First, the encouraging news.
The Colorado Avalanche will not remain the NHL’s worst team. The Avs will hover, barely, above the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. I see Colorado finishing just over 70 points, and Vegas finishing just under.
Avs fans hope the Golden Knights resemble the expansion 1974-75 Washington Capitals, who finished an atrocious 8-67-5, but the Golden Knights will more closely resemble the expansion 1993-94 Mighty Ducks and Panthers, who both won 33 games and flirted with the playoffs.
Tough to believe it’s come to a conversation about escaping the NHL basement as the Avs prepare for their home opener Wednesday night. The Avalanche captivated the Front Range for a decade, turning hockey agnostics into devout fans while ruling the NHL in 1996 and 2001 and packing Pepsi Center.
No one – not even the most out-of-touch optimist – believes the Avs will compete in the playoffs this season, which means the franchise will have missed the postseason eight of 10 seasons. Yes, the Avs have looked solid in their first three games.
Don’t get too excited. It’s a mirage.
At least Avs star (for now) Matt Duchene is honest. He wants the hockey world to know his plan to escape Colorado to play for a winner. Former Avs star Peter Forsberg responded with a rebuke, “I would put him on the bench and trade him.”
Duchene, ever honest, offered a quick summary of the 2016-2017 Avs, the worst team of the salary cap era.
“We want to kind of spit it out,” he said, “if that makes sense.”
Oh, it makes sense.
The Avs picked a poor time to be lousy. The Broncos reside in a golden decade. The Rockies returned – alas, for one game – to the playoffs. The Nuggets, after years of slumbering, are on a serious rise.
And the University of Denver – yes, The Evil Empire of the North – rules as NCAA hockey champs. DU, remember, plays six miles from Pepsi Center. This circle of success only magnifies the Avs’ pitifulness.
Not long ago, in 2013-2014, the Avalanche seemed on its way back to NHL supremacy. Patrick Roy returned to Colorado to coach, and he seemed the rare superstar who could coach mere mortals. He had tamed his volcanic – and entertaining – temper. He had learned the art of patience, or so the story went.
He pushed the Avs to 112 points, 52 wins and almost directed Colorado to its first win in a playoff series since 2008. He bonded with Joe Sakic, the former Avs superstar. John Elway was masterfully directing the Broncos at Mile High on the edge of downtown, and Sakic, it seemed, was performing similar work a few blocks away.
Sakic and Roy often played golf together at Cherry Hills and Cherry Creek. Sakic called his friend “Patty.” They seemed ready to peacefully lead the franchise together for a decade, or more.
In August 2016, the Sakic-Roy relationship and the Avs franchise blew up. Roy, frustrated by the lack of aggressive pursuit of elite talent, suddenly resigned. It’s tempting to overly romanticize Roy’s reign as coach. He did miss the playoffs his final two seasons.
But he brought fire to his task. He was never satisfied, as a goalie or a coach, with anything but NHL supremacy. I believed he would find a way to again rule hockey.
Instead, he set a franchise aflame, and the blaze still roars 14 months later.