Sunday, December 21, 2014

The curious case of the Colorado Avalanche

Reprinted with permission from

On the NFL network this morning, "tanking" came up in the conversation. There were accusations of tanking in the NBA and the question was posed as to whether or not it existed in the NFL.

Michael Irvin, of course, chimed in first saying that there's no way players would tank in the NFL. Boomer Esiason echoed the sentiments. Wish I was there to mention the saga of the Indianapolis Colts back in 2011 as a Colts team that had double-digit wins dating back to 2002 suddenly fell to 2-14.

I guess everybody believes it was a matter of coincidence that Colts QB Peyton Manning would be moving on at the end of the season and that the most highly touted quarterback since Manning himself was available at the top of the 2012 draft. Sure, Manning was injured, but you mean to tell me that they couldn't have found anyone better than Kerry Collins? Or his backup Curtis Painter?

After that dreadful season, the Colts made the smooth transition from Manning to another franchise quarterback, Andrew Luck, and miraculously, they began a new string of double-digit wins that will continue this season.

Was it intentional, coincidence or pure luck (pun intended?)

The NFL doesn't have a draft lottery system. If you finish last, you get the #1-oveall pick. The NBA has a lottery system, one that allowed the 22nd place Cleveland Cavaliers to get the #1-overall pick with a 1.7% lottery chance.

The NHL revised it's lottery system this year to lessen the odds that the worst team in the league will get he first-overall pick but even so, the 30th place team is assured of getting one of two franchise players. Next year that will change. If your organization is entertaining the thought of tanking the season, this is the year to do it.

As of today, in the race for consensus #1 and #2 prospects Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel two teams are trying to separate themselves from the pack--the Edmonton Oilers and the Carolina Hurricanes. Not far behind them is the Buffalo Sabres, a team whom many expected to be at the bottom as well as the Arizona Coyotes. The Yotes are somewhat surprising unless you factor in continuous ownership,  or lack of ownership, problems and the desparate need for a middling team to land a franchise-saving, generational player (see the 2005 Pittsburgh Penguins.)

The real surprise right now, though, is the 26th place Colorado Avalanche, the team Buffalo welcomes to the First Niagara Center tonight.

Colorado took the league by storm last season with a potent offense, good defense and above average goaltending. They finished atop the Western Conference last season with 52 wins and 112 points. Expectations were high for the team as most expected them to battle it out with the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues for the division this year as they prepared to avenge their seven-game, first-round playoff loss.

Yet they find themselves near the bottom of the league.

When it comes to rebuilding a hockey team, most everybody will point to Pittsburgh as a model to follow for the rebuild as they stripped away any talent they could for a few years while collecting a series of top picks. Some will point to Chicago with the Hawks landing Jonathan Toews (3rd overall, 2006) and Patrick Kane (1st overall, 2007) in back-to-back years, but they will fail to mention that Chicago won the lottery in 2007 and moved from the 5th pick to the top to draft Kane.

And some, like myself, have mentioned the Los Angeles Kings method of rebuilding where they did it without the benefit of a #1-overall pick. Drew Doughty was their highest pick at 2nd overall while key core players Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar were selected 13th (2003) and 11th (2004) respectively.

Now we can add the curious, roller-coaster rebuild of the Colorado Avalanche.

As the glory years of Joe Sakic the player-era were coming to an end after the 2007-08 season, the rebuild in Denver was set to commence. Sakic would retire after the following season as the team would finish in 28th place on the lowest scoring team in the league.

Colorado would finish out of the playoffs four of six seasons beginning in 2008-09 landing top-3 picks in three of those six seasons. In 2009 they picked center Matt Duchene 3rd overall and he would help lead the team to an 8th-place conference finish and a birth in the playoffs. The following season they would again plummet back to the bottom. After finishing 29th in the league in 2010-11 they plucked their present captain, Gabriel Landeskog, with the 2nd overall pick.

Despite the efforts of Landeskog and upstart Ryan O'Reilly (33rd overall, 2009) the 'Lanche would finish a middling 20th in the league and the following season they fell to the bottom with the second worst record (FLA) in 2012-13.

Colorado would win the lottery and select center Nate MacKinnon 1st-overall in 2013.

Those four players--Duchene, O'Reilly, Landeskog and MacKinnon--would lead the Avalanche to their incredible run last season. Duchene lead them in points with 70 (none of the four had less than MacKinnon's 63,) O'Reilly in goals with 28 (the other three had no less than MacKinnon's 24) and Landeskog would lead the team with a plus-21 rating (MacKinnon was a plus-20.)

Perhaps we should have known that Colorado would be sliding once again just based upon a recent history of bottom finishes followed by much better ones.

Can you call it a tank-job if you finish with a top-3 pick every other year? Or is it a matter of great timing that a team would finish near the bottom with high-quality players at the top of the draft those seasons?

I'm not sure what's going on in Denver, but their ups and downs over the course of the last six seasons, going on seven, is curious to say the least.

Based upon recent history and the way things have been going for them this season, maybe they'll end up with another top pick in a very strong draft. Wouldn't be surprising.

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