Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On The Hot Seat?

Since the Avs' late season collapse last season, which earned them 29th place in the final standings, fans in Avalanche nation have been calling for #firesacco on Twitter, message boards, and other media platforms.  My thought at the time, was that it was a bit premature to "sack Sacco."  Let's not forget that in his rookie year as an NHL coach, the Colorado Avalanche, who were picked by many to be a lottery team, surprised fans and experts alike and earned a berth into the Stanley Cup playoffs.  They gave the highly favored Sharks a run for their money before being eliminated in 6.  With that season, Joe Sacco also earned himself a nomination for the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year.  Sacco is currently in the final year of his 3-year contract.  He's had one good year, one bad year, and this year.  If the Avs do not make the playoffs, Sacco is almost certain not to return next year.  The million dollar question now is if the Avs continue to struggle, do you let him finish out the season or relieve him of his duties now to try to salvage the season and bring in a fresh face behind the bench?

In seems that in the NHL more so than other sports, coaches are on an extremely short leash, especially during the season itself.  Davis Payne of St. Louis has already been the first head coaching casualty this season.  Often times, it seems that coaches are a convenient scapegoat for underperforming or struggling teams.  It's a lot easier to replace one head coach than it is to replace 23 players.  Do coaching changes, especially the ones midseason work?  Sometimes.  Look at Dan Bylsma of the Pittsburgh Penguins.  He was brought in as head coach in February 2009 to replace Michel Therrien, whose team had been struggling and was in danger of missing the playoffs.  Not only did Bylsma turn the team around and got them into the playoffs, they won the Stanley Cup that same season.  Conversely, right here in Denver, long-time head coach Mike Shanahan was fired after the 2008 season and his replacement, Josh McDaniels, despite getting off to a promising start, turned out to be a complete disaster for the organization.

Coming into this season, I was fully prepared to let Sacco ride out this season as his make-or-break year.  Thing were looking good early on after the Avs' fantastic 5-game road trip, but things have gone south since then.  Instead of translating their road success over to home ice, it seems like the Avs have brought their home struggles to the road as well.  The once 6-0 road team has now gone 0-3-1 in their last 4 road games and still only has a 2-6-0 record at home.  Has Coach Sacco "lost" the team?  You could certainly make the argument that he has, especially after last night's meltdown in the Steel City.  Ironically, Sacco always preaches playing a full 60 minutes, but I have seen very few games this season that would qualify.  The 1-0 shutout in Boston, the 7-1 stomping in Ottawa, and the first home win vs. the Kings are probably the Avs' only "complete" games this season.  The last 3 have been anything but.  Against the Islanders and Flames, the Avs gave them the first 2 periods and then tried to fight back in the 3rd.  It worked against New York, but not Calgary.  Last night, the Avs "started the game on time" and had a great 1st period.  Unfortunately, a couple bad calls and a couple bad breaks gave the Penguins all they needed to completely take over and dominate the Avs in the 3rd.

The Avs are a young and talented team and need a coach who can get the most out of them.  It seems that all too often, the Avs fall into the cliches of a young, inexperienced team like the proverbial roller coaster ride, being "scared" of tough, veteran teams like Detroit, and not having guys step up during crunch time.  Having a veteran leader as captain like Milan Hejduk will help, but ultimately, this is the coach's responsibility.  If Sacco could truly get his team to "start the game on time," and also "play a full 60 minutes," every game, the Avs would be well over .500 instead of below it for the first time since opening night.  The Avs also need a full-time goalie coach.  Badly.  Semyon Varlamov started out the season on fire, but the Avs' mistakes in front of him have caught up and his play has declined as well.  Earlier, it seemed the Avs were losing games, especially the home ones, 3-1, 2-1, etc.  Now, Varly is struggling to make that one timely save that gets the team back into the game.  It's as if he's lost a bit of faith in the team in front of him and has subsequently lost his confidence as well. 

The Avs play tomorrow in Minnesota and then have an 8-game homestand.  No question, Sacco's job will depend on how the team does during this stretch.  Obviously, the 2-6-0 record does not look good going into this homestand and if Coach Joe Sacco does not find a way for his team to win games at home, he could find himself in the unemployment line very soon.


  1. I agree with a lot of your points, but the biggest reason Sacco has to go is because of the line shuffling. Some guys take 5-10 games to build chemistry, but Sacco only allows for one bad period before he starts shaking things up. I know for a fact that the Calgary loss would have been a lot different if he had kept the defensive pairs together, because the miscommunication and missed assignments that come from unfamiliarity caused at least 2 goals. Duchene has no idea who he's skating with each shift. The only line that's been good this year (Landy/Factor/Winnik) is the one line that's stayed together. Sacco has to stop messing with the lines, and he has to let the team get some chemistry. Everything fell apart last year when Stewart got injured and the lines never went back to being the same again.

  2. Jack, I agree that Sacco's handling of the lines, especially the forward lines has been poor this year. You can even go back to his poor handling of goaltender Craig Anderson last year that ultimately let to his bitter departure, but let's stick with this year. The Avs were clearly banking on a healthy and effective Peter Mueller, which obviously has not happened to this point. This has thrown everything in to turmoil. Duchene has been playing very well on left wing with Stastny and Hejduk, but Sacco seems to resist this too in order to have "balance" amongst his lines. The OWL line started off red hot, but has cooled down of late, which begs the question, is it time to break them up and move Landy to Stats' or Dutchy's LW? Probably not if you keep Dutchy, Stats, and Hejy together, but why not put another scorer like David Jones with Factor and Landy? Then you could have a true 3rd line of Winnik, Galiardi, and Brandon Yip, who is scheduled to return soon. Another thing has been Sacco's Doghouse, which would actually make a great weekly show on Altitude cohosted by Bernie! Why do some guys like Dutchy and Gali seem to have very short leashes "he can be better," while guys like McClement, Kobasew, and Lindstrom had free reign to be completely ineffective before finally being moved down to the 4th line or scratched. I've addressed the lack of depth at wing before, but some of Sacco's answers have certainly been puzzling.

  3. Joey,
    I just found you on twitter and have read some of your writings on your blog. I have to say your a very talented sports writer and amazingly perceptive. I look forward to reading more. Keep up the good work.


  4. Thank you very much Richard! Glad you're enjoying my writings!!