Commentary

Goals are easy, but wins hard to come by (regularly) for Avs

Updated: December 7, 2007, 11:43 AM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

DENVER -- With more expected of them, the Colorado Avalanche have meandered through the first two months of the regular season, raising more questions than they have answered.

After finishing 2006-07 with a 15-2-2 run that just missed securing the franchise's 11th playoff berth in 11 seasons in Denver, and with Joe Sakic still going strong in his late 30s, the Avalanche's July signings of unrestricted free agents Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan were billed as part of the return to elite status in the Western Conference.

[+] EnlargeJose Theodore
Scott Rovak/US PresswireGoalie Jose Theodore has shown signs of strong play, but not enough to take back sole possession of the No. 1 job in Colorado.

However, they haven't gotten there, despite a 6-0-0 start on home ice and second-year center Paul Stastny's torrid break out of the gate. They have been awful on the road and held the Northwest Division only briefly. In the parity -- or collective mediocrity -- that is the West, they haven't even been able to stay among the top eight.

Some days, they're in a playoff spot. Some days, they're out of it, period.

And while this is unfolding, Colorado's sellout streak at home, which began in late 1995 and ended early last season, is receding in the rearview mirror.

"I think we're a ways away from finding out how good we are," Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville said this week. "I don't think we've had any consistency at the top of our game to clarify that identity and find out how good we can be. We've had some stretches where we've been good and sporadic games where we've been at our best. It's still a motivation to be able to capture that at a consistent level."

Some of the Avalanche's problems, but not all of them, can be laid at the crease of goalies Jose Theodore and Peter Budaj, who have been so-so at best and often worse.

Theodore has shown flashes of competence in this, his make-or-break "contract" year at the end of his three-year deal. But even when given consecutive starts, as he was Saturday at Los Angeles and Monday at Denver against the Sharks, he hasn't played well enough to snag the No. 1 job again, and he has given up the sort of soft goals that make teammates wince and make excuses and that can be a drain on a team's drive.

Budaj hasn't been nearly as good as he was down the stretch last season and, like Theodore, can't crack the .900 save-percentage figure.

"Our goaltending's been fine," Quenneville said. "It was outstanding earlier on, and through this stretch, it's been fine, it hasn't been a problem. In our league, when you get great goaltending, a lot of nights it can really help."

Translation: The man who perhaps was mentally scarred for life by playing in front of Colorado Rockies goalie Hardy Astrom hasn't been getting the kind of goaltending that can steal games, as has been the case for so many other teams in the West. No Roberto Luongo here.

Colorado's tandem has been good enough in stretches to make you think they now are competent backup types, incapable of doing more, which wouldn't be such a damning indictment if Theodore weren't making $6 million this season.

And their defense … well, the defense in front of them has been shaky.

Hannan's plus-minus is among the worst in the league, and while that can be misleading for stretches, over the long run, it is at least a fair element to toss in, and we're getting to the long-run territory now. Only the guys looking in the mirrors know whether the big contracts -- the ones they positioned themselves for and dreamed of -- diminished their fire, and sometimes there can be self-delusion involved.

But this much is obvious: Hannan isn't playing much of a physical game, and that's what he was brought to Colorado to provide. He was expected to be a lot like Adam Foote, with skills more suited for the post-lockout period than Foote. Instead, he has been more like Patrice Brisebois.

[+] EnlargeScott Hannan
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesScott Hannan signed a four-year, $18-million deal with the Avalanche this past summer.

Defenseman John-Michael Liles has been playing as if he has lost all confidence, even when the former Michigan State Spartan is on the power play. It hasn't helped that Jordan Leopold, who might be back in the lineup by Christmas after recovering from wrist surgery, hasn't been able to get in the lineup and stay there.

The quirky thing is that while the Avalanche haven't seemed to be the offensive juggernaut they seemed capable of being, and individuals such as Sakic and Smyth have been either streaky or non-productive, Colorado still is among the highest-scoring teams in the league.

Maybe that's ominous for the rest of the West.

If these guys ever get it going ...

"You'd love to score every night," said Smyth, who has eight goals and nine assists in 27 games for Colorado and recently went through a seven-game stretch without a goal. "That's the goal-scorer's mentality. But the game now is a little different, a little more conservative, and there haven't been as many goals. With those things, you have to make sure that when you get your chances, you bury them."

Sakic recently went through a four-week, 11-game stretch without a goal before missing the past three games with a groin injury. With Sakic out, Quenneville left Smyth on a line with Stastny in the middle and former Maurice Richard Trophy winner Milan Hejduk on the other wing.

"The adjustment period, as far as playing with different personnel, has been there," said Smyth, the former longtime Oiler. "You go from playing with a line for a couple, three years, and you have to adjust to the players who are here. We're starting to create a little more offense down low, cycling the puck and going to the net. That's still my style and what I have to bring to the table.

"But I'm trying to play the same no matter who I'm with. I don't want them to adapt the game to mine. I want to try and fit in and be an asset to whoever I'm with, whether Joe or Paul. Things have been going pretty well with Paul and [Hejduk] lately, and hopefully, we can develop that chemistry."

Stastny has served as a pure setup man for Smyth at times, but he noted that "a lot of times, Ryan is down low or working it behind the net, and it opens other options, too."

"I think Ryan has found a nice spot on that line," Quenneville said. "They complement one another well. We've had him with several guys and in different situations. … He adds that intangible of recklessness around the net, and we want to encourage that more."

Sakic's early season struggles have raised the question of whether, at 38 and with a mind-set of accepting only one-year contracts and judging himself harshly each season, he is slowing down.

Is Quenneville concerned about his captain's play?

"No, I'm worried about his health," Quenneville said. "I want to get him back. We know that he brings so much to our team. I think it's too short of a span to speculate on that. I've seen Joe have stretches where his production hasn't been at the rate he'd like, but at the same time, he does contribute in so many other ways.

"I still believe he's so competitive, he'll find a way to get his game at the top."

For now, the Avalanche are an underachieving outfit.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "77."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."