As this Colorado Avalanche season begins to look like another failure, perhaps future hope can be found in the fortunes of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Colorado Avalanche recently saw their season inch further down the tubes with a crippling injury to Erik Johnson. This, along with the mysterious injury of Gabriel Landeskog, may have sealed the deal on this season.
However, while it may be hard to find hope in the short term, perhaps it’s time to look to the long term. One vestige of hope can be found in an unlikely place: Mike Babcock, coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
When Babcock signed a lucrative contract with the Maple Leafs in May of 2015, he was considered one of the best coaches in the National Hockey League, having won the President’s Trophy twice, made the Stanley Cup finals twice, and won the Cup once with Detroit.
But despite being hailed as a savoir on his arrival to Toronto, Babcock made sure to keep expectations in check.
“There’s pain coming”.
In Babcock’s first season as head coach, the Maple Leafs finished in last place overall. If that’s not pain, I don’t know what is.
This year, however, the Maple Leafs are battling for a playoff spot, have a strong and deep young core of talent, and are being run by people absolutely committed to their success. They aren’t in a position to win the division, but the progress is notable.
In a lot of ways, the Avs have seen a similar path as the Maple Leafs, and that’s at least where I find my hope.
Phase One: A Team Dies
While the Toronto Maple Leafs certainly haven’t been “dynastic” since the 1960’s, the team was a rather consistent playoff presence from the 1970’s up until the 2004-05 lockout.
After losing significant talent and not having a farm system designed to absorb the blow, the Maple Leafs proceeded to miss the playoffs for the next seven seasons. In the case of the Maple Leafs, the lockout signified the death of their team as they knew it: a constant contender.
The death of the Avs is a little more debatable. Some could say it was around the time Joe Sakic retired. You could also say it occurred after the 2004-05 lockout. It’s also possible to say that the Avs died with Patrick Roy’s retirement back in 2003.
I believe, however, that the death of the Avalanche began with Chris Drury being traded in 2002, before Roy’s final season on the team. Drury was an extremely talented young forward who absolutely knew how to come through in clutch situations. I even had him pegged as the next captain of the team.
Drury’s trade, and Pierre Lacroix’s subsequent neglect of the farm system, left the team desperately clutching to relevancy following the lockout. Coaches were fired, big trades were orchestrated, but the team simply didn’t have the foundation in place to build a Cup contender while staying under the salary cap.
I would say people finally came to terms with the team’s death a good decade after it actually happened, when Joe Sacco was fired as head coach of the Avs.
Phase two: The Failed Rebuild
For Toronto, they recognized the need to rebuild pretty quickly, almost immediately after the lockout. After missing the playoffs for the first time since the 1998-99 season, head coach Pat Quinn was fired, Tie Domi was not re-signed, and legendary goaltender Ed Belfour had the option for his final year passed over.
After cycling General Managers and coaches for a few years, Toronto finally saw some meaningful change in the 2009 offseason. This saw them draft Nazem Kadri in the first round, and acquire big-names Phil Kessel (now a Stanely Cup Champion) and Dion Phaneuf. The Leafs also acquired current Av, Joe Colborne.
A few years later, the Leafs would finally return to the playoffs, only to lose to the eventual- champs, the Boston Bruins. However, as many analysts predicted, Toronto’s terrible possession numbers and insanely high PDO would prevent their success from being repeated the next year.
The Avs, I would argue, just wrapped up their own failed rebuild. In earnest, it began in 2009 with the drafting of Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly. The next year, the Avs would continue the rebuild by drafting Gabriel Landeskog, as well as acquiring Erik Johnson and Semyon Varlamov.
These pieces, coupled with veterans Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk, actually looked like the makings of a pretty solid core headed into the 2011-12 season. The feeling at the time was that the team just needed one or two defensive pieces to become a true contender.
Unfortunately, the window for this core would be brief. The ‘doghouse’ coaching style of Joe Sacco would stunt Matt Duchene’s development while wrecking his confidence. The Avs would also engage in a standoff with Ryan O’Reilly over contract negotiations, poisoning locker room chemistry. Milan Hejduk would also effectively be forced into retirement.
Despite this, the “Why Not Us” year reinvigorated the organization’s faith in the “core”, as Patrick Roy and Nathan MacKinnon helped propel the team to a Central Division Championship.
This success would be short-lived, however, as by Roy’s third year, Stastny had left for more cash, and O’Reilly had been traded for a basket of uncertainty. The promising forward core had been dashed to three promising players, and the only true top-2 defenseman left was Erik Johnson.
Much like the Leafs, the Avs did not look like a playoff team.
Phase Three: The Pain Comes.
Mike Babcock’s proclamation of pain for the Maple Leafs came true even before the 2015-16 season began.
Phil “The Thrill” Kessel had often butted heads with the vicious Toronto media. Despite often being the best player on the team, Phil was accused of laziness and not “taking it to the next level” (sound familiar?). He had also butted heads with former head coach, Randy Carlyle.
Before the 2015 season, Leafs GM Brendan Shanahan would send Phil Kessel, Tyler Biggs, Tim Erixon, and a second round pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a collection of draft picks, prospects, and depth players.
As a catastrophic season unfolded, the Leafs would conduct a fire-sale. Captain Dion Phaneuf and goalie James Reimer would be traded away, as well as Matt Frattin, Casey Bailey, Ryan Repert, and Cody Donaghey.
By the end, the Maple Leafs resembled more of an aging AHL club than an NHL team. They finished dead-last in the standings, and their fans mocked them with chants of “Let’s go Blue Jays!” during the part of the season that overlapped with baseball. The Leafs had found rock-bottom.
Jared Bednar didn’t indicate any oncoming storm of pain with his hire, but he also didn’t have the time Babcock did to stare into the soul of the team after Roy’s hasty departure. That said, he didn’t exactly promise immediate greatness either.
In the trend of being one year behind the Leafs in this cycle, it seems the Avs have found the pain anyway this year, despite their best efforts to avoid it. After a promising first week, the Avs find themselves last in the standings, and with all eyes on a struggling core.
It could be argued, however, that the current “core” isn’t much of a core at all. Duchene, Landeskog, Varlamov, and Johnson are remnants of a failed core that is yet to be truly rebuilt. Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly, and Milan Hejduk have certainly not been replaced in this current group.
At this phase, it’s hard to determine what the Avs will do in their “Pain Phase”. Is Matt Duchene our Phil Kessel? Is Erik Johnson our Dion Phaneuf? Does Tyson Barrie have any value on defense? Or does this team simply need to stand pat until they have the cap space to acquire more star power? Let me know what you think needs to be done in comments, as I’d love to hear your thoughts.
In any case, whether or not you expected it, the pain is here.
Phase Four: True Rebirth
After the pain, however, a team can finally be reborn and work towards sustainable success.
The silver lining of being the worst team in the league is getting the best odds in the draft lottery, and boy, did Toronto hit the jackpot.
Arizona wonderboy Auston Matthews was taken first overall in the 2016 entry draft, and, while not as hyped as Connor McDavid, he wasted no time breaking records. In his first NHL game, he became the first player to score four goals in his NHL debut. Let’s take a look back at them, just because it’s a beautiful thing.
I love how bored of scoring he looks by the fourth one. What a pro.
Matthews hasn’t been the only star in the rebirth. While the main club may have been in free-fall in the 2015-16 season, Toronto’s AHL affiliate, the Marlies, were tearing up the minors as Brendan Shanahan continued to bolster their ranks.
Joining Matthews are young guns Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly. The Maple Leafs have also retained some veteran star power by way of James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri, themselves remnants of the old rebuild who still fit the bill.
Toronto has put up decent possession stats while finding themselves on the playoff bubble. Sure, winning the division would be great, but fielding a competitive team is a huge step from dwelling in the basement.
With an excellent coach in Babcock, excellent off-ice team, and a core that’s already realizing it’s potential, the Leafs are on the right path to success.
The Colorado Avalanche may have a longer “pain” phase than the Leafs, unfortunately. This is because the organization has struggled to maintain an identity over the years.
The Avalanche have jumped from thinking they were cup contenders to thinking they were rebuilding to thinking the rebuild was done and everywhere in between. They were building a speed team under Sacco, but then a size team under Roy, and now they’re back to a speed team.
Fortunately, it seems the team is on the right path, even though the pain right now is substantial. The organization has a coach with experience developing young talent, and whose systems have already started to show improvement in possession statistics.
Joe Sakic’s moves this summer were moves towards building depth via short-term contracts while locking up our most valuable assets long-term. Sakic’s recent acquisitions have been speed-oriented, and consistent with the current vision for the organization. Still, the Avs have a ways to go compared to the Leafs’ farm system.
Unfortunately, if the team does indeed finish last this season, there won’t be any Connor McDavids or Auston Matthews or Jack Eichels in this year’s draft. Nolan Patrick, the predicted top pick, is said to be the worst top prospect since Nail Yakupov. While a quality player, ask Edmonton if Yakupov transformed their team (spoiler: he didn’t).
Still, I don’t think the organization can afford to panic. If they’re going to trade away one or more of their top players, they need to be getting matching value in return. They should not try to “shake things up” by just taking some crap deal. The front office needs to be methodical in constructing this team, and I hope that they will be.
But for now, the pain is here, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere soon. This, my friends, is a time that separates the bandwagon fans from the heavy drinkers, and I have just two words to say to that: bottoms up.