Commentary

Can Captain Joe save the day for the Avalanche?

A Democratic National Convention couldn't stop the quiet but mighty force known as Joe Sakic from returning to the Avalanche, writes Terry Frei.

Updated: August 27, 2008, 8:42 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

DENVER -- Colorado Avalanche officials have been kicked out of their Pepsi Center offices during the Democratic National Convention. In fact, some of those television talking-head segments, with a skyline background, have been taking place on balconies in the office area of the building.

So when player agent Don Baizley called Avalanche general manager Francois Giguere on Tuesday and said that Joe Sakic had decided to play another season, and that it was time to agree on a new contract, the reaction almost certainly involved a mixture of relief and gratitude -- and, yes, consternation.

Something akin to: That's great … but now?

After making the announcement Wednesday that Sakic had agreed to a one-year deal, and a $6 million salary that represents a $750,000 pay cut, the Avalanche also said team officials wouldn't comment beyond canned press release quotes until a team-staged Sakic news conference … next Tuesday. That might seem ridiculous on the surface, but as a resident of the Fortress Pepsi area of Denver, and as a fascinated observer of the chaotic conditions in the adjacent LoDo area and other parts of the area, I can attest that you kinda have to be here to understand what a mess it is. (Your turn next week, St. Paul.)

[+] EnlargeJoe Sakic
Michael Martin/Getty ImagesCan Joe Sakic do it all by himself?
As scheduled, Sakic will meet the media Thursday at his Joe Sakic Celebrity Classic charity golf tournament in Sedalia, Colo., and sponsors bravely will attempt to keep the discussion restricted to Sakic's work with the Food Bank of the Rockies and its children's programs. Although the focus on the DNC, and Barack Obama's looming acceptance speech at Invesco Field, will curtail the number of reporters at the Sakic availability, he still will have to do considerable dodging to avoid answering the inevitable hockey questions.

Sakic made the call Tuesday after sensing the mounting pressure and frustration among pockets of Avalanche fans, and after realizing that he was in danger of turning his indecision into a running joke.

Oh, and after concluding that, yes, at age 39, he still wants to play at least one more season.

His procrastination was the result of sincere angst. After a sports hernia limited him to 44 games last season, and limited his effectiveness for stretches both before and after his long absence from the lineup, he was pondering the possibility that if he did return, he faced the possibility of diminished … well, diminished everything. Production. Minutes. Prominence. It's unfair to say that scared him, but it certainly gave him pause for thought. Not for one second was it possible that this would become a Niedermayer-Selanne act. He was going to make up his mind before training camp. Even if that meant going through informal skating with his teammates as the final test, then deciding, he couldn't let this drag on much longer.

Some of his teammates began skating informally this week at the team's suburban practice rink, the Family Sports Center, and (don't tell anyone this) reporters were beginning to pass through to see whether Sakic had showed. He hadn't, or at least he wasn't spotted on the ice. But the pressures to get out with the boys were going to mount, too.

It also was fun to try to read between the lines of the limited offseason comments he did make, all of which emphasized that he hadn't made up his mind. To some, that sounded like a man resigned to quitting. To others, it came off as a man leaning toward returning, but wanting to avoid a reverse Favre about-face. Truth was, he was trying to make sure not only that he believed he was capable of playing at a level that would meet his own demands but also that he wanted to do it. Sakic is an off-ice conditioning fanatic, and even a slight diminishment in willingness to pay that price would have been a significant problem.

One other issue: For several years, we've been talking about how much sense it would make for Sakic to play through the 2009-10 season, including suiting up for the Canadian Olympic team in his hometown at midseason, then hanging up his skates. But he doesn't want to be a sympathy or emeritus choice. He doesn't want to be lured into lowering his own standards and sticking around one year too long only because of the Olympics.

Without Sakic, the Avalanche would have started to resemble a small-market NHL team, a prospect the spoiled fans of Denver would have abhorred. As it stands now, they probably will come in at about $52 million, or nearly $5 million under the cap. Peter Forsberg's availability remains in question, and Baizley emphasized again Wednesday that the Swede won't consider playing again unless his foot problems are cleared up. (Heard that before?)

The captain returns to an enigmatic team, partially because of its unsettled goaltending situation in the wake of Jose Theodore's departure. If Jeff Hackett, now known as the "goalie whisperer" in Denver after his work with Theodore, can coax a similar recovery from another former teammate, Andrew Raycroft, and Raycroft takes over the No. 1 job from Peter Budaj, that would help. One of the reasons for Joel Quenneville's departure as coach was that he wasn't as high on the organization's young, homegrown talent -- mainly forwards -- as was the front office, and Tony Granato got a second chance in part because he said what the execs wanted to hear.

Sakic and Paul Stastny will give the Avalanche that continued one-two punch at center, and Wojtek Wolski can remain on the wing. Marek Svatos, the Avalanche's leading goal-scorer when injured in March, has to prove he can stay on the ice. The defensive corps is a solid and complementary mix.

If Sakic hadn't played, and if the goaltending hadn't stepped up, this was a 25-win team waiting to happen.

Even with him, there still are plenty of question marks, because of the Avalanche themselves and because of some of the issues on other rosters in the division.

Colorado hopes the wait was worth it.

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

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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