November 16, 2009
Selling the Avalanche
TFP Columnist Dennis Bernstein isn't ready to jump on the Avalanche's bandwagon just yet.

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- Other than massive rash of injuries that has hit NHL superstars over the first six weeks of the regular season, the biggest story is the unlikely start of the Colorado Avalanche.

I concurred with the rest of the NHL at the season’s start; I picked them to engage in a season long death match with the beleaguered Phoenix Coyotes for the bottom spot of the NHL’s Western Conference.

I also picked the Bruins to win it all folks. Lucky for me I'm not a gambler.

While the Coyotes have been competitive and sit above the line for playoff consideration at present, the Avalanche amazingly stand atop the Northwest Division at the season’s quarter pole. With a new general manager (former specialist assistant Greg Sherman) and coach (Joe Sacco, not to be confused with Mr. Socko), the management team had turned over 100 percent in the off season. On ice, the player is the most recognizable player in the history in history of the Colorado franchise; Joe Sakic took a look at the roster in June and decided it was time to start the countdown for his first ballot Hall of Fame induction.

Sherman, in an effort to get his roster younger and less pricey, dealt away veteran Ryan Smyth to the Los Angeles Kings for rising defenseman Kyle Quincey and underachiever Tom Priessing. By virtue of their poor performance last season, the Avalanche was in position to draft a keeper in Center Matt Duchense with the third overall pick and got the Eric Otters’ Eric O’Reilly in the second round.

Duchene performed as expected in training camp and O’Reilly surprised in September. With the void of talent on the varsity, both 18 year olds found themselves on the opening night roster with the latter becoming the youngest player ever to play in the history of the Colorado franchise. Things got even more curious when game ten of the regular season rolled around and neither one of the teenagers where sent back to their junior team - it was big boy hockey all the time.

On the veteran front, Paul Statsny returned from an injury racked 2008-’09 season that saw him miss 37 games and while former first round pick Woltek Wolski is a wizard of the shootout, he struggled to get 18 goals in his last campaign starting the whispers started that the first round pick spent on the Polish winger was wasted.

To make matters worse, one of their mainstays over the years Milan Hedjuk potted 27 goals but a minus -18 rating started banging the drums about him being in the twilight of his career at 33 years old.

With all that bad news, line combinations and defensive pairings weren’t the biggest concern as October rapidly approached. The Avalanche arguably had the worst goaltending in the league with the combination of Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft strapping on the pads every night during the lost season. The latter was replaced over the summer with the acquisition of Craig Anderson but no one expected the substitution to move the needle between the pipes; it was more like repositioning the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Mr. Anderson came out of a situation where he was shared the net minding duties for the Florida Panthers along with Tomas Vokoun. The pair almost steered the Panthers to a playoff spot with Anderson posting a more than respectable 15-7-5 record and three shutouts coupled with a .924 save percentage and a 2.71 goals against average. Florida GM Randy Sexton had other ideas in the off season and offered a three year free agent deal to former Martin Brodeur caddie, Scott Clemmensen. Left without a deal, the former 2001 third round selection of the Chicago Blackhawks gladly signed a two year deal with Colorado that averages $1.8 million per season but probably devoid of any bonuses for winning the Vezina Trophy. Although the defense had recognizable names with Adam Foote, Scott Hannon and John-Michael Liles, a cursory comparison of the Colorado roster against the contenders in the West by most would have the Avalanche badly trailing the pack.

And then, a funny thing happened.

They started to play the games on the ice and not in the fantasy leagues.

The Avalanche pounded the San Jose Sharks in Denver opening night and it's snowballed ever since. They’ve played the highly regarded Chicago Blackhawks to a stand still with all of their three matches going to a shootout and took advantage of Detroit’s stumble of out the gate to defeat them twice. They’ve been great at home, through 19 games Colorado has one home loss.

Individually, Statsny has stepped into the unenviable position of replacing Joe Sakic and produced at a point per game rate. While Duchene was thought to emerge as the Colorado candidate for the rookie of the year, it’s been O’Reilly who has burst on the scene in the season’s first quarter. He’s battling John Tavares for the rookie scoring lead and is strides ahead of the rookie pack in plus/minus rating.

Anderson for his part is making his best effort to shrug off the anonymity that’s cloaked him for his first six NHL seasons. His effort is the overriding factor that's propelled the Avalanche to the top of the Western Conference, Incredibly, the word “Vezina” and “Trophy” seem to be popping up adjacent to his name, Cinderella has appeared early in the NHL marathon and she’s residing hard by the Rocky Mountains.

So when I recently appeared on the Anaheim Ducks post game show, Ducks Calls with Josh Brewster (you can hear the rebroadcast at Josh’s site www.hockeytalk.biz) and the discussion turned away from the Ducks and to the NHL in general, I was asked for my opinion on the feel good story that is the Colorado Avalanche.

Somewhat eloquently, I went on the record and said. “Nice start.” Uh oh, doesn’t sound good for the Avs, does it?

The reality is that with two 18 year-olds holding prominent roles on this team, the success of this year’s model of the Avs is short term. I define short term as right around the 40 game mark and you can set your watch to it. With the schedule contraction due to the Olympics, Duchene or O’Reilly have never played these amount of games they’ll be asked to play through February. In a non-Olympic season last year, I saw the Kings’ Drew Doughty fade in the stretch as the rigors of playing nightly against men took its toll. The same will occur with the Avs kids and the rest of the roster can’t support a decline in their play.

Could Craig Anderson morph into the next Tim Thomas, an ugly duckling journeyman who turned into a swan of a goalie? He could, but those occurrences happen once a decade and Anderson doesn’t have a 6-foot-8 defenseman named Chara standing in front of him either.

While Colorado has avoided the injury plague that’s hit the league hard, they’ve had some chinks in the armor. Hedjuk has missed two games with a wonky back while Liles’ shoulder injury landed him on the Injured Reserve list until mid-November and the tag of “injury prone” is appearing next to his name. Avs fans should pray when injuries do start piling up GM Sherman will resist calling Peter Forsberg’s agent for a reunion tour.

A rookie GM, a rookie coach and an average roster doesn’t equate to a post season dance in Denver. The reality is that this team won’t finish much above where they finished last season but the good news for Avalanche rooters is that the progression has continued to get an aging roster to a youthful one. An Avalanche is more likely to happen here in Los Angeles than one appearing in the Western Conference playoffs.

LIVING THE HOCKEY DREAM

Although I am a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, my process to get to this point was unconventional. In a former life, I was a boring accountant before deciding to start a sports media firm with the sole purpose of getting into hockey games for free. Little did I know the decision I made would change my personality, career and life. The reality was that my credentials at the start were non-existent; in no particular order they were, a C in English in college and no course work in journalism or creating writing. While those credentials would qualify me for a blog on hockeybuzz.com these days, a writer’s necessary body of work a decade ago was a very different story. In those ancient days, newspapers actually had cache and most NHL PR department didn’t recognize that the eventual shift away from print and to online (except for The Fourth Period Magazine, of course) had been initiated. So only through hard work, diligence and tenacity did I flourish in this second career and live my ultimate hockey dream.

Hey, that sounds like a great title for a book, doesn’t it? Living the hockey dream?

Short story is ... a REAL writer and a good friend of mine, Brian Kennedy, came up with this wonderful idea a couple of years ago, Last year, he authored a great book called Growing Up Hockey and has backed it up with a collection of stories of likely and unlikely people that are involved in this great game.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is the legwork that the author had to do to get the cross section of subjects assembled for publication. From superstars (Wayne Gretzky) to trend setters (Cammi Granato) to grinders (Ian Laperriere), Kennedy has touched all points on the hockey spectrum in the 336 page tome.

For the increasing number of non-readers among us (slowly raising my hand), the book is very quick and enjoyable because in reality it is a collection of 44 short stories. You can get further information on Brian’s book by visiting the publisher’s website, www.lonepinepublishing.com but given a list price of $18.95 and availability at most book retailers and places like Amazon.com, it’s a great holiday gift for any deserving hockey fan in your circle.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com.

  Archives:
Oct. 26, 2009 Sometimes reality is worse than the perception
Sept. 30, 2009 Brooins Brewing for a Cup
Sept. 3, 2009 Ray to Heatley's rescue
May 16, 2009 Do the math... 117 is less than 0
Apr. 14, 2009 Wanna Bet?


 

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