The exodus of veterans continued this summer with the departures of Rob Blake, Dan Hinote and Alex Tanguay, more victims of the salary cap designed to resuscitate the league.
The Avalanche can’t just outspend other teams and assemble an abundance of all-star talent like it did in winning the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001.
“This team has changed over the last few years, big-time,” said Milan Hejduk, the only player besides captain Joe Sakic left from the last Avs team to hoist the cup. “That’s the new NHL with a salary cap. It’s becoming like the NFL – it’s tough to keep teams together.”
The Avs steeled themselves for new round of departures this off-season but nobody saw Steve Konowalchuk’s exit coming.
Last week, at age 33, the hardworking left winger walked away from the game he had played since he was five after being diagnosed with a genetic disease that can cause irregular heart rhythms. The malady turned up on an EKG during his team physical last month.
“It’s going to be tough. Watching hockey’s going to be hard,” Konowalchuk said Friday. “Two weeks ago I was ready for training camp. I was ready to put a season together and continue my career. So it’s going to be hard, but every hockey player, every athlete has to go through it, no matter when. Not too many athletes get to end like Ray Bourque, where, you know, ‘I won a Cup; I’m quitting on my terms.”‘
So, add Konowalchuk to the list of veterans who have walked away from the Pepsi Center before the Avs would have liked.
“When something like this happens you feel bad for Steve and his family, and that was a priority for us,” general manager Francois Giguere said. “But on the hockey side I was impressed with the way the players in the dressing room responded to this situation.
“I think we’ve had an unbelievable training camp, we had a very strong pre-season and we had a lot of young guys that probably would not have been put in the position that they were put in and they responded very well. When something like this happens, it gives somebody else an opportunity. The good news was people took those opportunities and did very well for themselves.”
Colorado, which lost to Anaheim 4-0 in the conference semifinals last season, will be hard-pressed to replicate last year’s fourth-best offence in the league with 283 goals without Tanguay (career-high 29 goals) and Blake (14).
The Avs are counting on rookie winger Wojtek Wolski to fill the void left by the Tanguay trade, and the Avs uncovered a possible future superstar last year in right wing Marek Svatos, who had 32 goals and 50 points in 61 games as a rookie before getting hurt.
Other newcomers include centres Tyler Arnason and Paul Stastny, defencemen Ken Klee and Jordan Leopold, who came over from Calgary in the trade for Tanguay, and forward Mark Rycroft.
“I’ve played with younger guys for the last few years, so it’s no different,” Sakic said. “It’s fun because you see that young energy, you see the excitement that they bring to the team. I was there at one point, and I looked to the older guys.”
Added defenceman John-Michael Liles: “Nowadays, you need that mixture of leadership and youthful enthusiasm.”
Coach Joel Quenneville said he’s counting on Leopold replacing Blake’s minutes and production. But replacing Tanguay is another matter altogether.
“Tanguay is a top scorer,” Quenneville said. “To say who’s going to be Tanguay here, one guy is not going to be that type of guy. Wojtek Wolski should be challenging this year. We’ll see how Paul Stastny comes out of camp. Those two guys are really offensive-type guys that can produce.
“We don’t expect them to produce at Tanguay’s rate, but if we can get consistent contribution like we did last year in a lot of our lines, we’ll be fine. It’s not going to be one guy to replenish Tanguay’s numbers.”
The equalizer in all this could very well be goaltender Jose Theodore, the 2002 Hart Trophy winner as the league MVP, who went 1-3-1 after coming over from Montreal at last season’s trade deadline. He helped the Avs eliminate Dallas in the first round of the playoffs.
“Our goaltending is a strength,” Quenneville said. “We feel very confident that it will be a key area for us. Jose will play a lot of games, but having Peter Budaj right there ready to come in at any moment makes you more at ease. It means that no matter who you have in net, the guys feel good that we’ve got a chance of winning.”
Theodore is fully recovered from a broken foot, one of the many troubles he endured in Montreal last season.
“He came off a tough year,” Quenneville said. “He’s a proud guy and he’s got a lot to prove.”
Indeed, Theodore reported to team headquarters three weeks early.
“I wanted to show the team I was anxious to start playing, anxious to start skating and anxious to get back on the ice,” he said.