The hard lesson Sakic and the Avalanche can learn from the Oilers

Nikolaj Ehlers scored two goals and the Winnipeg Jets cruised past the Colorado Avalanche.

With one home game left before the Christmas break—Thursday against the Toronto Maple Leafs—the Colorado Avalanche have won just four games at the Pepsi Center all season.

Chew on that for a moment.

It’s Christmas, and the Avs are sitting on four home wins and one aptly named loser point.

Meanwhile their leading scorer, Matt Duchene, has two goals in the state of Colorado all season long.

“It’s going to go in eventually,” he said recently. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Well Matt, time’s up.

Not just on Duchene’s production in Denver, but on the whole Colorado Avalanche thing.

The jig is up in Denver, where the young Avs are simply getting worse every season. You don’t need a degree in Fancy Stats to see that 112 points in 2013–14 turned into 90 points the next year, which turned into 82 points last season.

Today, the Avalanche are on pace for a 63-point season. Last season, that was good for 30th place—the problem is, this isn’t nearly as strong a draft year.

Today, the Avs are reminiscent of the failed Edmonton Oilers rebuild, with a cadre of very good young players who somehow lack the necessary components to forge a winning NHL team. The chemistry, whatever that means, simply is not there. Somehow, the whole became less than the sum of its parts.

There isn’t a general manager—or fan base—in the game that would turn their nose up at Duchene, the somehow-underachieving Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog (ditto), Mikko Rantanen or Tyson Barrie. Carl Soderberg and Nikita Zadorov are two more compelling players who should be able to find a way to make a team better.

Alas, the soup is poisoned in Denver. The ingredients were good, but somehow, the chef messed up. Which brings us to general manager Joe Sakic.

Here is what we know:

Either that Central Division title in 2013–14 was a total aberration, or Sakic—who took over from Greg Sherman as GM the following season—has driven this team into the basement. He has settled on a core—goalie Semyon Varlamov, Johnson, Barrie, Landeskog, MacKinnon and Duchene—and it is from that core that change is going to have to come.

The Avs are last in the league in wins (11), last in wins at home (four), last in shots for and tied for last in scoring with 65 goals. Four NHL teams already have 100 goals this season.

But more importantly? Colorado ranks 24th in average home attendance (14,953), and Denver sports fans are known to ignore an irrelevant team with no playoff hopes, which defines the Avalanche.

Like Taylor Hall’s old Oilers, the Avs spend an inordinate amount of time in their own zone, minimizing the skill sets of their core players. So perhaps, like those Oilers, it is time to deal away a flashy forward for a steady defender.

How long until Sakic—who did not return an email for comment—delivers a Ryan Johansen-for-Seth Jones deal? Or even a less-sexy Hall-for-Adam Larsson trade, the likes of which has helped make Edmonton a sounder, more successful team?

He could easily move Duchene, MacKinnon or Landeskog, but if Hall returned a Larsson, it will take more moves than that one deal to turn the Avs’ ship around.

Another issue? The Avs are in contract hell.

Varlamov has two more years at $5.9 million per and has watched his save percentage plummet to a career-low .904. Sakic has to fix the team in front of Varlamov, because the only way to move him would be in a buyout.

Sakic signed Erik Johnson to a seven-year, $42-million deal over the summer. On a good team, is Johnson a top-pairing D-man? Discuss.

Tyson Barrie was the talk of the NHL last spring as a pending UFA who might one day become a No. 1 defenceman. Word is, that assessment riled then-coach Patrick Roy, who never saw that potential in Barrie, and perhaps became the final straw when Roy walked away from the Avs in August.

Could it be that Roy was correct? That the Avs didn’t have the decision makers to push this project forward?

That, we should find out by July 1. If Sakic doesn’t make a major move with this roster, history will repeat itself.

And this much we know for sure: No one in Denver is blaming the coach.

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