Friday, February 18, 2011

Existing for the Sake of Existence

I think it is a fair to say that over the years I have attempted to offer two things in this space: erratic writing and mostly glowing praise of the Avalanche. Until recently I have also enjoyed bathing in the sense of logic which has radiated from the front office of my favorite hockey team.

After Ryan Smyth was traded to the Kings and it became apparent that the Avalanche were going to rebuild, I took the opportunity to look at where the team stood versus the salary cap. At the time it looked like the Avs were going to be sitting pretty with over 15 million dollars in cap room. With the right pieces in place (Paul Stastny), a good draft or two (Matt Duchene) and what turned out to be a loaded farm system, they were primed to rebuild quickly, and I got excited. But considering the recent news that Craig Anderson has been traded to Ottawa for perennial underachiever Brian Elliott, coupled with their record nine game losing streak, and the whirlwind return and retreat of Peter Forsberg, my excitement has been warped into persistent psychotic rage.

If there is anything that keeps the average hockey fan going, especially if they like a bad team, it is a constant stream of rumors. It gives us hope. I like to believe that most hockey rumors are released via high frequency radio transmissions beamed from Don Cherry's arm pits, which allow the rumors, smelling of Old Spice and poutine, to permeate and soothe the frontal lobes of hockey fans with minimal interference.

In the days of the super secret Pierre Lacroix administration, the attentive Avalanche fan learned to deduce what rumors were true (none of them), and which rumors were false (all of them). Using this knowledge I adopted a fairly reliable system of figuring out what the Avalanche were going to do next. I liked to call it "Buy That Guy!" It was a good system, and relied on trading prospects for legendary athletes. The fun of it all involved figuring out which hockey legend would play in Denver next.

Unfortunately that system grew obsolete after the lockout and had to be altered so that it is now cold and more complex. I call it "Sweating Blood From A Turnip." It goes like this: Ride player A to much fanfare until player A ceases to produce, develop, or play well with others. Trade player A for cheaper player B. Whip player B until player B "spits the bit", then trade player B for cheaper player C, and so on and so forth.

To be fair, when the ownership of the Avalanche transferred from Stan Kroenke to his son Josh, the team remained committed to a rebuilding strategy that placed the team near the cap floor, as discussed in Terry Frei's Denver Post article last August. Unfortunately in the case of Craig Anderson, the rebuilding philosophy seems to have put him in an unwinnable position.

Last season when the Avalanche were supposed to be terrible, Anderson hauled them into the playoffs with an effort that can only be termed "heroic." But while his performance was admirable, it put the team in an undesirable position. They were still developing and their growing pains were masked by the goaltender. Furthermore, the team missed out on what could have been a great draft for them which featured the likes of Taylor Hall and Jeff Skinner. If the team had done badly, even going so far as to "tank", fans would not have cared, as losing in the present may have helped secure future winning. Instead the team won, expectations were raised, and the Avalanche missed out on the meat of a good draft.

This season Anderson again attempted to carry the team but hurt his knee. When he was left to recuperate, the offense did its best to make up for a disjointed defense, ranking near the top of the league in scoring. But Peter Budaj, who is not Craig Anderson, was left to hold the fort until Anderson's return, and the team plummeted to the bottom of the league in the puck stopping department, which did not improve when Anderson returned.

Goaltending is 99% mental. You either want to get in front of 90 mile per hour missiles or you don't. More often than not the desire to get in front of the puck stems from confidence. If you don't have confidence then the other team will score, and you not only lose your motivation but you lose even more of your confidence. This is where Anderson was not helped out by team management, they didn't bring in anyone to help the defense.

It is achingly apparent that if Anderson was healthy and not trying to push his injury (potentially) in order to secure a new contract, that he didn't want to play behind a pathetic defense. Who would? So rather than actively pursue defensemen who would remedy the situation, the Avalanche instead traded a good goalie who was obviously frustrated for worse, a bad goalie who is obviously frustrated. That is the wrong solution to what isn't a complicated equation.

Apologists will point out that the team at least got something for a player who was on the way out, or may be more severely injured than has been indicated, but I will disagree with that logic by pointing out that the player the Avalanche traded for does not seem to be a viable solution whatsoever based on past NHL performance. Brian Elliott wasn't in an "Anderson" type of situation where he was stuck behind a great goaltender (Thomas Vokoun). Elliott was given chances to help Ottawa and didn't. Yet we are expected to believe that Elliott is going to magically transform into Patrick Roy just because he isn't playing in Ottawa. Really? I may be wrong (I hope I am) and perhaps all Elliott needs is a change of scenery a la Peter Mueller, but at this point I'm having trouble seeing how he is anything more than a warm body on the bench. Why trade a good goalie who needed help for a bad goalie? Why not just bring in better defensemen?

At best Avalanche fans are being asked to accept a crappy trade with a "change of scenery" label on it. At worst, fans are going to get to watch the former Ottawa goaltender ride the bench. Where is the win here?

Let's get back to rumors. This trade, combined with the Avalanche not pursuing people like Ilya Kovalchuk last summer or Tomas Kaberle recently, says that rumors the ownership and management are more interested in just keeping the team close to the cap floor may hold water. These rumors, if true, involve ownership putting out a product that is just good enough.

The logic that that the team wants to save money to lock down future stars like Duchene holds, and is defensible, but I fail to see where icing two substandard goaltenders actually serves to help the team's bottom line. This runs contrary to the supposed motivation of the ownership icing a team that wins enough games to make a profit. It gives the appearance that the ownership is being cheap and doesn't care about winning, even if they are actually simply staying the course on a long rebuild. Fans won't won't pay money to watch a team that appears to be tanking, or willingly underachieving, so management of the team's message is absolutely necessary. That is where the Avalanche have truly failed.

If the team has garnered any well deserved criticism over the years it is that the team doesn't communicate well with fans. The Avalanche rarely advertise, and recently Matt Duchene met with scorn from the management for opening a Twitter account. Fans have often made light of the level of secrecy surrounding the organization, but in the case of the Anderson trade, this secrecy is hurting the team. The Kroenke's and team management have to understand on some level that communication is absolutely necessary, especially during a rebuild when fans are being asked to pay money to support a substandard product. Without communication it makes the organization seem devious and lacking in good will. The same criticism has been levied against the Nuggets, also owned by the Kroenke's, as they stand to lose Carmelo Anthony for what will surely be lesser players.

I don't like the notion that an organization might be in existence just to exist. The idea runs contrary to both human and competitive spirit. I want to believe that Anderson was traded simply because he had lost his will to play, or was badly injured. But in allowing Anderson to lose his will, the management and coaches must take at least part of the blame. How Craig Anderson could go from the toast of the town to trade fodder in less than a year simply doesn't make sense. It is truly a sad story.

Fans in Denver want to win. They need to win. If the rumors about the motivation of the ownership turn out to be true: that the Avalanche exist just to exist, then this would be a horrible revelation that could destroy the franchise. If they aren't true and the team is truly committed to a long term rebuild, then the team needs to explain what at least on the surface appears to be a bad trade.


In the most recent news Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart and a second round draft pick have been traded to St. Louis for Erik Johnson, Jay McClement and a first round draft pick.

After hearing that I've decided to write about it when I regain the power to think rationally.


lepenseur73 said...

The Avs suffer from a debilitating illness called TMFS- Toronto Maple Leafs Syndrome, more commonly known as the infinite monkeys theory. If you make an infinite amount of trades, for an infinite amount of lumps of coal, eventually you'll turn up a diamond.
The Avs saving grace is probably, like you said, Denver WANTS to win. But will Denver delineate itself from Toronto in that it must also NOT tolerate defeat?
Also remember:hope is a dangerous thing, especially for the hopeless

Aaron D'Albey said...

Very good points. I'm still reeling from hearing that Stewart and Shattenkirk have been traded. I can't fathom what the management is thinking.

lihui said...

Just a correction, Eberle was not available in last year's draft. He was an 2008 draft pick.

Aaron D'Albey said...

Got it, thank you. I think I typed that while I was still blacked out from the news.

Sasquath said...

Of note: GP W L OTL GAA SV% SO
Elliot 130 59 45 15 2.81 .903 9
Anderson 213 87 83 21 2.85 .911 14

These stats suggest Elliot and Anderson are more or less the same goalie. Each made the playoffs near the bottom unexpectedly, and were busts the following year. Sure Anderson got hurt, but they both have stank in the crease.

Aaron D'Albey said...

Well, both aren't exactly having the best years (Anderson's shutout tonight notwithstanding). I still think that Ottawa gained a fairly steady, if occasionally streaky starting goalie while managing to shed a backup, while the Avs are now starting Budaj, who in my opinion is not an NHL caliber goaltender.

Unless the Avs manage to secure a good keeper in free agency this summer (Bryzgalov?) then this trade looks like a case of the Avs dumping a disgruntled goalie for 30 cents on the dollar.