By Stu Hackel
Now that the Peter Forsberg mini-series has run its inevitable course, the calls for Avalanche coach Joe Sacco’s head are becoming louder, especially after Colorado’s 9-1 massacre at the hands of the Flames on Monday, the same day Forsberg called it a career. It was a bad day indeed for the Avs.
This is the same Joe Sacco who last spring was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year. Those Avs were a healthy, young, spirited team that got very good goaltending. Now they are a banged-up, demoralized group with leaky goalies. And somehow that will all be rectified if GM Greg Sherman installs someone — anyone — else in Sacco’s job? It’s not that simple.
The Avalanche were many people’s favorite under-the-radar story last season. Colorado’s roster was filled with exciting youngsters — Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, Chris Stewart, Peter Mueller, T.J. Galiardi, Ryan O’Reilly, Brandon Yip, Kyle Quincey, Kyle Cumiskey – who battled their way into the playoffs a year after the team’s worst season since it moved from Quebec in 1995. The Avs were a team of poster boys for the new, fast NHL.
But now they are in free fall, losers of a franchise record eight straight, and 10 of 11, while plummeting to 14th in the Western Conference. A month ago, they were in the thick of the thickest playoff race in memory (and the West is still tight with only 10 points separating third-place Phoenix and 13th-place St. Louis). Two months ago, the Avs led the Northwest Division.
Like any coach faced with a downward spiral situation, Sacco is trying all sorts of things to get his team back on track, and some of those things seem rather questionable, as our SI.com colleague Adrian Dater pointed out while blogging for The Denver Post. Scratching O’Reilly, a dynamo at center, on Friday against Columbus and slumping forward Chris Stewart on Saturday against Nashville – John-Michael Liles also sat for a period against the Predators – are puzzlers, although the term “coach’s decision” usually means the guy making the call has his reasons, whatever they are. Whether they are panic-button moves or well-considered motivational ploys doesn’t matter, however, if they don’t work and Sacco recognizes he’s responsible for making them.
But there’s a bigger picture here with the Avs’ collapse which, as Dater points out, began even before their unexpected rise to the top of the division in December. In late November, Stewart broke his hand in this fight against the Wild’s Kyle Brodziak (a fight Dater calls “foolish’)…
…and was out for seven weeks. Prior to that, Stewart, their leading goal scorer last season, had 25 points in 23 games. That loss alone didn’t destroy the season. Sherman had already pulled off a couple of trades to fortify the defense corps, getting Ryan O’Byrne from Montreal and Matt Hunwick from Boston, then bringing in Tomas Fleischmann from Washington to help fill the offensive void left by Stewart. Fleischmann developed great chemistry with the still-teenaged Duchene (he turned 20 last month) and the Avs flourished.
But this turned out to be something of a mirage. There were disturbing trends, especially in goal where Craig Anderson, who spent much of the early going battling injuries, couldn’t duplicate his heroics of last season and Peter Budaj was not particularly sharp, either. The defense, which was good with the puck, wasn’t very good without it. The Avalanche have surrendered more goals, 195, than any team in the league, and are also awful killing penalties, currently ranked 27th in the league at 77.9 percent. Defense and the PK certainly reflect a team’s coaching, but the related question that could be asked is whether this group has enough of the right personnel to play good, responsible team defense.
Another telltale sign is that Colorado has surrendered more first period goals than any team in the league. The Avs have led after one period in only 11 games this season. So one could question Sacco’s ability to prepare his team.
But hold on: As with lots of NHL teams, injuries piled up early here, to important players besides Stewart. Mueller hasn’t played all season. He’s out with a concussion. Adam Foote suffered one in late October and missed eight games. Cumiskey had one in late October and was out until mid-January. Quincey was concussed in November, and returned after eight games, then injured his shoulder in December and was lost for the season. Galiardi, whose season has also been a nightmare, missed 17 games after he broke his wrist in November while being checked by the Flames’ Jarome Iginla on this play:
After he returned in December, Galiardi fell out of favor with Sacco and was sent to the AHL in January. But after Fleischmann was declared out for the season with pulmonary emboli, Galiardi returned after one AHL game, only to reinjure his wrist a week ago. In the same game, Cumiskey suffered another concussion. O’Reilly went down in mid-January with a shoulder injury and missed seven games. Foote has had two leg injuries and is currently sidelined. And now, Duchene, their leading scorer, is injured, perhaps with a broken hand.
Dater, who has been around the Avs more than anyone, blogged that he felt the team was “a little too uptight,” and wondered if Sacco’s “drill-sergeant, tough-love ways have created that kind of atmosphere.” But Dater acknowledged that he didn’t sense the players disliked Sacco or had tuned him out. They seemed “a bit confused, a bit scared to do anything wrong, a team that is walking on proverbial eggshells around anyone with the Avalanche who wears a suit.”
Dater added, “I alluded to this earlier in the season, about sensing a team that somehow didn’t quite have that kind of indefinable but you-know-it-when-it’s-there chemistry. And I’m not saying that it’s a BAD chemistry in the Avs’ room. I’m just saying that all year long it’s seemed to me that this Avs team just wasn’t always on the same page somehow, probably exacerbated by too many injuries and too many guys shuttling in and out of Lake Erie all the time.”
The coach has to deal with all those changes, too. Of course, that’s his job and it’s not an enviable one. The cliché is that Sacco, who everyone loved last year, didn’t forget how to coach in a few months. But job security in the NHL can be day-to-day when a team is playing the way the Avalanche are now.
Still, if Sacco goes, who could Sherman put in his place to turn things around? There aren’t too many Jacques Lemaires out there. The fan blogger UZ on Mile High Hockey wrote on Tuesday, “Switching to an interim guy won’t be the sudden burst of inspiration and skill needed to get this squad into the playoffs and to the Cup finals any more than adding Peter Forsberg was,” UZ writes.
One thing a coaching change won’t provide is healthy players.