The Colorado Avalanche’s recent history is one of poor decision making and missed opportunities.
The 2013 lockout shortened season kicked off with Avs fans optimistic. Their offseason acquisitions, including P.A. Parenteau, were about to take to the ice in Avalanche colors for the first time. Parenteau was an instant success in Colorado, putting up 43 points in the 48-game season and nearly matching his career high in goals in 33 fewer games. He elevated Matt Duchene, just as he’d been intended to, as Duchene had his most productive offensive campaign yet with 43 points in 47 games.
That, however, was where the good news ended. A contract holdout by Ryan O’Reilly meant the Avs were without one of their top players from the get-go. O’Reilly returned to the team in time to play 29 games and put up a respectable 20 points, but the situation was a mess from start to finish.
For starters, there was a bizarre rant by O’Reilly’s father in an email to the Denver Post. Then there was the offer sheet from the Calgary Flames, that truly exposed the incompetence of the Avs’ front office.
The Flames extended O’Reilly an offer sheet apparently unaware that he would have to clear waivers to return to the NHL. That move, had the Avs allowed it to happen, would have resulted in the Flames losing their first and third round picks, while also losing O’Reilly since a team lower in the standings could have scooped him up for nothing.
The fact that the Avs missed this is mind blowing. They were given a chance to pick up a first round pick and leave a major division rival (as the Flames were at the time)without the player they coveted.
That draft pick, by the way, would have ended up being the sixth overall pick. The Flames used it to select Sean Monahan, and while the Avs could have done the same, they also would’ve had an array of other solid forwards and dependable defenders in the deep 2013 draft to choose from, any one of whom could have accelerated the Avs’ rebuild.
Instead of making the Flames pay for their oversight, however, the Avs matched the offer sheet, sinking millions into a player they would be forced to trade in just two seasons.
The rest of the 2013 season was a write-off. Nobody outside of Duchene and Parenteau found any rhythm. Gabe Landeskog suffered a devastating injury that hobbled his entire sophomore season and the mood around the team was grim. After such an awful season, it was time for changes. Patrick Roy was brought in as the new head coach and, armed with the first overall pick, the Avs began their second rebuild in five years.
The 2013 Draft
To Colorado’s credit, the second rebuild got off to a promising start. Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall pick in 2013, was coming off a spectacular Memorial Cup in which he had willed the Halifax Mooseheads to victory.
There was some speculation prior to the Memorial Cup that the Avs might draft local boy Seth Jones first overall, and that speculation has fuelled debate to this day. MacKinnon’s incredible tournament put that speculation to bed.
As with many draft classes, the Avs’ 2013 class hasn’t yielded much so far other than McKinnon, though in fairness, we are only four years removed from it and both Spencer Martin and Chris Bigras have seen time in the NHL, albeit briefly. Bigras may even earn full-time duty this fall, as there are spots open on the Avs defense. And it’s hard for even a sourpuss like me to be too upset about the 2013 draft when it immediately preceded the best regular season the Avs had enjoyed in over a decade.
The 2013-14 Season
Remember this year, Avs fans? It seems so long ago, given what’s happened since, but optimism flowed like water through Avs fans during and after that magical year. MacKinnon won the Calder Trophy and earned it. Duchene played his way onto an Olympic gold-medal-winning team Canada. Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly and Gabe Landeskog all had big years.
Even a nitpicker like me doesn’t have too many bad things to say about this year. I maintain the Steve Downie trade was a poor choice, but beyond that, even the playoff loss to the Minnesota Wild had some silver linings. The Avs seemed headed nowhere but up.
One can’t help but wonder what might have been if Matt Cooke hadn’t laid a cheap shot on Tyson Barrie in that series, but that matchup was as close as close could get. With such a young team, the Avs should have been poised for big things.
The 2014 Offseason
The 2014 offseason was another mess. You may be tired of reading the words “wasted draft” but I’ll stop writing it when the Avs stop doing it. Only Anton Lindholm remains from the 2014 draft class. He played 12 games last season, and he may get more in 2017-18 with a competitive training. But the rest of the draft was an abysmal failure.
It seems wrong to say a draft was a disaster just three years later, but that was the nature of the Avs’ drafting that year, we knew almost right away that things hadn’t gone well.
Conner Bleackley was a reason for hope at first, as was Kyle Wood, but the Avs revealed within two years of that draft that neither would be signed by the organization. The rest of their picks were also left unsigned or are so far from the NHL they aren’t worth bothering about. Not coincidentally, this was director of scouting Rick Pracey’s last draft with the Avs organization.
Looking at the list of players the Avs passed on to take Bleackley is a bit painful, even though it’s still early in most of their careers. But they weren’t finished making odd and ultimately damaging moves that offseason. They felt they needed to upgrade their defense, and their answer was to trade for aging Brad Stuart. Stuart cost them a second round pick and a sixth rounder, both of which, to their credit, they later reclaimed.
Stuart was a dismal failure in Colorado, however, providing no stability whatsoever. It was only while researching this piece that I recalled Stuart had been signed to a contract extension before ever stepping foot on the ice in Denver. That didn’t go as planned. Only this season will the Avs finally be unburdened by the Stuart contract.
The Avs allowed Stastny to walk away in free agency, and the reaction to this is mixed. On one hand, his asking price and eventual contract were outrageous and he has yet to get close to living up to them. On the other hand, the team’s offensive regression in 2014-15 made it clear Stastny was a bigger part of the mixture than he’d been given credit for.
The addition of Jarome Iginla wasn’t a bad one and paid immediate dividends as he scored 29 goals his first year. While the money paid to him might’ve been better spent on Stastny, Iginla brought his trademark blend of skill and grit to Denver just as he was supposed to.
Then the Avs did something that still boggles the mind. Despite Parenteau’s impressive offensive output in 2013, the Avs decided that his one down year (in which he still registered 14 goals and 33 points in just 55 games) was reason enough to trade him. The return on that deal, which also sent a fifth round pick to Montreal, because of course it did, was Danny Briere. Between that, the Stuart trade and Iginla signing, the Avs seemed bent on having the best NHL team, in 2007.
Cripes, this is going to need to be a four-part series, isn’t it?
Briere’s time with the Avs was mercifully brief. Parenteau didn’t exactly set Montreal ablaze but he outperformed Briere, who had just 12 points in 57 games to no one’s surprise.
A year later, Briere retired from the NHL and Parenteau scored 20 goals for the Maple Leafs. But it was all worth it because the cap space saved on Parenteau’s deal (one year at $4 million) would be invaluable in re-signing young players like O’Reilly.
In the interests of fairness, I must point out the Avs have seemed to make some good decisions of late, particularly at the draft. Yes, the 2016-17 season was chaotic, but improved drafting and developing players will put the team on a good path again.
Some of their drafting has been tremendous. The 2017 draft, by early reports, was brilliantly done, and the 2015 class looks strong too. In Part 4 we’ll look at some of the choices that are already paying off. But not before we look at a controversial, heavily scrutinized yet arguably necessary, trade that ousted another promising young star from Denver.