The Colorado Avalanche suffered a miserable fate last season, and defenseman Erik Johnson offered a bitingly honest assessment of what he feels needs to be done in order to begin to turn the organization’s fortunes around on the ice.
The Avalanche finished dead-last in the National Hockey League in 2016-17 with a 22-56-4 mark and there were few bright spots during that campaign.
“Last year, as everyone knows, it was just such a painful year pretty much right after Thanksgiving,” recalled Johnson during a Friday interview on NHL Network . “It was just a perfect storm, I think. Everyone kind of had one of their worst seasons statistically. Our No. 1 goalie got hurt and we kind of started reeling after that. We couldn’t get any traction. I think we were .500 right at Thanksgiving, and after that the wheels fell off. It’s tough to recover when you win – I think it was two games or three games in regulation over the course of two months, or something like that.”
From November 23 (the day before Thanksgiving) through early February, the Avalanche collected a 4-25-2 mark. Two of those four wins came in regulation time.
“So after that it was a tailspin and it’s very tough to go through as a player,” continued Johnson. “You only get so many chances, so many kicks at it, to try and make the playoffs and have a chance to win a Stanley Cup that you really have to try and put that in the rear view mirror and forget about it, but remember how it feels and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Johnson is entering the second season of his seven-year, $42 million contract with the Avalanche.
Included with his $6 million cap hit in each of those years is a modified no-trade clause/no-move clause, which lists 19 teams to which he cannot be dealt.
Johnson explained what he felt the key to beginning next season on better footing was for his Colorado squad.
“I just think from the start of the season I just think there can’t be any excuses,” began the 29-year-old rearguard. “There can’t be any complaints. Don’t worry about who you’re playing with. Don’t worry about if you’re on the half-wall or you’re on the goal line or at the top of the umbrella or at the point, just go out there and play.
“It really doesn’t matter who scores a goal or who gets a point, it just matters about who wins the game. If that’s us, that’s good. It should be a collective effort. It doesn’t need to be all about points and all about individuals, it needs to be about the group and about the team and the logo.
“I think as a group we have to collectively say it doesn’t matter – anything individually – it’s got to be all about the team and do whatever it takes to win. It might not be pretty. It might be a 1-0 game and it’s a boring game, but that doesn’t matter. It’s all about wins and it’s all about results.
“I think as a group we just have to mature a little bit more. That starts with older guys and the leadership to make sure everyone is accountable and that’s the way we’re going to play.”
NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes took Johnson’s accountability theme a step further.
“I think there needs to be an internal reality check for the Avs because you just heard Erik Johnson and what he was able to share with us,” noted Weekes. “It doesn’t matter who gets the credit, who gets the goals, what your line combination is, D pair – that to me is indicative of things that plagued them that were really internal within the locker room, and they need to find a way to cleanse that and get rid of that. That’s the first thing.
“Secondly, once everybody is on the same page hopefully then the health of Varlamov getting back into the crease – Jonathan Bernier ended up signing a one-year deal there – and playing a team-first style of hockey. Being able to check, defend, not take selfish penalties, manage the puck, manage the game clock, and not essentially beat yourself. Some of those losses were self-inflicted wounds last year. That’s where it starts. The National Hockey League is very unforgiving. Opposing teams, coaches and players can smell that on you if those things are plaguing your team.
“If they can get rid of those things – eradicate those things – I think it should at least allow them to reset, have a good camp, and move forward.”
The most intriguing storyline involving this franchise for months now has been to whom Joe Sakic would deal Matt Duchene.
The general manager has not yet pulled the trigger on the long-rumored deal, and has seemingly been asking for a higher price than his counterparts are so far willing to pay.
The most recent intel via the NHL Insider beat came from TSN’s Darren Dreger early in free agency, when he noted that Sakic’s asking price was “definitely the holdup” on a trade so far.
“And the ask depends on the team that Joe Sakic is negotiating with, or the team that has expressed interest,” explained Dreger on July 5. “I’ve heard that it’s been as high as a couple of first-round picks, or at least a first-round pick and a former first-round draft pick who’s now a young NHL prospect, and then some and then some.”
Duchene is at a point in his contract that both helps and hurts his trade cause.
On the one hand, an acquiring general manager will get two years of certainty at $6 million per season. That’s a relatively affordable cap hit for a player of Duchene’s talents, and he’s only 26 years old. It’s also entirely reasonable to expect that this proverbial change of scenery would do Duchene a world of good.
The flip side of that coin, and likely the reason a trade hasn’t yet been consummated, is that Sakic is reportedly seeking a wealth of young, team-controllable assets when Duchene’s new GM may only have him for two seasons.
Duchene will get his first crack at unrestricted free agency in July of 2019, and he cannot be signed to a new extension until July of 2018 – which is another year away.
And therein lies the rub.
Sakic still has another few months with which to work when teams have a little flexibility with the salary cap, but once that regular season begins the clamps come down hard on those restrictions and trade activity around the league tends to simultaneously dry up.