NHL Report As struggles persist, Avs must address core issue
By Terry Frei, The Denver Post
The Avalanche’s problems? Slow starts, at the opening of games or periods. Spotty goaltending. Brainlock mistakes leading to odd-man rushes, and occasional spells of looking completely lost or disinterested in getting back to help out in the defensive zone. Lack of scoring, especially from those counted on to provide it. And more. With 60 games remaining as I type, it’s conceivable — not likely, but conceivable — that this team could get it turned around and at least be playing meaningful games down the stretch under first-year coach Jared Bednar. But if the Avalanche’s struggles continue to the new year, these will be the inescapable and actually quite simple conclusions:
• The Avs, with this roster, just aren’t very good. • See the standings? That’s what they are. • Period. The Avalanche — from ownership down through the front office and the dressing room — can’t succumb to thisclose denial. It happens all the time in this league, which has scapegoating coaches for bigger problems down to a science, and also because the NHL’s relative parity encourages the attitude that with just one little run, a team is right back in the playoff hunt. Even the standings format, which tends to make a team’s record look better than it really is because of the false standard of 24-24-10 as “.500” or respectable, encourages that delusion. Plus, and this is an NHL strength, even the bad teams win often enough to allow for optimism after each victory.
Absolutely, a lot of it is about needing more from that “core” of Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabe Landeskog, Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie and Semyon Varlamov. I asked Joe Sakic about that and used his remarks in the Columbus game story. He again expressed faith in the group, yet added: “It’s not a core thing; it’s a team thing.” He’s right, of course, but with longterm contract extensions, Sakic has linked his reputation to the worthiness of those six — and, to a point, tied his own hands. They need to do more than play well; they need to show they’re capable of leading this team to something approaching greatness. If the faith has been misplaced, the Avalanche is, well, in a tough spot.
Trade them? Break up the core? After roughly every third loss, I ask the members of the core if they’re worried that the Avalanche might blow it up, meaning either the roster in general, or the core … or both. They’re sick of the question, and I get that. But I’ll continue to ask it.
No team is going to touch Varlamov and his $6 million salary cap hit through 201819 unless he rehabilitates his image as an elite goalie, and if he does that, why trade him? Colorado could expose him in the expansion draft, and the Vegas Golden Knights have to commit to 60 percent of the salary cap in that draft, but that has nothing to do with improving this team … now. Johnson, like MacKinnon, is tied up through 2022-23, when he will be 35. And the perception that the Avs are desperate could undercut Sakic while exploring deals. Making a bad deal, giving up Duchene, for example, just to answer the clamor for change would be counterproductive. There are change-things-up megadeals to be made in the NHL, as with Shea Weber for P.K. Subban, or Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones, but they’re difficult — and in those two instances, a veteran GM (Nashville’s David Poile) was involved.
That wouldn’t solve the other problems, either. The Avalanche is up against the cap, lessening flexibility. Joe Colborne, who is signed through next season at a $2.5 million annual cap hit, has been disappointing. The third season on Jarome Iginla’s deal, a risk all along, has crossed the (blue) line into diminished return territory. And that just scratches the surface. Terry Frei: email@example.com or @TFrei
Avalanche executive vice president Joe Sakic has expressed faith in his team’s core, and said “it’s a team thing” when addressing its struggles. RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post