Avalanche have hit rock bottom

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At home in Prince Edward Island, Canada, he's known as Lyle Richardson. But around these parts, he's known as Spector, FOXSports.com's Prince of Pucks. Check in with Spector's NHL Blog on Yardbarker.com for NHL rumors and analysis.

Since their move to Denver from Quebec City in 1995, the Colorado Avalanche have given their fans plenty of memories, but this season will be one they'd prefer to forget. From 1995 to 2004 the Avalanche were among the NHL's elite, winning the Stanley Cup twice, advancing to the Western Conference Finals six times and winning eight division crowns. Over the past four seasons however, the Avalanche have fallen on hard times. Currently they sit dead last in the Western Conference and are about to miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. The decline has been reflected at the gate. Having set the NHL record for the most consecutive home arena sellouts with 487 from 1995 to 2006, the Avalanche's attendance has tumbled from 11th overall in 2006 to 25th in 2009.
Injuries have played a big factor in the decline, as in recent years many of their best players have been sidelined for significant periods, but the real problem has been a lack of roster depth which once made the Avalanche one of the NHL's best teams. During their glory years the Avalanche roster contained some of the league's top talent, such as high-scoring forwards Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Milan Hejduk, top defensemen Rob Blake and Adam Foote and Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy. Then-GM Pierre Lacroix proved to be one of the league's shrewdest front-office types, particularly at the art of the trade, using draft picks, prospects and young players to land quality veteran talent which kept the Avalanche a perennial Cup contender. Lacroix's most significant trades brought Roy, Blake and Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque to Colorado, all of whom played significant roles in their 2001 Stanley Cup championship. But Lacroix's magic touch seemed to desert him following the NHL lockout. He was unable to find a suitable replacement for Roy following his retirement in 2003 and the imposition of the salary cap led to the loss of Forsberg and Foote to free agency in 2005 and Blake in 2006. His acquisition of goalie Jose Theodore from Montreal in March 2006 was heavily criticized by the local press and following the season he stepped aside as general manager, handing the reins over to assistant Francois Giguere. Questions however have been raised by the local media over Giguere's management, particularly his paying out expensive contracts to free agents like Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan and in bringing back an aging Foote. That hampered Giguere's attempts to upgrade the club's goaltending, forcing him to consider cheaper options like Andrew Raycroft and sticking with the struggling Peter Budaj. Some local pundits have called for an overhaul of the club, starting with Giguere, while team owner Stan Kroenke recently admitted to the Denver Post that rebuilding will be in order for his team this summer, although he wouldn't divulge his plans. It remains to be seen if Giguere will remain at his post or if he'll be replaced. Head coach Tony Granato has expressed his desire to return next season but he might also lose his job. The Post recently reported the Avalanche currently have over $44 million committed to 13 players for next season, and with the salary cap expected to remain close to the current $56.7 million that won't leave much room to rebuild via free agency. The priority for Giguere — or his replacement — will be to find a quality starting goaltender. There are several goaltenders in this summer's free-agent market — New Jersey's Scott Clemmensen, Detroit's Ty Conklin, Philadelphia's Martin Biron and San Jose's Brian Boucher — who could be affordable options. If free agency fails to address the need the Avalanche could consider using forward Marek Svatos —, a 32-goal scorer in 2005-06 — as trade bait, but his inconsistency might not attract much of a return. The defense corps could use additional depth. Hannan and Foote were once notable for playing a physical defensive game at a high level, but in recent seasons their skills appear to be fading. John-Michael Liles is a good puck-moving blueliner but isn't particularly renowned for his defensive skills. Up front the Avalanche can build around two excellent young forwards in Paul Statsny and Wojtek Wolski, but there are concerns over Statsny's injury history. He missed 16 games last season to a groin injury and 26 games this season to a broken arm. Management also has to decide on re-signing long time captain Sakic for another season. Back problems have sidelined him for lengthy periods over the past two seasons, leading to speculation he could retire at season's end. Veteran winger Hejduk's current contract expires at the end of next season and he's suggested he'd be willing to return for a few more seasons with the Avalanche, but it remains to be seen if he fits into their long-term plans. Critics suggest the Avs should consider freeing up valuable cap space by shopping a couple of their expensive veterans, but that's easier said than done. Hejduk and Foote have no-trade clauses while Smyth and Hannan have no-movement clauses, making them almost impossible to move. One silver lining to finishing so low in this season's standings is it'll improve the Avalanche's chances of winning the draft lottery, which would give them the rights to the first or second overall pick in June and the chance to select highly touted forward prospects John Tavares or Victor Hedman. It's uncertain what moves the Avalanche will make this summer to rebuild their roster but whatever move they make it'll take some time, a couple of seasons at least, to rebuild back into a playoff contender. It'll likely take much longer to return to the heights of their glory days.
Tagged: Red Wings, Flyers, Avalanche, Sharks, Capitals, Martin Biron, Ryan Smyth, Jose Theodore, Brian Boucher, Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Adam Foote, Milan Hejduk, Scott Hannan, Peter Forsberg, Ty Conklin, Andrew Raycroft, John-Michael Liles, Marek Svatos, Scott Clemmensen, Peter Budaj, Wojtek Wolski

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