As they charge into a bright future, the Colorado Avalanche are looking to their past for direction. With the appointment of Joe Sakic as executive VP of hockey operations and Patrick Roy as head coach, the Avs have chosen their two greatest former players to help mold a promising group of young stars into champions.
Sakic was wearing the captain’s “C” when the Avalanche last hoisted the Cup in 2001, and Roy was accepting his third Conn Smythe Trophy as postseason MVP. The two hall of famers are now blessed with some truly exceptional talent in the form of Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, and we’re about to find out if the two old-timers are as gifted in suits as they were in their sweaters.
Roy is used to working with teenagers, having cut his teeth behind the bench with the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts. Roy’s jump from the Quebec league back to Colorado, mirrors the move being made by his new franchise center piece.
First overall pick Nathan MacKinnon is expected to leap straight from the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads to the big time in the mile high city. Hailing from the same Nova Scotia home town as Sidney Crosby, MacKinnon is mantled with mammoth expectations.
Whether or not he can handle the pressure will likely determine the future of the Avs. The kid can do it all offensively, and he has the chops to be a superstar. However, the presence of crest-fallen former top pick Erik Johnson in the Colorado locker room will provide a much needed reminder that greatness doesn’t come easily.
If MacKinnon starts slowly, fans could blame him for not being Nashville’s Seth Jones. Raised in Denver, Jones would have been an attractive alternative on draft day as a potential franchise defenseman. Sakic’s confidence in MacKinnon will now need to be justified on the ice.
Luckily for the Avalanche, MacKinnon isn’t the only one dripping with potential in their top six. Twenty-year old Gabriel Landeskog was named the youngest captain in NHL history after snatching rookie of the year honors in 2012. Sporting Sakic’s old “C”, Landeskog must bounce back from an injury plagued sophomore season.
The Swede nabbed only 17 points in 36 games in 2013, and he’ll have to do better to become the Avs’ true leader this season. Until the 2012 second overall pick proves that his 52 point rookie season was no fluke, Matt Duchene will be top dog in Denver.
Duchene set a great example with a bounce back year of his own in 2013, nearly doubling his point per game average from the previous season from .48 to .91.
Ryan O’Reilly also provided a bright spot in an otherwise bleak season, after ending a lengthy contract dispute. O’Reilly posted 20 points in 29 games, suggesting that he is set for a strong season. P.A. Parenteau also made a quality contribution after signing with the team last summer. He finished tied with Duchene for the team points lead with 43.
Beyond those three players, little went right for the Avalanche. Finishing near the bottom of the league in both offense and defense, the Avalanche have more problems than MacKinnon’s arrival can fix.
Semyon Varlamov endured a tough first season in Denver, and it remains unclear whether or not he can be a franchise netminder. His .903 save-percentage was mediocre at best, but part of the blame must fall squarely on the defense in front of him. With Tyson Barrie and Matt Hunwick logging top-pairing minutes the Avs are unlikely to succeed.
Cory Sarich was acquired from Calgary via trade along with former Colorado Cup-winner Alex Tanguay, but the 35-year-old defenseman is no quick fix. Patrick Roy played behind the likes of Adam Foote, Rob Blake and Ray Bourque. He can’t expect Varlamov to rack up wins without talent in front of him.
At season’s end the Avs will finally be free of Paul Stastny‘s $33 million five-year deal, and if the 27-year-old can somehow return to form, he could be trade bait. A trade could net valuable prospects or draft picks to help build up the defense, but with the contract off the books regardless of a trade, the Avs will definitely be players in free agency next summer.
Things won’t get better quickly in the Rockies, but with a little luck Colorado could snag another future star at next year’s draft. The new Central Division is the shallowest in hockey, which could help the Avalanche climb out of the NHL’s basement. However, it might just be in their interest to stay in the race for potential 2014 top pick Aaron Ekblad, who looks like a future defensive cornerstone for one lucky team.
With a little luck, the Avalanche could follow in the footsteps of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Edmonton Oilers by stringing together top picks to form a star-studded young core.