing out their natural talent and allowing them to shine.
On paper, this might be largely the same team that finished 29th, but mentally, it couldn't be farther from it. This is a team that knows it can win and is intent on taking the steps to make it happen every night.
Question: "Kirk [Muller] talks about "winning culture". He talks about the culture that you had as teammates in Montreal. What, Patrick, does a winning culture mean to you?"
Roy: "For me, it means the approach that you're going to have to the game. You can say the word "culture", but it means nothing if you cannot do the things that go with it. To me, it's how you're going to prepare yourself for every game. What kind of sacrifice are you going to [make] off and on the ice? After that, how are you going to be focused to the teaching the coach is going to [provide], the preparation the coach is going to give to the players, and then after how hard are you willing to work for the team? And then it goes on and on and on.
It's not something you wake up one morning and say 'now we have a culture'. It doesn't work that way. It's a process that you need to build, and I think that's what we've been trying to do since the start of the season on our side. And obviously, you have to believe in yourself at the end of the day. You have to believe in what you're doing, and I think our guys are believing in themselves right now. They're a confident group and they play hard every night. And this is how you become a winner because now you're more consistent every night." -Patrick Roy, Oct. 25
A System for Success
Roy's impact goes beyond the mental side of the game. His systems are much simpler and easier to teach than Sacco's, and he's been managing his match-ups well and not playing favorites. The entire team is employing a solid man-to-man defense instead of just relying on the defensemen and goaltender, and their aggressive forecheck is giving other teams fits. The defensemen are jumping into the play as well; in fact, they've already tied their goal total from last season. Assistant coach Andre Tourigny's penalty kill is the top in the league, and the power play is humming along at a solid 22%.
Yet perhaps the most important element of Roy's systems is that he's taken the team as-is. He's analyzed the strengths of the players and built his approach around them instead of trying to mold them into a gritty puck-possession team. Speed and passing have taken on a larger role in Avalanche games, and he's setting up players to succeed on every shift.
That's one thing we've all talked about in our room the last four years. Not to knock anybody or anything, but I don't feel like we've played the way that our team is built. I think we've played a little bit too stingy and slow, or tried to play that way, and it wasn't in our makeup, and it backfired, I think. I think we need to play a style like Chicago. We're built like a Chicago. -Matt Duchene, Oct. 17
Adam Foote and Francois Allaire have played a major role as well. They may only be part-time consultants, but Allaire has already altered Varlamov's stance and positioning and Foote has helped set up the new defensive style of play. But more than anything, they've both provided guidance and a support system that the young players haven't had in the past few years. The goalies especially have benefited: their combined save percentage and GAA is 1st in the league.
[Allaire] understands the game really well, he really simplifies the game for goalies. He makes you be in a good position. You play a little deeper in the net, but you're covering more space because you're always between the puck and the net. And the way he makes you want to play, I know a lot of you guys don't love it, but it's a very efficient way to play. You play the percentage game. It's a really hard way to play - your legs have to be on at all times, you have to push-and-stop, push-and-stop all game which is very demanding on your legs. But in the end, you end up making less spectacular saves, but you end up make more saves, and that's the way it should be. -J. S. Giguere, Oct. 22
But the coaches' off-ice system has been just as critical to the team's success. No longer is it a vertical relationship; instead, there is a clear partnership and openness surrounding the players and coaches. With Roy's demeanor and "partition incident" against Anaheim, he gained the team's trust, and through his openness and willingness to listen to their input, he's kept it. The team is rolling under him because they believe in him and what he's saying. The total buy-in on the ice is largely due to a total buy-in off it.
"I don't want to take credit for that [the 10-1-0 record]. I mean, it's a team thing. And like I've said all along, I'm a partner with our players, and our coaching staff is partner, it's everybody. It's the players, the coaches, the goalies.... it's been a team work so far. And they've accepted to make the sacrifice, accepted to listen to the teaching we have to give them, and they've been extremely receptive to all this, but at the end, they're the ones who are starting to change people's opinions about our team. When you're reading the comments of the goalie from Carolina after the game, when they say the "Team is hungry, they expect us to work hard", and when you put all this together, well, that goes a long way. These are things that I've been telling them that, hey, they're the ones that does it, they're the ones that should take the credit for it." -Patrick Roy, Oct. 27
Why Not Us?
For the first time in a long time, the Avs have a legitimate chance at success. Yes, there are still weaknesses on the team, such as our defense, our unsustainable goaltending, and our low salary, but these issues are fairly easy to fix within the new framework that management set up this summer. At the end of the day, the bulk of the team is here. The rebuild is over. Each individual knows what his role is, and he is currently playing it with confidence. There are certainly still tweaks that need to be made, but it's now a matter of refining instead of creating.
On the ice, this is Patrick Roy's team. Over the first 11 games, he's set a tone that the rest of the club has emulated. He's never been one to suffer losing, and if anyone can say that anything's possible, it's the goaltender who won a Conn Smythe his rookie year. His impassioned calm, his humble confidence, and his intense competitive nature have rubbed off on every facet of the club. For the first time in years, there's reason to hope again for Avalanche success.
It's very possible that the Avs aren't quite up to Stanley Cup caliber yet. There are still numerous flaws and kinks that need to be resolved, but the new attitude - the new culture - that this group has formed is downright infectious. The air is ripe for a bit of hockey magic in the Mile High City, and stranger things have happened.
So, Colorado.... Why Not Us?