Commentary

Avalanche now paying a price

Updated: April 1, 2009, 11:58 AM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Colorado AvalancheJeff Vinnick/NHLI/Getty ImagesWill coach Tony Granato be part of a potential upheaval in Colorado? Time will tell.

How far have they fallen?

The Colorado Avalanche are last in the Western Conference.

They had lost seven in a row going into Wednesday's game in Denver against Phoenix. They're in a chase of the Islanders for the league's overall basement that has the most wacko of conspiracy theorists musing that it's such a "tank" job, the Pepsi Center Zambonis might as well be painted to resemble World War II-era Shermans.

But the truth is, the combination of injuries and the effects of management failures in the past few seasons have led to the Avalanche having a lineup on most nights during the stretch run that simply is in over its head.

The Avalanche's key postseason event won't be on the ice, but in the April 14 draft lottery, when the weighted whims of chance will determine if they could end up with the rights to one of the two most coveted prospects -- Canadian forward John Tavares or Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman.

The Pepsi Center, not so long ago officially sold out for 487 consecutive games, has thousands of empty seats every NHL game night, and Colorado is 24th in attendance. With ticket prices among the highest in the league and the outlook not bright, it could be worse next season. The weird thing is, in some ways, there's more interest in this train wreck than there would be in a mediocre team, especially in the wake of heightened hockey knowledge in the area since the team's 1995 arrival. Yet that's the kind of gawking-at-an-accident interest that doesn't translate into box-office receipts.

Stan Kroenke, who owns the arena and the teams that play in it along with soccer's Colorado Rapids, this week nailed down a $60.3 million purchase of additional shares in the Arsenal soccer team of the English Premier League. That raised eyebrows (and some ire) in Colorado in the wake of Kroenke Sports Enterprises' layoff of at least 27 employees at its Denver headquarters. But while attending the NFL meetings recently, in his role as part-owner of the St. Louis Rams, Kroenke at least publicly acknowledged the Avalanche face a "rebuilding" project.

Captain Joe Sakic is continuing to skate in the early stages of practice before departing when contact work begins, and, while he isn't talking, the only way to make sense of that is he wants to at least make an appearance in the final three-game homestand before hanging up his skates.

It's a mess, and it likely will at the very least lead to a front-office reshuffling, with team president Pierre Lacroix, in semi-retirement the past three seasons, stepping back in and reassuming hands-on control from general manager Francois Giguere. If he doesn't stay behind the bench, Tony Granato would have a job of some sort in the organization. If that shuffling doesn't happen, the next possibility on the list is a conventional and complete housecleaning.

"Hey, we've dealt with some things that nobody wants to deal with during the season," said Granato, who is in the first season of his second tenure as coach with the franchise. "You also understand that it's part of the risk going into it, that you might have to face situations like this … At the start of the year, there was the excitement of Joe's return, and of building it as a year of maybe being Joe's last year. That was a tremendous way to come through training camp and the start of the season. With him going down first with the injury bug, or a long-term injury, kind of knocked us off course a bit.

"We did a lot of good things to hang around there with some significant injuries to deal with, and now that they've all come towards the end, it's been tough to deal with. But that's part of being a coach, part of being in an organization, part of realizing how you handle it and how you move forward to get back on track as quick as you can."

This season, the Avalanche's only consistent players of merit have been Ryan Smyth and Milan Hejduk, who each have 26 goals.

"This has been unacceptable," Smyth said. "There's disbelief. It's frustrating. There are so many words that describe how things have gone all year. Whatever reason there is for it, the one thing you can control is your work ethic and your willingness to compete. You've got to put the excuses aside and find ways to win. We've found ways to lose."

Said Hejduk: "This is a brand-new experience, definitely. And not a good one. It's very frustrating, something we're not used to here since the organization moved to Denver."

Sakic has played only 15 games, Paul Stastny 45. Even when he's been in the lineup, Stastny's so-so play in his third season has raised doubts about the magnitude of the Avalanche's commitment to him, in the form of a five-year, $33 million extension that kicks in next season.

Smyth Whatever reason there is for it, the one thing you can control is your work ethic and your willingness to compete. You've got to put the excuses aside and find ways to win. We've found ways to lose.

-- Avs forward Ryan Smyth on reasons behind the team's disappointing season

Especially when Sakic and Stastny have been out, Colorado has the look of a team with a good top line and three fourth lines. Darcy Tucker's signing after he was bought out of Toronto has been a disaster for much of the season, though he showed some flashes in the past month. Tyler Arnason continues to be one of the league's coasting enigmas, displaying just enough in periodic stretches to show there's considerable untapped talent there, if he ever puts his mind to it.

But other than that, these failures aren't so much because of a lack of effort or even underachievement; how can you quibble with a lunch-pail guy, Cody McLeod, having 15 goals? It's simply that this is a badly constructed team, paying the price for, among other things:

• Mortgaging the future for acquisitions during the elite seasons.

• Years of bad drafts in the early 2000s.

• Mismanaging the transition years in the salary-cap era.

• Most recently, overvaluing blue-collar grit in tweaking the roster in the past offseason, while delivering the contradictory message that the Avs were going to be bringing "up-tempo" hockey back to Denver.

• Disappointing overall play from a defensive corps that includes Scott Hannan, who hasn't lived up to the expectations raised by his four-year, $18 million deal; and Adam Foote, for whom the Avalanche gave up a first-round pick to Columbus. (The Blue Jackets parlayed it into R.J. Umberger.)

• And yes, bad goaltending from Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft, whose save percentages as of Tuesday were 37th and 43rd, respectively, among the 45 goalies on track to play at least 27 games this season.

"Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get it done the way I wanted, and I'm pretty sure not the way they wanted," Budaj said. "Every goalie has a tough year that he has to battle through, but that's a learning experience. That's something that's going to make you stronger as a goalie and as a person in the next few years. You've been through situations like this. This is the first year for me I would call a very mediocre or sub-mediocre year compared to my past years. It's something that comes along and you have to pick it up and run with it."

The major issue becomes whether a recovery is possible … and how soon. If this gets much worse, we could run a pool on the first time there is ridiculous speculation that Jim Balsillie will send a text message to Kroenke on a BlackBerry, offering to take the team off his hands and move it to Hamilton, Ontario.

The first step would be bringing in an elite goalie, if possible. If Budaj is re-signed -- and as bizarre as that sounds, it's possible, because he was making only $800,000 this season -- it will be as a backup.

From there, it will take some frank assessment of the situation, rather than denial, an affliction that has plagued the organization in recent seasons. Minnesota forward Ryan Stoa, who was taken six slots ahead of Stastny in 2005, signed last week but decided to finish the semester of college and gear up for training camp next fall. It will help considerably if he can contribute right away. Colorado also holds the rights to three Boston University players headed for the Frozen Four -- 2007 top pick Kevin Shattenkirk and Colby Cohen, both defensemen; and winger Brandon Yip -- and the Quebec Remparts' high-scoring center, Kelsey Tessier.

"Of course we can turn it around," Hejduk said. "You've seen that in the past with different organizations. For example, Philly was horrible one year, and then good. These days, it's not as difficult as it used to be, probably because teams are changing so much with the cap."

The draft lottery will have an effect on the timetable, but most likely, the road back will be long.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His books include "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "The Witch's Season." He can be reached at terry@terryfrei.com.

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."