If the prevailing theory sounded any wackier, you would have thought Colorado had held its training camp in Roswell, N.Mex. Anyway, here goes: The team with the best playoff goalie, Patrick Roy; the best pair of centers, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg; a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman, Sandis Ozolinsh; and a wealth of supporting talent isn't starting 1997-98 in search of a third straight Stanley Cup, because it traded hulking winger Chris Simon early last season.
The theory is equal parts fact and fancy. Sure, the Avalanche, the NHL's most aesthetic team, got a little too pretty after it dealt a fighter who was skilled enough to play on a top line without embarrassing himself. But to think that the absence of a roughneck winger who hardly dressed during the 1996 run to the Cup was the reason for Colorado's semifinal exit at the hands of the Red Wings is too facile. Not only does the simple Simon theory give no credit to Detroit's near-perfect play, but it also ignores untimely injuries to Forsberg, winger Keith Jones and defenseman Uwe Krupp.
"We also didn't have the hunger," coach Marc Crawford says of his team's elimination last spring. "Maybe we were a little full of ourselves."
This time a hungrier Avalanche will be back for seconds on the Stanley Cup. Yes, the lack of toughness remains an issue, the mole on the chin of this attractive team. Crawford has stressed "shared responsibility" for physical play, a noble concept that doesn't totally compensate for the lack of a player who is so ferocious that opposing players wet their beds at the mere thought of him. But even if Colorado doesn't come up with an enforcer—6'4", 213-pound rookie defenseman Wade Belak, who got the best of Simon in an exhibition-game fight, might be the guy—Detroit proved in the finals that a thoroughbred can handle a Brobdingnagian like Philadelphia.
Colorado general manager Pierre Lacroix did, however, take care of his most pressing problem last summer when he matched the Rangers' three-year, $21 million offer sheet for Sakic, who was a restricted free agent. Of course, the entire package wasn't the sticking point for Colorado. The Rangers front-loaded the contract with a $15 million signing bonus, and cash-strapped Ascent Entertainment, which owns the Avalanche and the Denver Nuggets, had to cobble together a partnership with Fox Sports Rocky Mountain and Liberty Media to come up with the money in a week or Sakic would have been Broadway-bound.
There's a history between these organizations in the way, say, Jerry and Newman have a history. The ill will began in 1992 when the Nordiques, as the Avalanche was known before it moved from Quebec to Colorado in '95, traded Eric Lindros's rights to both Philadelphia and New York, an inexplicable bit of double-dealing that had to be sorted out by an arbitrator. Then, in '95, Lacroix incurred the wrath of Rangers general manager Neil Smith by making backdoor inquiries about New York defenseman Sergei Zubov. Finally, in July, before making its bold bid for Sakic, New York signed Colorado's unrestricted free agent Mike Keane, a superior penalty killer and one of hockey's best leaders. Lacroix harrumphed, "We all know the Rangers have been very active in the galaxy of free agency. I'm sure the first alien will sign and play for the Rangers one day, but only if his planet cannot match."
In a talent-poor league in which some teams have trouble putting together one good line, Colorado has two fabulous units. Sakic, who swapped wingers like trading cards last year, will play with Claude Lemieux on his right and have Jones on his left when Jones returns to action in mid-November. Forsberg, the NHL's most complete forward, will play with Adam Deadmarsh and Valeri Kamensky on a No. 2 line that is more dangerous offensively than the first.
But the 32-year-old Roy remains the Avalanche's most significant player. Although his mobility is diminishing and his puckhandling remains frightening to his own team, Roy is a force in the dressing room. He's the overgrown imp who taunted the Red Wings, urging them, for example, to show up with their best stuff for Game 4 of the semis. Roy, alas, got his wish. "I think the problem was that we depended on Patrick to bail us out of every situation," Crawford says. "The more you look at the season and the playoffs, you see he was phenomenal." Colorado will again count on Roy to play at least 60 games, while keeping highly regarded 20-year-old Marc Denis in the minors for at least another year of seasoning.
As the careful handling of Denis shows, the Avalanche's talent is starting to stack up like 737s over Denver International in a snow squall. Colorado is trying to work Eric Messier into a solid defense that includes Krupp, Ozolinsh, Adam Foote and Sylvain Lefebvre, and it had no choice but to ship Scott Young, a veteran winger with valuable offensive skills, to the Mighty Ducks for a third-round draft choice. Lacroix has stockpiled three first-round draft choices and five other picks in the second and third rounds in 1998, giving him leverage to make deals. Add the infusion of cash from Fox and Liberty Media, plus the soon-to-be gurgling revenue streams from a new arena, due to open in 1999, and the future appears as bright as the present. One way or another, the Avalanche is going to be tough for years.