As you may have noticed, the Colorado Avalanche are having a rough season. On track to be the worst team in the cap/loser point era, they have failed in every aspect of NHL hockey for the last couple of months. They have as many wins in their last 40 games as they did in their first 17. The problems are vast and solutions have eluded them so far. Why is that? How can a team in the era of parity become this embarrassing with only vague signs of improvement over an entire half-season?
#1 - Poor Construction
I think most people knew coming into the season there were going to be issues with talent and poor fits in the roles around the lineup. The Avs are one of the oldest teams in the NHL and older players were a large part of last year’s collapse from January through April. That runs contra to the way that teams on the upswing are crafting their organizations. The Avs obsession with veteran leadership during the Patrick Roy era led to some bad contracts for Iginla and Beauchemin that weren’t going anywhere and also had long-term deals for aging players like Comeau, Soderberg, Mitchell and McLeod as anchors in the lineup. By opening day older vets like Fedor Tyutin & Rene Bourque were also added making an organizational weakness into a glaring liability. Despite a few younger skilled players in prominent roles, the general characteristic of the Avs was very old & very slow. Some of this was unavoidable but a lot of it wasn’t. The front office knew what they were adding and what they had and at least publicly was fine with it.
#2 - Static Roster
The Avs have won 7 games in the last 3 months. Even in an NFL schedule that’s bad. In an NHL schedule it’s horrifying. I’m not going to say nothing was done, but it is fair to say very little was done. Most teams lose 3 in a row and start making personnel changes. Lose 6 in a row and there are wholesale callups, waiving of underperformers and serious scrambling to trade with other teams. Not in Colorado. Take a guess how many callups not related to injury the Avs have made this year, that’s right - zero. None. They’ve made two small trades, a minor leaguer for Cody Goloubef and Cody McLeod for a minor leaguer. They’ve also claimed one forward and one defenseman off the waiver wire. There has been one demotion to the AHL in Eric Gelinas, which I’ll discuss in depth later. Net effects: Swapped out two ineffective players for one ineffective player and a couple of decent depth pickups. The core problems still remain. Talking about changing something is one thing, doing it is another. Management hasn’t tackled the big issues in any meaningful way so far so the roster is pretty much the same as it was at the beginning of the year. How many other teams would have handled failure in this way?
#3 - Cap Issues
Thanks to some of the bad leadership/UFA contracts, including Brad Stuart’s buyout, the Avs have been at the cap all year. They’ve gone with one or less healthy subs a lot of the time just to save cap in case of injuries. They even played a game with 17 healthy skaters because they didn’t have the foresight to provide the team or the coach with all they need to play NHL games properly. With two very long-term injuries it’s been tough to save cap. Some see this as an excuse not to call up prospects but they had enough to make waiver claims so they sure as hell had enough to call up what they needed at times from the AHL. What’s most baffling is their refusal to use LTIR for Semyon Varlamov who is 100% done for the season. During the All-Star Break they had 4 players on IR. They could have called up 4 guys from San Antonio, put Varly on LTIR and gotten more than half of his $5.9M cap hit off the books for the rest of the season. Using that in late January when he had surgery would have given them around $2.6M (not cap salary, total season-long cap) to use on callups or whatever. Considering the most expensive prospects make around $5000 per day in the NHL, $2.6M allows for a lot of NHL time for the youngsters. It’s not a huge deal, it’s more of a symptom of incompetence. They didn’t have to use it at all, but it’s a smart move that any GM would do as a matter of course. Either Avs management didn’t realize the benefits to doing this or they didn’t care, neither is encouraging.
#4 - Development
Biggest failure of the season bar none is the ways they have used the development system, specifically what they have available in San Antonio. It boils down to three main issues, two specific and one general, that have taken what was headed towards being a pretty solid season for the Avs pro prospects and for all intents and purposes tossed it in the garbage.
Spencer Martin spent most of last year playing sporadically in the ECHL with Ft Wayne and getting a few callups to the Rampage when circumstances dictated. In his final callup, he took a team that hadn’t won in regulation for 6 weeks upon his back and won 3 in a row with two shutouts and making AHL goalie of the week honors. This year he rolled into camp with an AHL spot sewed up and a shot at the starter’s job. Thanks to a long-term injury to Jeremy Smith he became the de facto starter almost immediately and played some really good hockey for a few months.
Marty got his first callup to the NHL in mid-December but didn’t play and ended up missing two weeks of games. His play for San Antonio started to slip. On January 18th he was called up and made his NHL debut in an OT loss to San Jose then got shellacked 2 days later also by the Sharks. I have no idea what the staff told him but publicly the word was that he was the Avs backup for the rest of the year. It didn’t happen and since then he’s been shaky at best, giving up 26 goals in 5 starts and getting yanked twice. It’s pretty predictable that guys come back from the NHL and have a bit of a lull but this is a full-blown problem now. It’s hard to point the finger at anything else besides the way that Avs management have treated their 21 year old possible goalie of the future as the culprit. Not smart.
Eric Gelinas never really caught the fancy of Jared Bednar & Nolan Pratt. He dressed rarely, played few minutes and then only as a last resort. He settled into a role as an ineffective bottom-pairing player that clogged up the system and kept 8th D out of training camp Duncan Siemens and touted prospect Chris Bigras in the minors without a shot at unseating him. For whatever reasons the Avs staff was fine with this even with them losing 8 out of every 10 games, mainly due to poor defense. That all changed a few weeks ago when the Avs claimed Mark Barberio off waivers and sent Gelinas down to San Antonio.
The Rampage started getting their act together late in January winning 5 out of 7 and geting back to .500 for the umpteenth time this year. Goals against were down, scoring was up and it looked like they were poised to have a decent Rodeo Road trip. Enter Eric Gelinas and his horrible apathetic play. Since he was sent down the Rampage have gone 0-5-1, giving up 29 goals and scoring a mere 10 themselves. I’ll make a point to say that even though he hasn’t helped, and quite frankly has done harm on the ice, it’s more what he represents rather then he himself that have hurt the team the most. An unwanted veteran, discarded into San Antonio like it was a garbage can when every player there is dying for the chance to get an NHL start, can do vast amounts of harm to an affiliate’s psyche. Thanks to Avs management, they’ve added despair to a mediocre team and gotten predictable results.
Both cases tie into the larger question, how does an NHL team develop prospects and does anyone in the organization know how to properly do this? Given the Avs track record the answer is no or at best not yet. The organizational philosophy is to put prospects in the minors and leave them there. The only chance they get to earn a spot on the NHL club is to make it out of training camp, if that doesn’t happen then wait until next training camp. Aside from a few injury callups, the org looks to external solutions when they need something on the roster mid-season. It’s a very old-school conservative philosophy that has been abandoned by the rest of the NHL over the past few years. Nowadays, teams leave a few spots for prospects full time and use younger players that don’t have to deal with waivers as depth, using the ability to move freely between the AHL and NHL as an asset and a way to tweak the roster week to week during the season. This also has the side benefit of gradually exposing young players to the NHL so that when the need arises for them to become full-time NHLers they are properly prepared. By not doing this, the Avs are locked into an old, slow, expensive, static roster with the deleterious side effect of not having any depth to call on and prospects that are woefully underdeveloped compared to their peers. The Avs poor development record comes directly from their strategies, and that comes from management that runs the gamut from inexperienced to incompetent.
#5 - Mirroring the Top
Now that the problems are out in the open, it’s time to look at how the Avs can solve them or more importantly who can solve them. Most of this revolves around having the wrong players on the roster and the Avs front office is directly responsible for that. Joe Sakic had some vague amount of experience when he took over the team in 2013, some apprenticeship in the former Lacroix administration and he had Greg Sherman as his GM. Just my 2 cents but at that level it’s more important to have solid people to delegate authority to than to know the details of every aspect of what goes on. Joe’s a leader and a manager and he’s never going to be better than his staff allows him to be. Aside from Chris MacFarland, who by all accounts is smart and knows the ins and outs of running an NHL franchise, the rest of the staff in entrenched dead weight that’s been with the franchise for a long time, and more than likely far too long.
Craig Billington joined the Avs as a goalie coach after retiring as a player and soon after was named to head Player Development. That was 14 years ago and his title has bounced around but his job has basically been the same. At this point he is an AGM along with MacFarland and responsible for developing the Avs amateur & pro prospects as well as managing hockey operations for the Rampage. His input carries most of the weight when determining who, if anyone, is ready for a callup to the NHL. In interviews he consistently preaches an old-school conservative view with the use of prospects in the NHL and the length of time needed to produce NHL players. He also has the worst record in the NHL over the past 14 years of developing NHL players and it’s not even close. There are currently 2 non-1st round picks on the Avs roster that have spent significant time with the Avs AHL affiliates. That’s it. He is a perfect example of entrenched, incompetent dead weight in the Avs administration that actively hurts the team year over year.
Brad Smith joined the Avs as a scout when they moved from Quebec and was named Director of Player Personnel in 2005. His title changed to Director of Reserve List Scouting this past year, perhaps a nod to MacFarland taking over some of his duties like contract negotiation and whatnot, but he still is in charge of targeting pro personnel for the Avs roster. Look at everyone on the team that wasn’t drafted and he had a hand in acquiring them. I don’t agree with a lot of the Avs solutions over the years but I also don’t know what the choices were. Maybe he’s doing a bangup job, I kinda doubt it. He’s also about as entrenched as it gets, as far as I know he’s like the 3rd longest tenured guy in the org. Is that reason to get rid of someone? No, but the fact the team is terrible because of roster construction might be. Without knowing what input he’s giving to Sakic it’s hard to tell, even so if he is giving good input and it’s being ignored then no point in having him around anyway.
There are plenty of less important roles that could be questioned. All of the pro scouting staff has been with the org for many years. David Oliver in player development has been around for a decade. There’s been decent turnover in the amateur scouting staff lately but still plenty of entrenched personnel. When the organization has been so ineffective over the past decade you really have to wonder about accountability and whether some of these folks are here simply because it’s easier than looking for a replacement.
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So what we have is a front office that’s conservative, passive and ineffective at this point, and an organization that reflects that personality. Should we be excited about the youth in the system currently? Sure, but they’re not anything special compared to the rest of the NHL. Every team has some nice prospects, many of them have a lot more. The path the org is on right now seems better than it was thank goodness, but honestly it’s probably only good enough to maintain the gap the Avs have to the rest of the league. Gaining on everyone else is another story, and that’s going to be a lot more difficult. It’s going to require changing the way that everything is handled from roster contruction to acquiring assets to developing lower-quality prospects into possible NHL talent. It means taking advantage of every opportunity, both small & large, to make the whole organization more competitive rather than hoping that winning on the big issues takes care of everything else. If the Avs hope to be true Stanley Cup contenders in the foreseeable future, qualities like active, aggressive, attentive to details and confident need to find their way into everyone from upper management all the way through the players.