Commentary

Will upcoming road trip define the up-and-down Avs? It just might

Updated: November 12, 2008, 12:40 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

The new coach, Tony Granato, is the old coach. The goalie, Peter Budaj, has yet to prove he can handle a sustained run as a No. 1, and the organization is at least sniffing around to see who might be available in a trade. The captain, Joe Sakic, procrastinated longer than Hamlet before deciding to play again and now is out with a strained back. And the first month of the season has been a roller-coaster ride that has included a pair of five-game streaks -- one winning and one losing.

That, and more, has at least made the Colorado Avalanche intriguing so far in 2008-09.

[+] EnlargeMilan Hejduk
Michael Martin/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe good news for the Avs: Milan Hejduk, who has eight goals and five assists in 14 games.

Even in the wake of Colorado's 1-0 victory over Nashville on Saturday, only St. Louis has fewer points (11) in the Western Conference than the Avalanche (12). As Colorado heads into a three-game Western Canada swing that begins Wednesday night at Vancouver, it's understandable to react to it all with a squint and a question: Is this team any good ... or not?

That's a question that can be asked in a lot of places before Thanksgiving, of course, but Colorado has been as proficient at sending mixed messages as anyone in the league so far.

"We have to find ways to be more consistent," Granato said after Tuesday's practice in Denver. "The effort we had against Nashville was a complete effort away from the puck. If you play solid away from the puck for 60 minutes and you're energetic, you always have a chance to win. It's when you're standing around ... to see how the game's going to be played, and then you wake up after 10 minutes, that's when you dig a hole and probably not get out of it."

"Obviously, if we knew why we were so inconsistent, we would stop the bleeding," said Ryan Smyth, who hasn't yet lived up to the expectations that go with his five-year, $31.25 million contract signed before last season. "We've been pretty streaky for the most part. I know this trip coming up is big because it's all divisional, but as far as why we've been so streaky, no, I can't put my finger on it. When we play a full 60 minutes, we're a tough team to beat. We have to believe in ourselves in here."

Veteran winger Milan Hejduk, who already has eight goals, shook his head.

"It's hard to believe we can go five in a row, then lose five in a row," he said. "I don't think we've ever done that in the 10 years I've been here. I know we have a younger team than we used to, so maybe that's part of it."

Paul Stastny, the third-year center and franchise cornerstone, said, "I think we know what we're capable of doing. We have to put a whole 60 minutes in, whether we win 1-0 or 5-4."

Yes, a lot of it has to do with Budaj's inconsistent goaltending. This is almost hard to do: He played well enough in one three-game stretch to be the NHL's second star for the week of Oct. 20-26, and he is coming off that shutout ... but his 3.10 goals-against average and .885 saves percentage still are red flags. (In his defense, Jose Theodore and Marty Turco, among others, have been worse.)

Budaj came into the season with a decent 61-36-16 record in his three seasons in the league, and he had a terrific run down the stretch in 2006-07, when the Avalanche -- long written off -- closed with a rush and almost made the playoffs. Even his work for Slovakia in the 2008 Olympics raised some hopes. But given several chances to secure the No. 1 job during the organization's period of dissatisfaction with Theodore, he couldn't do it.

When Theodore turned down Colorado's offer and signed with the Capitals in July, the Avalanche quickly proclaimed Budaj the No. 1 and tried to give the impression that anyone who raised eyebrows over that was out of line. But he was getting his chance -- a chance he had been dreaming of, in a way, since he was 4 years old in Banska Bystrica, then in Czechoslovakia, watching on television as the Soviet Union faced Canada in the 1987 Canada Cup.

Peter told his father, Jozef, an anesthesiologist: "I want to be a goalie, and I want to play in Canada."

Jozef didn't point out that his son not only hadn't played goal, he hadn't played hockey at all. Not yet. But years later, after honing his game in major junior with St. Michael's in Toronto, he signed with the Colorado organization in 2002. Following three seasons with Hershey, he joined the Avalanche after the lockout and since has been trying to dispel the widely held view that he's fine -- but only as a backup.

He was awful in the first week, when the Avalanche reeled off three straight losses and were trying to live up to Granato's promise that Colorado would get back to up-tempo hockey during his second tenure as coach. The defense was shaky, most notably in failing to get clearable rebounds out of harm's way, but it all seemed to raise doubts that Budaj could be the requisite save-your-bacon goalie if Colorado remained committed to raising the entertainment quotient -- and winning with it.

"Sometimes you're not playing well, sometimes the bounces go the other way," Budaj said. "You just have to stay the course."

Actually, it has evened out. Budaj let his teammates down early, but then they let him down, perhaps even subconsciously, allowing their suspicions about their own goalie to be rationalizations for horrible play in their own end. (As in: Wasn't our fault ... )

Budaj wasn't great on some nights when his teammates were worse, making it ridiculous to keep scapegoating him. Plus, the team around him looked more as if it was of suspect construction -- with an overabundance of blue-collar grit, including newcomer Darcy Tucker, trying to play a game it wasn't talented enough, far enough down the roster, to play.

Colorado, with about $5 million of cap room, will continue to at least ponder options -- whether it's Chicago's Nikolai Khabibulin, Montreal's Jaroslav Halak or anyone else -- while keeping an eye on Budaj's resilience under the pressure.

The six-man defensive corps -- Scott Hannan, Adam Foote, John-Michael Liles, Brett Clark, Jordan Leopold and Ruslan Salei -- seemed to be one of the strengths of the roster going into the season, but it has struggled and been surprisingly passive in front of Budaj and Andrew Raycroft. "It's been like our team in general -- inconsistent," said Granato. "I like our group a lot, and I think they've been better the last couple of games."

Up front, Hejduk has been the bright spot, looking more like the Maurice Richard Trophy winner he was five years ago than the low-profile player -- albeit as a solid two-way winger -- he has been since.

Smyth is still trying to erase the memories of an injury-marred first season with Colorado, and he has four goals.

"I feel healthy, which is a big step from last year," he said. "I'm starting to get some chances. It's a nice feeling to get them, but you have to make sure you bury them, especially at critical parts of the games. I sure feel confident compared to last year, though."

Sakic sat out a game last week with his strained back, played only one period against Nashville over the weekend and remained in Denver to take additional treatment when the team left for Vancouver. Granato said the team isn't concerned that this could be a long-range problem for the 39-year-old center.

In most ways, the torch was already passed to Stastny, whose father once was Sakic's teammate. If Sakic comes to rue his decision to return for a 20th NHL season, there will be even more pressure on Stastny to take over a leadership role -- even while he patiently awaits word on whether the Avalanche will be able to sign him to a long-term extension in keeping with the post-lockout trend to lock up a franchise's young cornerstones.

"That's not in my mind at all," he said, while conceding that he does get wind of deals signed by his contemporaries, including the Los Angeles Kings' Anze Kopitar. "You always hear about those things around the locker room, but there are different situations and different teams. I'm just worried about what's happening now."

The pressure is on for a lot of reasons, but the ownership's bottom line is one of them. After being an automatic sellout for over a decade, the Avalanche -- with one of the highest average ticket prices in the NHL -- no longer are hot at the box office in the crowded Colorado sports market. Owner Stan Kroenke isn't thrilled that his NBA team, the Nuggets, couldn't win a playoff game last season despite being far over the luxury-tax threshold, and that's one reason the Avalanche's available cap space in some Pepsi Center quarters is considered more of a prudent adjustment than an opportunity to upgrade the roster.

Missing the playoffs would be a disaster.

Already, the Avalanche have considerable ground to make up.

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