(Originally posted on MileHighHockey.com on February 28, 2011)
12 years ago today, the Avalanche signed Theo Fleury as a rental player in Colorado’s pursuit of their 2nd Stanley Cup. In his short tenure with the Avs, Fleury scored 24 points in 15 regular season games and 17 points in 18 playoff games. He has not made it a secret that he loved playing for the Avs and had hoped they would offer him a contract to stay. One of the things Fleury said he appreciated the most about the team was the poise, desire to win and confidence that came with such an experienced, talented team. He wrote in his book Playing with Fire, “I liked everybody. They were experienced. You didn’t have to work to convince them to win. Instead, we all knew we were there to win the Stanley Cup and we all knew what it took to do it.” As you know, that team was stacked: Sakic, Forsberg, Drury, Deadmarsh, Foote, Roy, Lemieux, etc. These were guys who fully understood the battles they would have to fight to go deep into the playoffs, as well as what it meant to persevere during the dark times of losing streaks and elimination threats.
It dawned on me while reading Fleury’s take on the Avs that the current roster is missing something beyond certain positional pieces and level of talent. It's missing experience. The strength of rebuilding is the youth involved; there’s an energy and hunger that is infectious. But that strength is also the team’s weakness. Without the steady hand of teammates who have been through it and found ways to claw their way out of holes, there’s bound to be a sense of being lost.
Of course, the team has young guys. However, it’s not their ages that are the issue. This year's Avalanche* has averaged 247 regular season NHL games and 19 games in the playoffs. This includes the games played by Foote and Hejduk, who on their own average between them 1,022 reg season games and 141 playoff games. If you remove their figures, our young corps' average drops down to 176 and 7 respectively. Basically, these players have only had, on average, a hair over 2 years in the NHL. Only 9 players have made it to the second round in the post-season, and only 2 (Foote and Hejduk) have played in games beyond that. Honestly, the only true vets on the team are Foote and Hejduk, both of whom have over 10 years of service in the NHL. When you start considering a player who's only had 5 years (Stastny), 6 years (McClement) or 7 years (Liles) in the league as a grizzled veteran, you know you have a short list of "seen it all" guys in the locker room.
Last season, this young team shocked everyone with how well they performed. They did this on even fewer professional games under their belts. But what they also had on the team were guys like the aforementioned Hejduk and Foote, as well as Tucker, Salei, Yelle, Clark, and Hannan. The steadying presence of their experience cannot be overlooked as an integral part of that success. That presence is so limited this year that it's no wonder there has been a loss of unity and that precious identity. These are guys struggling to find a solution, and that's hard to do when you don't have the foundation upon which to do so. It's even harder when you have limited resources to turn to in order to find the perspective you need.
There's a saying that goes, "In order to win, you must first learn how to lose." That's what this team is doing right now: learning what it's like to lose. By experiencing this kind of adversity, the players are developing the reserves upon which they will need to draw if they expect to win the Stanley Cup. It's a harsh growing process, but it's something that has to be done. By doing it now, early in their careers when the learning curve is the shortest, they will find themselves better able to handle the long, hard fight to the finals in the years to come.
By losing, they are learning what it takes to be winners. That's not such a bad thing.
*Numbers do not include players on the IR for the majority of the slide into oblivion: Quincey, Mueller, Galiardi and Fleischmann; nor do they include players recently traded away: Anderson, Stewart and Shattenkirk