I had the pleasure of moving to Colorado in February of 2002. The Avalanche had won the Stanley Cup the previous year which was their second Cup win in just 6 seasons in the Mile High City. Denver, which had historically been a football town, was slowly becoming a major hockey city. The playoffs had been an annual occurrence in Colorado. The fans had been blessed with a solid organization.
Last season the Avalanche missed the post-season for the first time since moving to Denver in 1995. Expectations were fairly high heading into this year. In analyzing the 2008-2009 Colorado Avalanche there is one word that describes this campaign: Injury. The leading scorer from a year ago and the Avalanche captain have both missed significant playing time. Surprisingly, with 22 games remaining the Avs sit just 7 points out of the 8 seed in the playoff picture. A lot of positives should be taken from what looks to be a second straight playoffless season in Denver.
Captain Joe Sakic has played in just 15 games this season. Sakic has been the heart and soul of this franchise dating back to his rookie season (for the Quebec Nordiques) in 88-89. Joe had surgery for his aching back and is expected to return to the lineup some time in March. His leadership skills and energy are tough to replace. Paul Stastny stepped up his game when Sakic went down. Stastny was on a tear scoring 31 points through 34 games. It looked like the Avs had accepted the 23 year old as their new leader and were determined to show the NHL they could survive without Captain Joe. Stastny broke his arm on 12/23 against Phoenix. It was a devastating blow to a team that had already lost it’s Captain. Stastny should return to the Pepsi Center soon. He has been practicing with the team and should return to the lineup any day.
On the plus side, thirty-three year old winger Ryan Smyth has done all he can to keep the Avalanche in contention. Smyth’s play in 08-09 has been beyond expectations. The 13 year veteran forward netted his 20th goal on Friday night in a 4-1 win against the Washington Capitals. He leads the Avs with 49 points and has been skating with a passion that’s been missing since he left Edmonton midway through the 06-07 campaign. Smyth is on pace for the second highest scoring season of his illustrious career. He’s been a pleasure to watch all year.
Milan Hejduk’s game has improved as of late. In the past 10 games, Hejduk has paced the Avs with 3 goals and 5 assists. Milan won’t approach his usual point totals this season but 30 goals is realistic in a year in which he’s skating without Joe Sakic. Hejduk is currently second behind Smyth on the Colorado scoring list.
John-Michael Liles has been another bright spot on this somewhat forgotten season. Liles nearly left Colorado this off season after posting just 26 points last year. He’s already recorded 21 points in 2008-2009 and his seven goals have exceeded the 6 he scored all of last year. He’s quietly developing as a leader for the young Avalanche defensemen.
In conclusion, the 2008-2009 season hasn’t met expectations from the fans and media but all is not lost. Many key components have picked up their game and are on pace for above average seasons. It’s difficult to have a major injury and the Colorado Avalanche have dealt with serious injuries to arguably their top two players. With all things considered, you have to count this year as a success. The Avalanche may not make the playoffs but the foundation is in place and the future looks bright in Denver.