For the Avalanche’s first 14 years of existence in Colorado, they had one captain, Joe Sakic. Sakic was the franchise player and captain when the well-built team moved to Denver from Quebec City in 1995. But when Sakic retired in 2009, it meant that there would be a change in command for the Avalanche for the first time in their existence. The easy choice was the one that was made.
The franchise turned the reins over to long-time defenseman, Adam Foote. While Foote had left the organization for a short term as the Columbus Blue Jackets captain after the 2005 lockout, he returned to the organization to help prolong the franchise’s clinging to playoff hopes. Foote was the easy choice to follow Sakic. He made sense. He had worn the ‘C’ before in Columbus and had always been an alternate captain for the Avalanche since it came to Denver in 1995. The real choice for the Avalanche organization came after Foote retired in 2011.
Foote had been the final player from the original Avalanche squad to leave the organization. This time, there was no logical choice, so naturally, the Avs went into the next season without a player with a ‘C’ on their shoulder. It took until mid-November until the Avs finally named a captain. That captain was Milan Hejduk; a lifelong Avalanche who had the pleasure to play along side great players his entire career. Hejduk, 35 at the time, was nearing the end of his career and was another quick and easy choice for captain. He only ended up serving as captain for less than a year before the reins were turned over to the youngest captain in NHL history and reigning Calder Trophy winner, Gabriel Landeskog. The rest, as they say, is history.
But what if that hadn’t happened? What if then coach, Joe Sacco thought long and hard and didn’t choose Milan Hejduk to become the third captain of the Colorado Avalanche? Let us explore, shall we?
Let’s flashback to 2011 and look at the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs were a season removed from an unexpected and short lived playoff appearance in 2009-10 and had a team highlighted by its depth at center. In addition to the son of franchise legend, Peter Stastny, Paul, the Avs also had two young centermen that they had drafted in the summer of 2009. While Matt Duchene was expected to shine after being drafted with the third overall pick in 2009, it was the Avs’ second round draft pick that same year, Ryan O’Reilly that surprised many with his work ethic and two-way play and made the Avalanche out of training camp in 2009. With the emergence of these two young players and some stellar goaltending from Craig Anderson, the Avs surprised the NHL and squeaked into the playoffs in 2009-10.
The Avs didn’t do much in the playoffs that season, however, and seemed to be accelerating their rebuild as they rolled into the next season well set among the playoff teams in the NHL. But after the All-star break the Avs went into free fall, leading to the team parting ways with goaltender Craig Anderson as well as making a blockbuster trade for Erik Johnson that sent Rookie sensation Kevin Shattenkirk and All-Star power forward Chris Stewart to St. Louis. In the end, the Avalanche cranked back into rebuild mode as they ended the season with the second worse record in the NHL and were able to draft future captain, Gabriel Landeskog with the second overall pick.
Perhaps it was that bad record that allowed the refs to let Adam Foote pummel his opponent one last time as if it were the mid-90’s in his final shift. But that last shine of Foote and the glory days bred the Avalanche organization to continually cling to its former glory. A moment that should have been the last hurrah for the early glory years of the Avalanche became the catalyst for years of moves that reached for nostalgia. It would start with Hejduk’s appointment of captain - he was the only one still there from a cup winner after all - then it would lead to the hiring of Joe Sakic as GM and Patrick Roy as coach. The Avs wanted to remind fans how good they had been while they should have been focusing on how good they could be.
That is what happened, but let’s create an alternate reality, one in which Milan Hejduk wasn’t named Avalanche captain.
If Hejduk wasn’t named captain, there bears the question, who would have been. Of course, Joe Sacco could have always gone the route of not naming a captain and allowed the leaders to emerge on their own. But that doesn’t seem like something Sacco would have done. Perhaps the best and most logical choice would have been Paul Stastny. While Stastny’s name had long been on the trading block with his big contract and the Avs’ plethora of centermen, Stastny still donned an A on his jersey and had the respect of the players in the room. Though the Avs may have had players in the ranks that they wanted to eventually move into the captain’s role - Landeskog most notably - Stastny’s easy going personality would make him the best candidate as a bridge captain.
With Stastny in place as the Avs’ captain, the Avs don’t end up forcing the captain’s title on Landeskog too early and perhaps in the process, they don’t make a player like Ryan O’Reilly jealous. The hard working O’Reilly had been looking for his place with the Avalanche, wanting to take that place as a franchise player. But when Hejduk stepped aside for the Avs to name Landeskog captain, O’Reilly got jealous and decided to look for money rather than glory.
Perhaps, with Stastny as captain, O’Reilly wouldn’t have held out for more money and signed an offer sheet. Maybe, he would have found his place with the Avalanche and become the Avs’ main shutdown number two center to complement the scoring touch of Nathan MacKinnon’s number one role. Perhaps it would be Duchene who would be O’Reilly’s wing not the other way around. Maybe that more natural feel would have allowed the Avalanche to work out the differences as well as the money and kept the Avs from spending money on aging veterans and invest on cheaper younger options. Though if things didn’t work out, the Avs could have flipped a young scoring center in Duchene at a much higher place than he is now. Maybe with a more balanced approach down the middle, the Avs wouldn’t plummet to their current position and would continue to reach for that true new era. However, the Avs stuck to the old era in 2011 with Milan Hejduk and we may never really know what that new era could have really done.