Now that we’re slightly removed from the conclusion of the Colorado Avalanche’s disappointing 2015 season, it’s still proving difficult for fans to picture the team taking the fast lane to future contention. If we were being honest with ourselves, we would admit that last year’s division championship feels more like a mirage than this year’s last-place division finish. But instead loyal fans seem to think that this team is just one off-season away from contention—without making quality changes within the organization.
Last season, the Avalanche thrived on scoring comeback goals. In 2014-15, the team’s offense stalled like a teenager learning to drive a stick shift. They scored one less goal every two games this year than last—a problem for an offensive-minded team. Instead of their young core leading the way, Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon all trailed 37-year-old Jarome Iginla in goals this season.
But the squad’s problems aren’t limited to a down year in scoring. The Avalanche lack organizational depth behind their top players, they exhibit poor puck possession, and have offered longterm contracts to players who aren’t contributing consistently. Strong goaltending from Semyon Varlamov has masked these weaknesses, but lapses on the ice led to losses this year.
Even if the front office, led by former players Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic, can fix these problems, the Avalanche must find consistent motivation. Disheartened fans watched the team go through moments where they appeared to lack drive on the ice. Roy, who is also the team’s head coach, can only do so much to get his players to hustle. His Stanley Cup-winning Avalanche teams of 1996 and 2001 played the same way in October that they did in April—with heart every night—an objective this season’s team failed to meet. The Avalanche also needs to create a sense of urgency from the bottom half of the roster. MacKinnon and Duchene will struggle to find space and use their skills when opposing teams know to focus on them and ignore the other half of the team.
Fortunately, motivation is not an issue for the Avalanche’s top players. Especially late in the season, it was clear that Landeskog and O’Reilly were laying everything out on the ice. Re-signing O’Reilly must be a priority for the team, even if it means overpaying him. His abilities both offensively and defensively simply can’t be filled by anyone else on the current roster.
Anyone satisfied with the Avalanche’s mediocre season is delusional about the state of the team. Blaming the lost season on a poor October or injuries ignores the cracks in the foundation that ultimately caused the franchise to crumble. Until motivated players are a given, even a healthy team can’t dominate an opponent or improve its puck possession and defense.
A healthy offseason could start the team down a road of year-to-year competitiveness in the NHL, which will ultimately lead to the thrills of NHL playoff hockey. With the Avalanche making the playoffs only twice since 2008, we could all use the adrenaline rush. But first, they must create a solid foundation.