The NHL has changed rapidly since Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy took over the Avalanche back in the Spring of 2013. Back then the Western Conference was laughably dominant, in the middle of a 4-year run of the Hawks/Kings dynasties alternating Stanley Cups with heavy possession games that the grindy Eastern teams couldn’t overcome. Emulating either champs’ style, the blunt force clog of the Kings or the overwhelming skill of the Hawks, was a tall order given the lack of well... blunt force or overwhelming skill available at the time. What they ended up with was a retro style that had worked during the dynasty years of survival by capitalizing on a few very high percentage offensive chances per game and a passive 6-goalie style in the d-zone.
Unfortunately it worked, at least for a year. An avalanche of articles followed describing that it wasn’t sustainable and that the team would regress to what they were on paper. And of course they did. And did again last season.
Meanwhile there were big changes as to how teams, especially in the Eastern Conference, were being constructed. Instead of four 3rd lines grinding away and not scoring every night, gradually younger, quicker & more skilled players were inserted into the lineups and had a large effect. Offense began in the defensive zone and defense began in the offensive zone. Every puck was contested and treated as an opportunity for a scoring chance. Meathead 4th lines were discarded and replaced by more productive trios. To compete these days, rolling 4 lines with speed, scoring potential and solid defensive skills is a minimum requirement. Shortening the bench for large swaths of game time is now a recipe for tired players and mistakes.
The contrarian Avalanche were not on board with this sea change. Decades of neglect had left them with an ineffective development program that was still years away from turning out the skilled young players that are necessary to implement such a philosophy, even if they wanted to. Which they didn’t. Coach Roy still believed in things like steady vets and best players being best players when it matters. Management catered to this by supplying steady(?) vets, using a quality over quantity approach to drafting and development and deluding themselves about playoff chances when the time came to obtain youngsters/draft picks near the trade deadline or pre-draft day mayhem. By not looking at the team’s flaws as well as it’s potential in these situations they’ve given away still more opportunities for stocking the organization with what it needs - fresh blood.
Where does that leave us? Right now we’re seeing the new coaching staff trying to shove 3 years of organizational catch-up into a few months. What they are attempting to do works, I’ve seen it. The San Antonio Rampage have caught on to the early versions of JB’s system quite quickly, in the matter of 19 games they’ve become one of the better defensive teams in the AHL. Why? Speed & youth. With half the roster hopelessly injured and a defensive corps that make the Avs’ look like 2001 again, they’ve inserted ECHL talent into those spots and even those guys are making the system work. Where does it break down? You guessed it, slow vets and guys playing passenger.
It’s been about a month now since we first saw Coach Bednar start to become frustrated and mention the keyword of this season: passengers. As tough as it is for those of us that can still bear to watch games, it’s got to be 10 times more frustrating for him. In the space of 6 months he won a Calder Cup, was promoted to his dream job and then ends up with a roster that can’t or won’t do what he needs them to on a nightly basis.
What JB is asking for isn’t easy by any means, it’s demanding both mentally and physically, but it is attainable for a large percentage of the lineup. By now he and the staff know who is able to perform, in the next month or two management has to start weeding out undesirables and replacing them with desirables. Whether that’s internal or external, there’s no reason to wait anymore. There are options available in the development system that can or will soon be able to help and as other NHL teams find themselves in similar situations there will be options available there too.
Just like the team’s style of play over the past few years, Avs management has been at the same time both too passive and too aggressive when it comes to teambuilding. There have been smaller deals for incremental gains they have passed on for whatever reasons. There have been panic trades, signings and waiver claims they have made by waiting too long to identify needs. This is a time to be confidently proactive and change what needs to be changed before it becomes unmanageable. Mr & Mrs Average Knucklehead have already ditched the Pepsi Center for now, the staff may as well try something new. Old guys aren’t going to magically regress to where they were 3 or 5 or 10 years ago, slow guys won’t become quick, useless guys won’t become useful just by blind faith and hope. The organization isn’t going to overcome 3 years of flawed philosophy and catch up to the rest of the league just by trying harder, start doing something.