SO FAR, SNOW GOOD
The Duchene dilemma is just the latest distraction for Avalanche GM,
The Colorado Avalanche are in danger of becoming the New York Islanders. Soon, it will be a challenge to explain to young hockey fans that the Avs really were once one of the NHL’s leading franchises, a powerhouse team filled with stars and hall-of-fame talent that frequently found itself featured on U.S. national broadcasts.
Those young fans probably won’t believe you, just as it’s a challenge to convince 25-and-under hockey fans the Islanders were once the gold standard.
Or, to make this more local, that the Maple Leafs once won four Stanley Cups in a single decade.
There are many reasons for the troubles in Colorado, but clearly since Joe Sakic took over as hockey boss, the Denver-based club has been in sharp and steady decline. Few people in hockey like to write about Sakic’s role in all this, largely because he was one of the great players of his generation and a true gentleman, always quiet and dignified, a player who did his talking by putting pucks in the opposition net.
He’s a nice man, but facts are facts: Since Sakic arrived in 2013, the Avs have gone from 112 points to 90, to 82 and finally to last season’s disastrous 48-point total under a rookie coach, 21 points behind the NHL’s next worst team. The Avalanche then lost the draft lottery, as well.
If Sakic were running a Canadianbased team, he’d have been fired by now. But Denver is no longer a market that gets the attention it once did, and as a team icon, Sakic gets more runway than most would.
Like Edmonton before saviour Connor McDavid arrived, the Avalanche have lots of young talent, but most of it seems to be regressing. Nathan MacKinnon arrived at the same time Sakic did. It was expected MacKinnon would quickly become one of the league’s leading lights.
It hasn’t happened. Last year, MacKinnon had 16 goals — one fewer than Kevin Hayes, one more than Michael Ferland. Not exactly the company MacKinnon was supposed to be keeping.
But the Haligonian isn’t the Colorado player in the spotlight as NHL training camps open. No, that would be unhappy Matt Duchene, who arrived with just about the least inspirational choice of words one could imagine.
“I’m here to honour my contract,” he told reporters.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is a situation that has been fumbled by Sakic and the Avs, a classic case of an asset being carelessly devalued. Two years ago, Duchene could have been traded for either a similar high-end young player or several pieces. Last winter, most expected a blockbuster deal before the trade deadline, but it didn’t happen.
Today? Well, at $6 million (U.S.) a season for two more years, and coming off an 18-goal campaign in which most of Colorado’s “leaders” seemed to essentially throw in the towel at Christmas, Duchene is suddenly a 26-year-old of uncertain value.
That doesn’t mean he can’t bring Colorado good returns in a trade, or that he can’t flourish somewhere else. It’s similar in some ways to Toronto’s difficult situation with Phil Kessel when he was traded to Pittsburgh. Kessel was widely viewed as playing better with a better team and he has two rings, while the Leafs got cap room, a future asset in Kasperi Kapanen and, ultimately, a last-place finish that delivered Auston Matthews.
Both Taylor Hall and Ryan Johansen, meanwhile, were high draft picks for Edmonton and Columbus, respectively, who were failing to become the players those teams had hoped they would be.
Hall went to the Devils for Adam Larsson, while the Blue Jackets did even better by getting Seth Jones for Johansen.
So all is not necessarily lost yet for Colorado. But the Duchene situation is getting uglier, few deals get made in the fall anymore and Colorado no longer can make a surprise, pre-emptory move as happened with Hall and Johansen.
The challenge with Duchene is figuring out exactly what kind of player he is, or even what position. He’s a world-class skater with enough talent to play for Canada in best-on-best events, and has one 30-goal season on his resume.
But is he one of the league’s top 50 players? Not based on the numbers.
If you go back to the 2009 entry draft, the first two picks, John Tavares and Victor Hedman, are legitimate stars, as is the sixth pick, Arizona blueliner Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
Duchene, Evander Kane and Brayden Schenn went 3-4-5, and none are NHL all-stars.
The seventh pick was Nazem Kadri, and it’s an intriguing question whether the Leafs would give up Kadri to get Duchene. Probably not.
The belief that a talented player simply needs more ice time or better teammates to produce more often isn’t the case at all. Even Kessel, accorded accolades for being part of Pittsburgh’s championship teams, was a more prolific goalscorer in Toronto.
To say other teams are drooling at the prospect of getting their hands on Duchene, or establishing him as their prime threat up front, seems unlikely. More likely is that teams think they might be able to get a good player for less from a team in distress.
There’s likely no home-run result here for Sakic. He needs a solid trade, but with the Avalanche 25th in NHL attendance last year, even something like a Hall-for-Larsson deal might not suffice.
Colorado’s future now has more to do with Mikko Rantanen and Tyson Jost than Duchene. But as long as he’s in Colorado’s camp, he’s going to be the top story, and a negative one.
Sakic often played Rocky Mountain hero as a player. But how can he do the same as a general manager if no heroic outcome exists?
Damien Cox is the co-host of Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. He spent nearly 30 years covering a variety of sports for The Star. Follow him @DamoSpin. His column appears Tuesday and Saturday.