Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Quarter Awards

The Colorado Avalanche have 21 games in the books.  Just about a quarter of the way through an 82-game season.  So far, it has been the tale of two teams; the team that got off to a red-hot start, winning 5 straight on the road and 6 out of their first 8 overall and the team that has struggled ever since.  Here is my analysis of the first quarter of the 2011-2012 season:

MVP: Matt Duchene - After another slow start in October with only 2 goals and 6 points, Dutchy has come alive in November, scoring 7 goals and taking over the team lead in scoring with 16 points.   Now skating with confidence, Duchene is the Avs' best player.

Biggest disappointment: Chuck Kobasew - The former 1st round pick signed a 2-year deal with the Avs to provide secondary scoring.  Through 20 games (he was a healthy scratch in Minnesota last week, against his former team), Kobasew has accumulated an underwhelming 4 points.  With Mueller out of the lineup, Kobasew was given a shot to be a top line winger.  He has not delivered and has recently seen himself on the 4th line, or in the press box.

Biggest key to success: Semyon Varlamov - Varly came out of the gate flying.  Racking up wins and very respectable numbers.  He has struggled of late and has watched Giguere in net the past 3 games from the bench.  Varlamov will get his chance to rebound though, and as he goes, the Avs will go.

Biggest reason for optimism: Gabriel Landeskog - The #2 overall pick has lived up to his billing.  While rookies are often gun shy, Landy leads the team in shots, hits, and is 5th in goals and points.  Look out ladies and gentlemen, this kid is the real deal. 

Most pleasant surprise:  Shane O'Brien - Over the summer, the Avs signed the journeyman, maligned defenseman to add size and grit to their blue line.  SOB has proven his worth as an asset on the ice and as a leader and teammate.

Change that needs to occur:  Coaching.  Often in professional sports, especially the NHL, coaches are the scapegoats, plain and simple.  However, after 2+ seasons, it is clear that Joe Sacco is not getting the most out of his young, talented team.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Gettin' Jiggy wit It

Gonna keep this one short.  Thought the Avs played their best, most complete game of the season tonight.  The offense produced enough to win, the defense was solid all game long, and Giguere was calm, cool, and collected as he earned his 1st shutout in an Avs sweater and 35th of his great career.  Jiggy didn't have to make the spectacular, highlight reel saves, which means that he played a very solid positional game.  He made the timely saves and the defense was good clearing loose pucks and traffic in front of him.  Glad TJ Galiardi picked up an assist.  I like the work he's done all season and I think that if he keeps it up, results will start to accumulate for him on the score sheet.  The cliche of "your best players have to be your best players" rang true as Paul Stastny, who was invisible last night, gave the Avs their insurance goal and Duchene skated well all night and clinched the game with an ENG at the end.

I like the new line of Duchene with Landeskog and Hejduk on the wings.  Tonight was the first game of the season in which the OWL line was separated and the new combos paid off.  Like I've said from preseason, Landy and Dutchy could be absolute magic together if they click!

For some reason, the team seems to play better in front of Jiggy.  Before the phrase "goaltending controversy" gets recklessly thrown around, I'm going to say this, there is none.  Varlamov is still the #1 netminder here in Colorado despite Giguere's two consecutive starts in which he's had a GAA of 0.50 and a shutout.  I am all for riding Giguere, the hot goalie during this stretch, but at the end of the day, Semyon Varlamov is the goalie that the Avs are banking on now and into the future and it is his team.  A very classy Giguere even said as much, “The future of this team belongs to Varly, there’s no doubt about that.” 

The Avs had a big win against the Islanders last week, only to follow it up with three disappointing losses.  They desperately need to build on the momentum as another very good Pacific Division team comes to town Sunday in the Sharks.


The Colorado Avalanche made several big acquisitions last summer including goalies Semyon Varlamov, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and defenseman Jan Hejda.  Perhaps the most underrated of the Avs' offseason acquisitions has been the signing of defenseman Shane O'Brien.  Last year, it seemed as if Joe Sacco and Greg Sherman fell in love with undersized, puck-moving defensemen as 3 of their top 6 defensemen were John-Michael Liles, Kyle Cumiskey, and Matt Hunwick.  One look at the Avs' defensive statistics from last year and it is clear that this model did not work.  Liles and Cumiskey are now gone and Hunwick has been a healthy scratch in every game this season except one.  Ryan O'Byrne, Erik Johnson, Jan Hejda, and O'Brien were the answers to making the Avs defense bigger and more physical.  Of course, the gold standard for physical, mean defensemen in an Avalanche uniform is former captain, Adam Foote, who retired after last year.  While this year's defense is certainly more physical that last year's, O'Brien may be the one player who has the mean streak of Adam Foote in him.  While O'Brien earned a reputation for taking bad penalties earlier in his career, he has not hurt the Avs by being in the box, despite being 2nd on the team in PIM.  The Avs are O'Brien's 5th NHL team and he also earned a reputation in Vancouver as being a partier and was even suspended by coach Alain Vigneault for showing up late to team meetings.  To my knowledge, there has been nothing negative about O'Brien's attitude or behavior here in Colorado and if anything has occurred, it has been completely keep out of the public eye.  If anything, he seems to be an exemplary player.

On the ice, O'Brien leads the team with a plus-2 on the season to date and has registered 6 assists.  He's shown a bit of offensive flare, making creative moves to gain the offensive zone and has been solid in his own end.  He also seems very much like a team guy.  When Gabriel Landeskog took an illegal elbow from Andy Sutton, which ended up costing Sutton 5 games, O'Brien was the guy right there to fight Sutton and defend the Avs' prized rookie.  He has also stepped up as a vocal leader on the club, rallying the troops when down by 3 against the Islanders, in an eventual 4-3 comeback overtime victory.

Like many current Avs players, O'Brien has also made himself more available to fans and the community via Twitter (@ShaneOBrien55).  He retweeted a post of mine earlier today to help spread the word for the Avs Do What You Can canned food drive tonight at Pepsi Center and also fielded a question of mine as well as several others in the latest installment of the Avs Mailbag:

What do you think about the great state of Colorado? And how have you been spending your time aside from playing hockey?Joey, Westminster, CO
It’s been great. Denver’s a pretty laid back city and there are a lot of good people here. It’s sunny everyday here and it’s nice to wake up every morning with the mountains in the background. It’s a great place to live.

I do a lot of relaxing. It’s such a long season. It’s a grind. So anytime you get some time off to relax and save up some energy, you need to take advantage of that opportunity. I’ve been out in the city a little bit and have gotten to meet some people. It’s a fun city.

While Shane O'Brien has a ways to go before we can dub him the next Adam Foote, he has been good in his first 19 games in an Avalanche uniform and has helped the defensive corps to improve.  Hopefully, this is a good sign for things to come for both SOB and the Avs D.

For the full Mailbag, visit:

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.

Monday, November 14, 2011

This Is Your Captain


On November 14th, 2011, the Colorado Avalanche named Milan Hejduk the third captain in team history and 10th if you count Nordiques captains.  Hejduk becomes the first European player to don the "C" in an Avs sweater and the first since Peter Stastny counting Quebec captains.  He is also the first right wing to be named captain.

Hejduk was drafted in the 4th round, 87th overall by the Quebec Nordiques in the 1994 NHL Draft.  He is currently in his 13th NHL season, all with the Avs and is also the Avs most senior player at the age of 35.  He had a very good rookie year in 1998-99 scoring 48 points and earning a nomination for the Calder Trophy, which was ultimately won by Avalanche teammate, Chris Drury.  Hejduk was an integral part of the 2001 Stanley Cup win, recording 23 points in as many games.  Hejduk is also the last remaining member on the Avs of the 2001 Stanley Cup winning team and only the 2nd current Avs player to have won a Cup along with J-S Giguere.  Statistically, his best regular season came in 2002-03, when he scored 50 goals, 98 points and won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league's top goal-scorer and the Bud Light Plus/Minus Award along with Peter Forsberg.  Hejduk has been a model of consistency, scoring at least 20 goals in every season since 1999-00.  Hejduk has also been a 3-time NHL All-Star, and Olympic Gold Medalist in 1998 with the Czech Republic, and a Bronze Medalist in the 2006 Olympics and 1998 World Championships.

Hejduk was previously a permanent alternate captain since 2008-09 and will bring a quiet, lead-by-example style to the captaincy, much like long-time captain, Joe Sakic.  More vocal, "rah rah" leaders would have been guys like previous captain Adam Foote and Erik Johnson.  Milan Hejduk is the right choice.  On a team full of young talent (Stats, Edge, Dutchy, Factor, and Landy) Hejduk has and will continue to provide veteran leadership and experience.  His resume speaks for itself and he has played alongside the great leaders like Sakic, Foote, Roy, Forsberg, Bourque, and Blake.  What Hejy learned from playing with those guys is invaluable and he is the right guy to impart his knowledge to the young Avs at this time.  The question that remains is who will wear the 2nd alternate captain's "A."  Paul Stastny will almost certainly continue to wear the "A" and my guess is that it will continue to rotate as it has all season thus far.  Erik Johnson, Cody McLeod, and Jay McClement have alternated, in that order, all season long, with the exception of Saturday's game vs. Calgary, in which McClement was a healthy scratch for the second consecutive game.  If you would have asked me a week ago, I would have said Erik Johnson would be a slam dunk for the 2nd permanent alternate captain position, but now, I'm not so sure.  EJ did wear the "A" for the 2nd straight game on Saturday, but his play and ice time might indicate a trip to Sacco's doghouse.  Edge was a minus-2 (minus-9 on the season) and only recorded 17:40 TOI.  Kyle Quincey, conversely logged 25:15 and was out there at the very end during the Avs' 6-4, while EJ was on the bench.  Prior to the season starting, many people were calling for EJ to be the next captain, including Adrian Dater.  Edge has been maligned for his play thus far with his aforementioned minus-9, some costly turnovers, and the fact that he has yet to score a goal this season.  However, Johnson does have a team-high 8 power play assists (which don't help his +/-) and still has the best point shot since Rob Blake.  Now, has Johnson been the second coming of Blake that some, including Joe Sakic have predicted?  No, not to this point, but let's not throw this kid under the bus just yet.  Keep in mind, Johnson is still only 23-years-old.  They say it takes defensemen 4-5 years to fully develop their NHL game and EJ is only in his 4th NHL season.  Being a former #1 overall pick, Johnson has had tremendous expectations placed on his shoulders his entire career, and even since his trade to Colorado, he has been billed as the "anchor" on the Avs blue line.  Sure, the minus-9 is not good and he does need to work on cutting down the turnovers (Varly and Jiggy would appreciate that, I'm sure), but give Edge time and he can be the staple on the Avs' blue line.  Another silver lining for EJ is that Chris Stewart, the other big name in the trade, only has 2 goals, 3 assists, and minus-3 so far this season.

The next question will of course be who will succeed Milan Hejduk as captain.  At 35, Hejduk certainly will not have the captaincy tenure that Joe Sakic did.  Much like Adam Foote, Hejduk will enjoy wearing the "C" now until he retires.  Again, I expect the usual suspects to emerge when that time comes.  Stastny, Johnson, Duchene, and O'Reilly.  For the "veterans" Stastny and Johnson, their play and number will determine how much of a shot they have at the "C" when the time comes.  While they are certainly staples of the Avs forward corps and defense respectively, they have both come under criticism for their play.  If they step up though, they could be serious contenders for the captaincy.  Duchene and O'Reilly have yet to even wear an "A" in their NHL careers.  Duchene is the most talented and flashy scorer on the Avs roster and arguably the face of the franchise even today.  O'Reilly, a known rink-rat and workhorse, has shown veteran leadership and is often described as "wise beyond his years" at only the age of 20.  Both of these guys could emerge as contenders, depending on their maturity both on and off the ice.  Another candidate could very realistically be Gabriel LandeskogLandy's racked up 8 points, is a plus-2, and while rookies are often gun shy, Landeskog is 6th in the entire NHL in shots with 61 and is tied with Ryan O'Byrne for the team lead in hits with 42.  Gun shy, young Landeskog is not.  Landeskog was also the first European-born player to be named the captain of his junior team, the Kitchener Rangers, so he has the leadership abilities as well.  Do not be surprised to see the "C" on #92's sweater when Hejduk hangs them up.  But, I'm getting ahead of myself a big.  We are entering the era of a well-deserving, Captain Milan Hejduk.  May the Duke enjoy much success during his time with the "C"!

"I'm honored to be named Avalanche captain," Hejduk, 35, said in a statement. "From my rookie season here in Colorado, I have always felt a great sense of pride wearing this sweater and being a part of this organization. I am looking forward to this added responsibility."

Read more: Avalanche names Milan Hejduk captain - The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/avalanche/ci_19332464#ixzz1di3DVgYl
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Friday, November 4, 2011

Every Day I'm Shuffling

Coach Joe Sacco has once again shuffled the Avs' top lines in hopes to restore some offense into the lineup.  In their 5 losses, the Avs have averaged exactly 1 goal a game.  The first month of the season has seen an Avalanche team with solid goaltending and a much improved defensive corps, but whose offense has been inconsistent.  Surprisingly, the Avs are 2nd in the NHL in the power play.

Tonight's lineup will see Matt Duchene moved to left wing with Paul Stastny at center and Milan Hejduk at right wing.  There is certainly plenty of talent and skill on this line as all three players have been NHL All-Stars.  Both Duchene and Stastny have been much maligned early this season due to their output of 6 and 7 points respectively and a combined 4 goals between them through 11 games.  Can and should Dutchy and Stats be better?  Absolutely.  There are always the cliches that "your best players have to be your best players" and all that, but I do feel that these two do not deserve as much blame as has been put upon them.  Sure, Stastny and Duchene are not yet Sakic and Forsberg, Crosby and Malkin, or Toews and Kane, but I do feel that they are both top NHL center icemen and they are both capable of leading an NHL team's offense.  However, with inconsistent an unreliable wing men on their lines, defenses have been able to focus on Duchene and Stastny without worrying about too much of a threat from wingers like Chuck Kobasew and Joakim Lindstrom.  With that said, there will be no excuse from the new, stacked line of 9, 26, and 23.

Defenses will certainly have to respect the talent of the aforementioned line and those players' still certainly should be able to overcome teams' top defenses.  This could also benefit the OWL line (O'Reilly, Winnik, and Landeskog), the line that has unquestionably been the Avs most consistent.  With teams' top defenses forced to respect the "Dish Line" (DSH), this could open up more opportunities for this already productive line.  The third line tonight will be Lindstrom-Galiardi-Jones.  I like this line as well.  I'm glad to see Galiardi out of the doghouse (for now) and getting a chance to be a top-line guy and even a chance to play at his natural position of center.  He has speed, grit, and scoring capabilities.  Hopefully he can put these talents together and get some results on the scoresheet!  Jones can certainly be a scoring winger and Lindstrom may not get the point production he did last year in Sweden, but he can still be an effective NHL winger.  This line has potential as well.

Tonight, the Avs are sure to face a tough test in the Dallas Stars.  Dallas has been red-hot to start the season.  They are 8-3 overall and hold a 5-1 record on home ice.  The Avs will look to improve upon their impressive 6-1 road record tonight as well.  After tonight however, the Avs play 11 of their next 14 games at home including an 8-game homestand at the end of November into December.  One thing is for sure, the Avs MUST improve at home.  1-4 at home is not good and if the Avs do not get better on home ice, their impressive 5-0 road trip last month, will be meaningless.  Hopefully, the Avs will continue their road success tonight and going forward and become a team that wins at home also!