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Potential versus the past: comparing cup winners to the 2021 Colorado Avalanche

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How does this season’s roster stack up against the 1995-96 and 2000-01 Stanley Cup-winning teams?

Bruce Bennett Studios File Photos Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

With the NHL and NHLPA agreeing on terms, we’re getting close to having a hockey once again! The hockey world has been buzzing since the offseason began about the roster Colorado General Manager Joe Sakic has assembled. Betting sites and experts alike have pegged the 2021 Avalanche as a near certainty to make the playoffs. Some have even gone as far as to call Colorado the preseason favorite to lift the Cup at season’s end.

Fortunately, the Avalanche have a history that includes two Cup-winning squads; the 1995-96 and 2000-01 teams. Both of these teams were special and included all-time greats like Sakic, Peter Forsberg and goaltender Patrick Roy. While both rosters shared many of the same stars, the rosters were constructed very differently by former GM Pierre Lacroix. The ’96 team had depth top to bottom while the ’01 team boasted multiple Hall of Fame players. How does the current roster stack up to two of the best the franchise has to offer? Let’s take a closer look.

1995-96 Colorado Avalanche

47-25-10 (ties) - 104 points - won Stanley Cup

Previous Season: 30-13-5, lost in conference quarterfinals

Major Transactions: Oct. 3, 1995, Claude Lemieux from the New York Islanders for Wendel Clark; Oct. 26, 1995, Sandis Ozolinsh from San Jose for Owen Nolan; Dec. 6, 1995, Patrick Roy and Mike Keane from Montreal for Andrei Kovalenko, Martin Rucinsky and Jocelyn Thibault

Canucks v Avalanche

Playoff Lines

F1 - Adam Deadmarsh - Joe Sakic - Scott Young

F2 - Valeri Kamensky - Peter Forsberg - Claude Lemieux

F3 - Stephane Yelle - Mike Ricci - Mike Keane

F4 - Dave Hannan/Chris Simon/Warren Rychel/Rene Corbet/Troy Murray/Jon Klemm

D1 - Sandis Ozolinsh - Sylvain Lefebvre

D2 - Alexei Gusarov - Adam Foote

D3 - Ewe Krupp - Curtis Leschyshyn (Craig Wolanin)

G - Patrick Roy - Stephane Fiset

Breakdown

Lacroix had a fantastic offseason in 1995, adding puck-moving defender Ozolinsh and goal-scoring mega-pest Lemieux to a team that featured three strong forward lines and a solid defense corps. The master-stroke came in December when the Avalanche GM flipped young goalie Thibault and wingers Kovalenko and Rucinsky for future Hall of Fame goaltender Roy. This trade helped push an already-strong team over the top in the playoffs, with Roy racking up three shutouts and 16 wins in the playoffs. Roy’s goaltending backed up a Conn Smythe-winning playoff run from Sakic in which he scored 34 points in 22 games.

The Marc Crawford-coached squad was notable for having six 20-goal scorers (Sakic, Forsberg, Kamensky, Lemieux, Young and Deadmarsh) and an additional five 10-goal scorers. The depth of the 1995-96 squad shined in the playoffs. During the Cup run, nine players scored 10 or more points for Colorado, and the team was not taken to game seven in any round. In the finals, the Avalanche overwhelmed the Florida Panthers in a four-game sweep, securing the title in the franchise’s first season after relocating from Quebec.

2000-01 Colorado Avalanche

52-16-10-4 - 118 Points (Most in Franchise History) - Won Stanley Cup

Previous Season: 42-28-11-1, lost in conference finals

Major Transactions: June 24, 2000, Nolan Pratt, first-round draft pick and second-round draft pick from Carolina for Sandis Ozolinsh; Dec. 28, 2000, fifth-round draft pick from the New York Rangers for Alexei Gusarov; Feb. 21, 2001, Rob Blake and Steven Reinprecht from the LA Kings for Adam Deadmarsh, Aaron Miller and two first-round draft picks

Avalanche v Kings X Blake

Playoff Lines

L1 - Alex Tanguay - Joe Sakic - Milan Hejduk

L2 - Ville Nieminen - Chris Drury (Peter Forsberg) - Dan Hinote

L3 - Shjon Podein - Stephane Yelle - Eric Messier

L4 - Chris Dingman/Scott Parker - Steve Reinprecht - Dave Reid

D1 - Ray Bourque - Adam Foote

D2 - Rob Blake - Jon Klemm

D3 - Martin Skoula - Greg deVries

G - Patrick Roy - David Aebischer

Breakdown

The 2000-01 edition of the Colorado Avalanche was star studded, with five members of the team eventually ending up in the Hall of Fame. While the core group remained (Sakic, Forsberg, Roy, Foote, Klemm and Yelle were on both Cup-winning teams), the pieces surrounding them were far different. Ozolinsh, Gusarov and Deadmarsh, all major pieces on the ’96 team, were shipped out during the season. The preseason loss of Ozolinsh proved to be the most difficult hole to fill. Lacroix worked his magic in February to replace that gap in the lineup by bringing in Blake, a Norris trophy-winning defender for coach Bob Hartley.

The three-headed blue line monster of Bourque, Blake and Foote ate up huge minutes in the playoffs (each averaging over 28 minutes of ice time per game) up front while the top-six forwards also pulled extra shifts throughout the run. The strength of the ’01 cup winner was star power and defense. Roy won his third Conn Smyth with a ridiculous playoff performance—four shutouts and a .934 save percentage—cementing his place as one of the greatest big-game goalies in NHL history. Forsberg missed a significant chunk of the playoff run, getting injured in the second round and being replaced as second line center by the young Drury.

2020-21 Colorado Avalanche

Previous Season: 42-20-8 (92 Points), lost in Second Round

Major Transactions: Oct. 10, 2020, Brandon Saad and Dennis Gilbert from Chicago for Nikita Zadorov and Anton Lindholm; Oct. 12, 2020, Devon Toews from the New York Islanders for two second-round draft picks

Projected Lines

L1 - Gabriel Landeskog - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen

L2 - Brandon Saad - Nazem Kadri - Andre Burakovsky

L3 - Valeri Nichushkin - JT Compher - Joonas Donskoi

L4 - Matt Calvert - Pierre-Edouard Bellemare - Tyson Jost/Logan O’Connor

D1 - Ryan Graves - Cale Makar

D2 - Samuel Girard - Erik Johnson

D3 - Devon Toews - Ian Cole/Conor Timmins

G - Philipp Grubauer - Pavel Francouz

Breakdown

Jared Bednar has a full kitchen to cook with this season. Sakic did a great job putting together a deep, cohesive team on paper, with star power from MacKinnon and Makar to defensive depth. The only aspects that are a cause for worry are goaltending injuries and special teams issues cropping up during the playoffs.

The team looks extremely balanced, being able to roll four forward lines and boasting three solid defensive pairings. The team proved last year that “next man up” was more than a saying—with injuries constantly wrecking the lineup, the team still managed to make the playoffs. It wasn’t until Colorado was forced to put in a third-string goaltender that the injury bug finally left a mark against Dallas.

In theory, the additions of Saad and Toews look like perfect fits. Both players are strong skaters on a team built to blaze around the rink. Saad in particular should bring more punch to a power play unit that underachieved in the playoffs last season. The biggest questions about the 2021 lineup is what to do with Timmins, Jost and O’Connor. Timmins looks ready to assume a third pairing role, while Jost may be running out of chances and could be replaced in the lineup by O’Connor, who impressed during the playoff run in a fourth line energy role.

Comparing the Lineups

Created by Patrick J. McCabe

When looking at these three teams, we’re going to analyze how the current roster compares at forward, defense, goaltending and coaching/intangibles.

Forwards

The forward group of the ’96 champions is deep and impressive. With a full playoff run for Forsberg and a third line that caused matchup problems for most other teams, the ’96 team is deeper and more talented than ’01. While Drury played incredibly during the latter run, he isn’t Forsberg, and pulling Drury up to center the second line had a domino effect on the rest of the lines. This led to the ’01 squad relying on the top six for a lot of minutes.

Comparing ’96 to ’21 is an interesting exercise. While MacKinnon hasn’t yet proven to be on Sakic’s level, he is a top player in the NHL and was insane in the playoffs last season. Kadri, like Drury, is no Forsberg—but he is still an above-average NHL second line center. The wingers on the current team compare favorably, but all four lines on the ’21 team are able to be utilized in a number of roles. If Forsberg was something other than a Hall of Fame second line center for the ’96 team, the 2021 squad would contend for the best forward group.

Winner: 1995-96 forwards

Runner up: 2020-21 forwards

Coplorado Avalanche v Boston Bruins Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Defenders

The ’96 defense group was deep. Led by Ozolinsh, the first Cup-winning team’s defense didn’t add a ton of goals but helped keep lanes clear in front of Roy to set him up for a 2.10 goals against average in the ’96 playoffs. The ’01 defender group was incredible. With Blake, Bourque and Foote all eating up huge minutes, the defense scored, helped quarterback a high-flying power play and was even better at preventing goals than the ’96 group. Roy had a 1.70 goals against average for the playoffs, and while some of this is because of his stellar play, the Blake/Bourque/Foote trio did a great job in front of him.

Comparing the current group to ’01 feels a little unfair (although in five years we may be talking about Makar, Byram and Girard in the same tone), the ’21 defenders compare favorably to the ’96 group. The wickedly fast Makar is already a better player than Ozolinsh, and even the ’01 group can’t boast a third pairing as talented as Toews and Cole or Timmins. The offensive upside is tremendous with this year’s defense.

Winner: 2000-01 defenders

Runner up: 2020-21 defenders

Stanley Cup X

Goaltending

This might be the simplest comparison to make, as both the ’96 and ’01 squads were backstopped by Roy. Grubauer is hyper athletic and has become more consistent since arriving in Colorado, but he’s nowhere near Roy’s level.

Based on the numbers alone, ’01 Roy was the superior Roy. More shutouts, a better goals against average and a game-seven victory over fellow goaltending legend Martin Brodeur.

Winner: 2000-01 Patrick Roy

Runner up: 1995-96 Patrick Roy

Stanley Cup X

Coaching/Intangibles

Each of these teams are tied in another unique way: head coaches Crawford, Hartley and Bednar were/are in charge of their first NHL locker room. Crawford won the cup in his second season behind the bench, Hartley won it in his third and Bednar is headed into this fifth season with the Avalanche. Will this be the year he joins Crawford and Hartley as Stanley Cup winners?

Bednar has shown improvements through each of his seasons, but if he can’t put together better special teams and falls short yet again, a lot of questions will be asked about whether he’s the right coach to lead the Avalanche to their third title.

Both the ’96 and ’01 teams were captained by Sakic, and the ’21 edition was put together by the same man. Leadership was a strength of both championship squads, with ’01 coming out slightly ahead with Bourque in the locker room. At age 40 and in his final season, it felt like the ’01 Avalanche were destined to win the title for the legendary defender. While Landeskog is a fantastic locker room presence and a solid winger, Sakic’s resume is too much to overcome for most players, and the respect he garnered around the league was immense. Former Red Wing Brendan Shanahan says it best:

I remember when I was in Detroit, Sean Avery stood up as Joe Sakic was skating by our bench. Sean was a young, enthusiastic hockey player who was well liked by us old guys, and as you might know, was known for trash talking. But when he stood up and yelled, “Hey Sakic!” Brett Hull grabbed him by the back of his sweater and yanked him down on the bench. Then he said, and I’ll never forget this, “You are not allowed to speak to Mr. Sakic.” And then Sean looked down the bench at the rest of the boys and we all just sort of nodded.

While there isn’t much separating the coaching and the fact that Sakic is present on both the ’96 and ’01 versions of the Avalanche, Bourque presence gives the edge to the ’01 team.

Winner: 2000-01

Runner up: 1995-96

Colorado Avalanche v Boston Bruins Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Conclusion

While the 2020-21 squad is talented, both cup-winning rosters were full of Hall of Famers and strong depth pieces. Fans of the organization have been blessed with some of the greatest players of all time wearing the burgundy and blue. The biggest difference between these three teams lies in net. Roy is a four-time Stanley Cup winner and one of the greatest goaltenders in NHL history. Can Grubauer (or Francouz) claim a place next to Roy as an Avalanche legend? If Grubauer can take it to the next level and stay healthy, the Avalanche could raise a third Cup at season’s end.

While the 2020-21 team isn’t as deep up front the ’96 squad—or loaded on the blue-line like ’01—the skaters compare favorably to both Stanley Cup-winning teams. Overall, the ’01 iteration of the Avalanche looks like the team to beat. With Sakic, Roy, great leadership and a stacked blueline, this squad is remembered as one of the greatest in modern NHL history. In a fictional matchup between both, game seven would be needed to decide the winner.

Poll

Which group of skaters is best? (Forwards and Defenders)

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    1995-96
    (55 votes)
  • 60%
    2000-01
    (157 votes)
  • 17%
    2020-21
    (46 votes)
258 votes total Vote Now

Is this the season Colorado gets back to the top of the NHL mountain? Can Grubauer take the next step and provide Stanley Cup-level goaltending? Let us know in the comments!