As players change, much remains the same

Will the Avalanche contend for the Cup in 2004? Sure. Is that a lock? Hardly.

Updated: August 12, 2003, 5:55 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

The Colorado Avalanche's first-round playoff collapse against the Minnesota Wild last spring was both surprising and embarrassing, and there was plenty of fallout.

2002-03 BY THE NUMBERS
Record: 42-19-13-8, 105 pts. (6th overall, 3rd West, 1st Northwest); Home: 21-9-8-3; Road: 21-10-5-5
Goals for/Avg:
251/3.06 (5th overall)
Goals against/Avg.:
194/2.37 (7th overall)
Differential:
Plus-57 (4th overall)
Power play:
18.7 percent (68-363, 6th overall)
Penalty kill:
82.5 percent (296-359, 21st overall)
20-goal scorers: Milan Hejduk (50), Peter Forsberg (29), Joe Sakic (26), Alex Tanguay (26)
50-point scorers: Forsberg (106), Hejduk (98), Tanguay (67), Sakic (58), Steve Reinprecht (51)(51
It just wasn't always predictable -- a trend that was apparent even before Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne effectively took out a "Situations Wanted" ad and mailed it to the Colorado front office.

After the Avalanche dropped three straight to the Wild and were ousted, general manager Pierre Lacroix treated suggestions that novice coach Tony Granato -- who took over 31 games into the season from the fired Bob Hartley -- could lose his job as if they were ludicrous. And Lacroix reaffirmed his faith in his young American-born coach.

So Granato will be back.

But a lot of others won't, starting with -- of course -- Patrick Roy. The veteran goaltender's intention to retire wasn't a state secret last season. But the consensus remained that after pondering, he would decide to return for one last run, taking him up to the likely lockout and the financial and competitive realignment of the league.

He stuck to the plan, though, and Lacroix at least so far has fought off the temptation to do anything it takes to acquire a proven veteran -- such as Sean Burke, Nikolai Khabibulin or even Jose Theodore -- to step into the Colorado crease.

With the Avalanche, it's always necessary to keep in mind that public posturing involves calculation, but Lacroix is steadfast that he has faith in both Roy's Swiss backup, David Aebischer, and young Phil Sauve, and that the two goalies nurtured by the organization deserve the first shot.

What's that mean? Most likely, that Colorado indeed will give the tandem a trial run through, say, Christmas, and then if neither seems capable of quality postseason play, Lacroix will survey the landscape at the time and make a serious run at one of the high-priced veterans who will be available -- even if it's only for rental.

Last season, the Avalanche uncharacteristically made a big deal of the regular season as something more than a staging ground, and that was because of Lacroix's desire to have the franchise take an unprecedented ninth straight division title. The underachievement through 31 games might have been shrugged off under other circumstances, but as Lacroix saw that dream slipping away, the record -- only two games over .500 -- was unacceptable.

Exit Hartley.

The Avalanche pulled it off, catching the Canucks on the final day of the regular season, when Peter Forsberg also clinched the scoring title and Milan Hejduk hit the 50-goal threshhold. The uphill run took its toll, and Colorado might have learned a lesson from the experience.

Looking ahead to next season
The offseason maneuvering leaves the Avalanche even more a two-line-and-spare-change team than a year ago. Granato will be flexible, of course, but it's virtually certain he will start out with Joe Sakic centering Selanne and Kariya -- the latter of whom will be playing for "bargain" salaries of $5.8 million and $1.2 million, respectively, under the terms of their one-year deals. And Forsberg will remain between Hejduk and Alex Tanguay.

Curiously, on the same day the signings of Selanne and Kariya were announced, the Avalanche unloaded Steve Reinprecht, who ended up with Calgary by the time the multisided transaction was finished. That underscored Lacroix's belief in layering the roster, for both financial and artistic reasons, because even if Reinprecht had slid to the third line, he would have given Colorado the sort of threat there that hasn't been present for several seasons.

So Colorado again will be going with a junkyard approach beyond the top two lines, most likely with washed-up Andre Nikolishin, Dan Hinote and Peter Worrell on the third line. That all doesn't portend for an improvement in penalty killing, which is bad news -- because even with Roy in the net, the PK unit was only 21st in the league, at 82.5 percent. Mike Keane, the veteran defensive specialist, was bought out, writing an end to what turned out to be a disastrous exchange -- Keane from the St. Louis Blues for Shjon Podein in February 2002.

Worrell, acquired from the Florida Panthers, replaces Scott Parker, dealt to San Jose, as the enforcer. That's significant mainly because the Avalanche hope Worrell will prove to be just good enough to take occasional shifts on one of the top two lines and, ahem, serve notice. Granato had lost faith in Parker's ability to ever grow into that role, and if Worrell also proves to be capable only of participating in enforcer vs. enforcer sideshows, then the trade was irrelevant.

The defense has even more of a two-tiered look than ever as well.

Adam Foote and Rob Blake remain elite, and Derek Morris largely was what the Avalanche thought he was -- a young standout with a tremendous upside -- when they gave up the popular Chris Drury to get him last fall. But after the Avalanche watched Greg de Vries and Bryant Marchment sign with the Rangers and Maple Leafs, respectively, the two young goaltenders could be justified in wondering about the defense in front of them. Martin Skoula again will be asked to step up, but he has plateaued and even regressed the last couple of seasons, and holdovers D.J. Smith and Chris McAllister aren't going to become stalwarts overnight. Karlis Skrastins, picked up from Nashville, is a competent journeyman, so the Avalanche are hoping he at least mitigates the loss of de Vries or Marchment.

And the kids in goal?

Aebischer has been intriguing in his three years as Roy's backup, sometimes posting great numbers in a limited role against second-tier teams. But his tendency to give up bad early goals would be disastrous if it continues as he tries to cement a spot as Roy's successor. Sauve, the son of former NHL goalie Bob Sauve, actually has been considered the better prospect in the organization for a couple of years. The Avalanche might try to shield him from too much pressure at first, but if Aebischer falters, Colorado won't be shy about letting Sauve have a shot at the No. 1 job.

Despite the situation in goal, this has all the appearances of a Last Run, and not only because of the looming end of the collective bargaining agreement and the likely lockout in 2004.

Kariya and Selanne signed on for one year, and both can become unrestricted free agents again next July. Forsberg was a virtual lock to return to the Avalanche this season, despite some speculation to the contrary, but his one-year deal also positions him to consider a return to MoDo during a lockout season -- and maybe even beyond.

Beyond that, there is the simple fact that Roy's retirement illustrated that faith in the "core" is praiseworthy, but also comes with a downside. Sakic is 34. Forsberg is only 30, but committed to a return to Sweden before he is washed up. Foote is 32 and Blake, the relative newcomer in the group, is 33.

Lacroix has shown an ability to regenerate talent in the organization, and make bold deals to adjust, and, despite the first-round collapse last spring, there are no signs that he has lost that touch.

So much is riding on the competence of the young goaltenders, Roy's successors, that any projection here is risky. But it probably also comes with the kicker that if they don't prove up to it, Lacroix will find someone -- whether high-profile or otherwise -- who is.

So Colorado indeed has a bona fide chance to win the Stanley Cup for the third time in nine seasons in Denver. But a lock? Not even close.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, Simon and Schuster's "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," is available nationwide.

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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