When we look back at the history of great Colorado Avalanche teams, most fans instantly go to the Stanley Cup years of 1995-96 and 2000-01 - with good reason. But the 2003-04 Avs team is one that rivals the best of them when it comes to pure talent. It was a team that was able to ice five Hall of Famers every night and had Patrick Roy not retired after the previous season, we might be talking about one of the most legendary teams in franchise history.
2003-04 Avalanche Roster
Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Teemu Selanne, Paul Kariya and Rob Blake - that sounds more like a powerplay on a Hall of Fame legends team than an NHL lineup. Take the 5 HoFers, add in franchise legends like Milan Hejduk, Alex Tanguay and Adam Foote, then supplement with a 22-year old John-Michael Liles and you’ve likely got the single most talented Avs team since the franchise moved to Colorado.
At first glance, you look at this roster and think “if only Patrick Roy held on for one more year, the Avs would have a third Stanley Cup” - but that’s really not the case.
In his first year as the team’s starting goalie, David Aebischer actually performed better than the legend did in his final season. In 62 games played, Aebischer finished with a .924 sv% - a mark slightly better than Roy’s .920 the previous season.
If anything, the downfall of the team can be traced back to two legends having the worst seasons of their career.
Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya were both well on their way to the Hall of Fame when they decided to reunite in Colorado. With Kariya signing a one-year contract for below league average ($1.2m), the duo joined an Avalanche team that had finished first in their division each of the eight years since moving from Quebec. The two stars wanted a Stanley Cup, and they felt that joining Sakic, Forsberg et al would be the best way to do it.
Not only did they not win the Cup, the Avs failed to win the division for the first time ever. The immensely talented team finished outside of the top-3 in the Western conference for the first time and fell to the San Jose Sharks in the second round of the playoffs.
Though they came to win a cup, Selanne and Kariya can both look back at their year in Colorado as the worst of their careers.
Teemu Selanne is a player that averaged a little over a point per game over his incredible 23-season career. During his year with the Ave, the Finnish Flash had only 32 points in 78 games - that’s 0.41 points/game. Selanne never had a lower point average, even 10-years later as a 43-year old, he finished with 0.43 points per game. To make things worse, Selanne returned after the lockout of 2004 rejuvenated scoring 184 points in the next two seasons. Though it’s a small footnote on one of the best careers in modern NHL history, the footnote in Colorado is one that Selanne - and Avs fans - would probably like to forget.
For Paul Kariya, the year with the Avalanche went a little better. In 2 fewer games, Kariya finished with four more points than Selanne. His .71 points per game were far more respectable, but still Kariya’s lowest total for any of the four teams he played with in his career. The bigger problem for Kariya - as with most of his career - was that he fought an injury that limited him to 51 games. After spraining his wrist early in the year, Kariya never really got on track and was more of a secondary presence than the star player the Avs thought they were getting.
While it’s easy to point to the failure of Kariya and Selanne as the key to the Avs fall that season, the fact that their best player was limited to 39 games, probably had as much to do with it.
Peter Forsberg was coming off of a year that saw him lead the league in scoring and win the Hart Trophy. After sitting out the entire regular season in the 2001-02, Forsberg was back, well rested and better than ever. Unfortunately, injuries hit in 2003-04 and the superstar was never the same. Forsberg was forced to miss half the season and his absence likely led to the team fall to fourth in the standings.
Joe Sakic led the team in scoring, Alex Tanguay took the next step in proving he was an elite offensive talent and Rob Blake anchored a blueline that was one of the best in the conference. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. The absence of Forsberg and the disappointment of the two hired-guns left the Avs lower in the standings than they were used to, which led to an early playoff exit.
Looking back on this era, Avalanche fans have very little to complain about. A perennial powerhouse, anchored by Hall of Famers that won two Stanley Cups. That doesn’t take away from the fact that 2003-04 might have been the season that got away.
It was a legendary lineup that fell short of expectations. Two Stanley Cups are fun, but a third would have cemented the dynasty.