Tough times in Colorado as Avalanche march toward historically bad season

Avalanche headed for historically bad season

It’s all-star weekend in Los Angeles and a reporter from China asks Colorado Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon to wish Chinese hockey fans a happy New Year. Not in English, mind you, but Mandarin.

“Oh, I can’t do that!” MacKinnon says with a laugh. “I would love to, but I don’t think I can.”

The Halifax native never loses his cool throughout the exchange, a smile perpetually on his 21-year-old face as he eventually declares a happy New Year to all — twice in English.

MacKinnon and his Avalanche teammates have had to put up a brave front all year as they march toward the worst season in the franchise’s 22 years in Colorado, and one of the worst in NHL history, period.

The Avs lost their ninth straight game in L.A. on Wednesday night — shut out for the eighth time in 48 games this season. It was their 19th defeat in the past 21 games. The club is on pace for a measly 48 points, which would mark the lowest total for the franchise following a move from Quebec in 1995 and the lowest total for an NHL team since the 1999-00 expansion Atlanta Thrashers (39 points).

Only eight teams since 1987 have scored fewer than 48 points over a season of at least 80 games and almost all were in the early stages out of expansion. Even the 2013-14 Buffalo Sabres, probably the worst collection in recent NHL memory, managed 52 points — a touch better than Colorado’s current pace.

The lowly Avalanche have just two wins in the last seven weeks (2-18-1) and each came in overtime. The club’s last regulation victory occurred against Toronto on Dec. 11 and it required a career-best 51 saves from Semyon Varlamov, who’s now out for the season with injury.

Suffice to say it’s been a trying campaign for Avalanche players.

“You don’t wake up with the same excitement that you used to (have),” said MacKinnon, who leads the team in scoring with 33 points. 

“Even in your personal life it takes a hit on you,” he said. “It’s draining, especially when you’re losing like this it’s definitely tough. But at the end of the day we’re very fortunate to do what we do. We get paid a lot of money to do it. You can’t pout. You can’t feel sorry for yourself. You’ve got to stay positive.”

Years of questionable decision-making have put the franchise in this position, most recently under the leadership of Joe Sakic. The long-time Avalanche captain and Hall of Famer took over the role of executive vice-president of hockey operations in May 2013, almost a year before Brendan Shanahan assumed control of the rising Toronto Maple Leafs.

Colorado won the Central Division in Sakic’s first season at the helm (2013-14), sliding downward in every year since. Questionable choices have included the trading of dependable centre Ryan O’Reilly, the hiring of coach Patrick Roy, and overpaying for the likes of Carl Soderberg, Erik Johnson, Jarome Iginla, and Francois Beauchemin — the latter two approaching the end of their respective NHL careers.

The Avs haven’t drafted well under Sakic or previous administrations over the last decade. O’Reilly, now with the Buffalo Sabres, and defenceman Tyson Barrie are the only impactful players Colorado has found outside the first round since 2006.

Some of the club’s best players — such as speedy forward Matt Duchene — are now the subject of trade speculation.

“They don’t want to get traded,” MacKinnon said. “Everyone wants to figure this thing out. It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this, but I think changes are necessary when you lose like this.”

The Avalanche are on track to have not only the fewest points since moving to Denver (third-worst if you include the Quebec Nordiques’ history), but the fewest wins and goals as well as the worst power play, second-worst penalty kill and second-most goals against.

“I don’t know if there’s a lesson,” MacKinnon said. “But when I came into the league we won 50 games, won the division, so I won’t take it for granted anymore. It’s tough to win in this league. Going forward I’ll definitely appreciate it more.”

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press

Canadian Press