The beloved Rampage finished the 2016-17 season with a 27-42-7 record, which was bottom 3 in the AHL and last in the Western Conference as well as their own Pacific Division. Offensively they were impotent, defensively they were somewhat better but not enough to matter. The lone bright spots statistically, either team or individual, were the 10th ranked penalty kill and Rocco Grimaldi scoring 31 goals to finish 3rd in the league.
San Antonio struggled with personnel issues all year. A horrifying run of injuries marred the Fall while callups and trades kept the lineup bouncing around during the Winter. What became clear early on was that this was not a competitive team as constructed and as the season progressed and the Rampage’s opponents improved they took a long painful nosedive that they couldn’t pull out of.
I’m going to refer to this nosedive as The Gelinas Effect but I want to make it clear that it goes so far beyond him that he definitely doesn’t shoulder the blame. As far as I care to think about it he was just a guy that came to the AHL to get PT and sharpen up his game to hopefully return to the NHL one day, not some monster that destroyed a previously functional team. Yes, he played poorly and singlehandedly lost games for the Rampage but one guy doesn’t blow up a season. You need totally incompetent management for that.
The Gelinas Effect
On February 4th, the Rampage were embarking on their yearly Rodeo Road Trip with a 21-21-4 record and a -14 goal differential. Nothing to brag about but still respectable. The hope was to play solid .500 hockey on the 9-game trek around the midwest then use the backlog of home games after to make a push towards the playoffs. A quick trip to Cedar Park and a close 2-1 loss started the boulder rolling downhill.
Eric Gelinas had fallen out of favor with the Avs coaching staff to put it mildly. Often a healthy scratch, injuries put him in the lineup in January but he rarely played more than was absolutely necessary, and not well at that. On February 10th he was optioned to San Antonio just in time for game 2 of the Rodeo Road Trip in Chicago, which turned out to be a 7-3 loss. The Rampage would not win again until March 12th against the hapless Monsters and wouldn’t win with Gelinas in the lineup until March 14th, again vs the Monsters.
All in all, from Feb 4th on the Rampage went 6-21-3 with a -42 goal differential. Six wins and 15 points in the final 30 games, a .250 pace. Triple the goal differential in 2/3rds the amount of games. Goals per game went from 2.61 to 2.13, which is incredible because the power play was much better in this stretch than it was beforehand. A team that was on pace for 35 wins and 76 points ended up with 27 wins and 61 points.
Even though his arrival coincided with the collapse, that’s a symptom not the cause. Part of the cause is what kind of player he is. He’s a big defenseman that’s not physical and not good at defense. He’s an ok skater but an awful puckhandler. He has a very hard shot that’s also very inaccurate. Pretending to be a scout for minute I see a non-physical power play specialist that you don’t want spending any time in the d-zone. The numbers bear this out. 3 goals and 9 assists, all but 3 assists on the PP. Only 14 minutes in penalties. We hate plusminus but he was -22 in 27 games, worst on the team out of all the defensemen and he only played a third of the games. Other than the fact he never got PP time in Colorado, he was exactly the same player in the AHL he was in the NHL.
Even though the collapse happened in February, it really started when Joe Sakic took over as GM. The Gelinas Effect isn’t literally Eric Gelinas arriving in San Antonio and playing bad hockey for two and a half months, it’s targeting and acquiring players that don’t help the organization win games and don’t complement the assets already in place. There seems to be a widespread disconnect between reality and possibility in all facets of the Avalanche organization. So many personnel moves have been made that in isolation could be savvy but in context of where the organization is, what it has and what it needs range from bizarre to outright detrimental.
Building a team from scratch like the Avs did with the Rampage last Summer is part science and part art. Given Craig Billington’s horrifying track record with the Avs AHL affiliates over the past decade, he was not the man for the job. Failure #1 was not getting a new coach in a timely manner. From what we heard, interviews started in May but Eric Veilleux ended up being hired well past the free agent deadline and thus had no input into what he needed as a base for the AHL team. Failure #2 was integrating the approach to signing players that fit into what the organization needed as a whole. It’s pretty telling that other than goalie Jeremy Smith not a single free agent signed out of 7 played for the Avs this year. On the worst team in the expansion era. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the Avs knew that depth was the biggest issue in the organization after the 15-16 season and it wasn’t addressed. Failure #3 was getting the right players for the roles needed in San Antonio. The 7 free agents signed on July 1st played an average of 31 games each for the Rampage and 3 were traded mid-season. Only Jim O’Brien was active at the end of the year. They needed 63 man-games worth of players on try-out contracts to fill out the lineup.
The key going forward if we don’t want to see the same thing happen next season in San Antonio, or worse the same thing we saw in Colorado, is making sure the issues are corrected. Logically it was some combination of poor decisions, poor information and poor assumptions and all of those are greatly affected by the Avs staff and their chronic weakness at talent evaluation.
When Joe Whitney & Mike Sislo were signed last July many of us who study the Rampage faithfully were exuberant, two established scorers including a power play wizard. We were looking at stats and a few highlights but didn’t pay much attention to a little bit of age, some loss of speed, switching conferences, general strengths/weaknesses and what kind of teammates allowed them to be as successful as they had been. Apparently those things are important because they sure didn’t work as advertised once dressed in silver & black. Since Whitney was traded to another bad team and didn’t improve and Sislo was traded to a good one and did, I think we know what’s up with these guys now.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Avs scouts had an idea about this going into the season, it wouldn’t be a tough conclusion to come to with a little homework, but the Rampage went into the season with the assumption that these guys would be doing the heavy lifting on the scoreboard and it didn’t happen. Either their evaluation of the team was flawed or their evaluation of the two scorers was wrong, given the lack of success in these deals over the years it’s almost impossible to guess which. All it cost was a year of frustration for a new head coach and another batch of prospects enduring a losing culture.
Gelinas, Sislo, Whitney, and others both in the AHL and NHL, poor fits in an organization with many needs and a long history of questionable decisions. While we wait to see if any changes will be made to staff that created the most poorly constructed non-expansion team in the last 50 years, huge decisions lie in the immediate future.
Best case scenario is that the current Avalanche staff come together and start functioning like a modern NHL franchise. A long term plan is crafted and needs are identified. Amateur scouts target players that have the qualities the organization desires and the GM selects them. Players inside the org are identified as redundant or unnecessary and traded or bought out. Pro scouts target suitable matches for said unnecessary players and deals are found & made by the GM. The development staff makes a realistic evaluation of the pro prospects and proper complementary players are acquired to enhance both their growth, the competitiveness of the AHL affiliate and the Avs depth.
That doesn’t seem likely. There are a number of staff that have had too many failures to their names for much too long. There isn’t an area of the org that is better than mediocre nor a staff member that couldn’t be quickly & easily replaced by someone more competent. The fact is you can say that about plenty of other orgs. Avs management needs some help but it doesn’t need to come from tearing everything down and starting over. A couple smart people, maybe even one, with fresh viewpoints and the ability to bring accountability, a cohesive message and some leadership to the front office would make all the difference that’s needed. I really hope that’s something that Joe Sakic or even KSE is searching for right now.
The Gelinas Effect comes from poor talent evaluation and asset management. Using his situation as a guide that means spending the 63rd pick in the upcoming draft for what was purported to be an NHL defenseman but turned out to be a 3rd pairing AHL power play specialist. Before the pick is even used he will be out of the organization. Despite the justification at the time of improving the team for a playoff push, which is legitimate, the evaluation of his talent level was very flawed.
Generally, what happens in a trade like this is that management identifies a need and directs the pro scouts to target potential players or a player for that need. The same process happens for free agents during the summer. Once players are identified, the player personnel department makes recommendations and the GM fashions a deal with another team, or not. The breakdown in this case came from either the scouts misevaluating Gelinas’ ability or the scouts correctly evaluating his ability and the player personnel department recommending the deal anyway or even player personnel advising the GM correctly but the GM making the deal anyway. Lots of places where this could have gone wrong and also lots of people that should have been able to stop it.
Fans have come up with plenty of positive excuses why deals like this and others over the past 4 years have been made, optimistic but good-natured intentions by management, a perception that Patrick Roy had svengali-like influence over everyone in power to make personnel decisions, blame towards people no longer in the organization, bad luck and so forth. The truth is that the same core of people have been around making decisions the whole time and the organization has performed worse and worse every year. Expecting different results without changes or additions to that core is foolish.