Three years ago, the Colorado Avalanche seemed on the verge of a breakthrough.
The once-great franchise of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg had suffered three straight years of mediocrity before the bottom finally fell out in 2012-13. They won the draft lottery and picked Nathan MacKinnon. Sakic became the leader in the front office and hired Patrick Roy to coach the rebuilding franchise.
“He will bring that winning attitude to our dressing room to help this young team grow,” Sakic said.
Roy quit the team on Thursday, citing disparity between his vision for the team and the vision of the rest of the front office.
It’s hard to imagine even Sakic understood how quickly Roy’s famously aggressive personality would steer the Avalanche in a new direction. After all, Roy did do this to Bruce Boudreau in his first game.
Roy’s Avalanche took huge strides that year, winning the Central Division with 112 points. It was a breakout year for each of Colorado’s young core players. Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O’Reilly all had career-highs in points and MacKinnon ran away with the Calder Trophy. A first-round exit in the playoffs was disappointing, but on the surface it sure seemed like Colorado had turned the corner.
Three years later, it feels like they haven’t stopped spinning their wheels.
Colorado hasn’t made the playoffs since his first year as head coach, when they made that run despite terrible possession metrics. Over the last season, the Avalanche have made moves on and off the ice to address their analytics problem. Perhaps that’s the crux of the issue between Roy and Sakic, who pointed out after his coach’s departure that Roy’s power over personnel decisions had changed.
Patrick was consulted on everything. As I was getting comfortable in my role, I relied on him more and now as we built up our staff, with a staff we all really trust, especially in season, it allowed Patrick to keep his focus more on coaching.
Maybe Roy wanted to keep dragging the Avalanche in his own direction. Colorado’s front office wanted another direction. No wonder the Avs have gone nowhere in three years. The franchise feels stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war.
Roy’s departure doesn’t necessarily guarantee forward momentum. Even if Roy had remained behind the bench, the front office has done little to shake up a roster mired in stagnation. Duchene, Landeskog and MacKinnon have all failed to reach the highs of 2013-14. The prospect pool is littered with draft picks yet to make impacts at the pro level.
Hardline negotiations with young talent sent Ryan O’Reilly packing and almost cost the Avs Tyson Barrie this summer. Players traded away or lost in free agency (O’Reilly, Paul Stastny, Kevin Shattenkirk) have thrived away from Denver while those acquired (Mikkel Boedker, Brandon Gormley, Daniel Briere) have looked like wasted assets.
In the meantime, division rivals in Dallas, Nashville and Minnesota have all passed the Avalanche by. And where exactly are the Avs going? Backwards? Anywhere?
I don’t know. Do you? Do the Avalanche? Please let them know if you find out.
Sure, Roy’s departure is likely a good thing for the franchise. His insistence that analytics is a waste of time even as his possession-starved Avalanche drowned in a sea of regression was frustrating. Last year, in the face of his team giving up the third-most shot attempts in the league, he said he cared more about his team’s high scoring chances.
For what it’s worth, Sakic told reporters on Friday that Roy was accepting of the new, analytics-driven direction of the team. I’m skeptical.
Roy was an old-school thinker in a league consistently embracing new-school ways of thinking in regards to shot differentials, driving possession and the success that comes with both. By all accounts, his front office in Colorado has already taken steps towards joining that revolution.
So Roy’s departure was necessary.
But keep in mind that was not the decision of the front office. If Roy hadn’t bolted, the Avalanche would still be trying to push their square analytics peg into the round hole that is Roy’s coaching style.
If Roy’s quotes to The Denver Post are any indication, he certainly felt the Avalanche weren’t moving forward.
In an interview with The Denver Post on April 7, shortly before the Avalanche met the Dallas Stars in the next-to-last game of the 2015-16 season, Roy made it clear he believed aggressive moves were necessary in the offseason. He noted the Avalanche’s lack of success in landing talent in recent drafts beyond the first round.
“It’s the reason why I have a job,” Roy said of those draft problems. “But right now it’s also the reason why we have to go for free agency. July 1 is a tough day for any teams. It’s a market for the players, and we realize it’s hard to build your team on July 1.”
After two years of mediocrity, Colorado spent the summer rewarding a stagnant core of young players with big contracts, driving their best defenseman to the edge of escape and making no significant additions in free agency. That left changing the voice and direction behind the bench as the best remaining viable move to make this season different than the last two.
Sakic didn’t make that move. Roy made it for him. And it sure seems like he made it because he lost patience with the “stay the course” mentality of the front office this summer. That the (arguably) biggest roadblock to Colorado’s future success was the one unhappy with inaction is not exactly encouraging.
After treading water for the last two years, Colorado is now a listless ship without a rudder a month out from training camp. Right now it’s hard to say whether Roy abandoning ship is a good thing or an indication the franchise won’t start sailing again anytime soon.