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Monday, November 11, 2002
Morris-Drury trade a convenient scapegoat

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

The Denver Nuggets won a home game before the Colorado Avalanche.

Waiting for the punchline?

David Aebischer
The Avalanche have replaced Patrick Roy well to this point.
That IS the punchline.

Ba Boom. (We were going to say, "Rim shot," but you might mistake that for a critique on the Nuggets' marksmanship.)

Newly acquired defenseman Derek Morris certainly isn't alone under the spotlight of scrutiny, but he's the convenient one to pick on.

That's not fair, but that's the way it is.

Over a month into the regular season, the Avalanche still haven't won in the Pepsi Center. Even Patrick Roy was caught up in the malaise, playing a rare bad game after returning to the lineup in a 4-3 loss to the lowly, previously-winless-on-the-road Predators on Sunday night.

If the Avalanche lose in overtime to Columbus on Tuesday night to close out their five-game homestand, at least the record would represent symmetry and a run (somebody's run) to the Stanley Cup, at 4-4-4-4.

The Colorado power play, so formidable on paper (Morris and Rob Blake at the points, plus Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Milan Hejduk often up front on the first unit), has been awful -- 28th in the league. In keeping with the special-teams spirit, the penalty killing has been nearly as ineffective, at No. 27.

Meanwhile, Chris Drury, both popular and saluted in Denver for his ability to score clutch goals and act as a lightning rod for team success, is leading the Flames in scoring -- albeit as a minus player with a so-so team. Stephane Yelle, part of the ancillary baggage in the deal, is showing some spark in Calgary and suddenly is being retroactively valued as a Colorado penalty killer.

Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix has had far more hits than misses, but the possibility here could be that Colorado would have been better off re-signing Darius Kasparaitis -- who preferred the East Coast, but could have been coaxed into singing "Rocky Mountain High" by the right offer -- and retaining Drury.

The Avalanche have started slowly before under Bob Hartley and recovered, even a year ago, when the Avalanche didn't rise above .500 for good until Nov. 30 -- or 26 games into the season.

"We've been in those shoes before and found our way out of it," said Hartley. But this time, Peter Forsberg is in the lineup, the Morris trade was supposed to provide a significant upgrade on defense, and the overall signs are more alarming. Rob Blake is playing hurt and not very well. Forsberg is struggling. Steve Reinprecht -- seemingly the steal as a throw-in in the Blake deal -- has been invisible. Joe Sakic is about the only Avalanche pulling his weight (even given the salary-driven expectations) and ...

ROCKY MOUNTAIN LOW
  Home Road
Record 0-4-3-1 4-0-1-2
Points 4 11
Avg. goals for 2.12 (29th) 3.29 (4th)
Avg. goals against 3.12 (22nd) 2.14 (5th)
Power play 9.8 (30th) 13.5 (20th)
Penalty kill 73.2 (30th) 84.2 (13th)
Well, you get the picture.

Have the Avalanche struck bottom?

"I think we're past that now," Morris said with a sardonic laugh.

"We've struck bottom a couple of times this year. There's only one way to get out of it, we all have to start working as a team. Together, we'll get out of this.

"I think everybody feels pressure on their shoulders. I don't think I'm the guy who's going to get the power play going. I'm one of the five guys on the unit, and we all have to outwork their four. If we pin it down to one guy, we're going to lose a lot of games. No matter who it is, we can't have Joe trying to score every goal on the power play, or Peter trying to score every goal on the power play. We have to move it around as a five-man unit, and right now, we're not doing that."

At this point, there seems to be a chemistry problem. The obstruction crackdown was supposed to be a boon for talented, skating teams like the Avalanche. It hasn't worked that way, at least in Denver. It's a good thing the NHL scrapped giveaways from the statistics package, because the Avalanche might be leading the league in turnovers.

Standing amid the rubble, frustrated and forlorn, is Morris, who understands much of discussion about the Avalanche's problems keep coming back to the trade. Morris, often being called on to play his "off" side, still is adjusting. The measure of this deal certainly doesn't involve November or, given Morris' status as a 24-year-old defenseman, this season alone. The question is whether the chemistry issue solely is a matter of requiring time to develop familiarity and mesh, or more indicative of a long-term problem.

And while that will take months to sort out, the short-term evaluations are thumbs-down, especially when the trade is boiled down to Morris for Drury.

"That's for you guys to decide," Morris said, not angrily. "You guys always have skepticism. You guys are going to say what you want. But we're two totally different players ... I don't care about getting 50 points or anything like that; I want to win games. If we're losing games, I'm letting myself and my team down. I want to go out there and win games. I couldn't care less if I get 20 goals. You build losers if all you're thinking about is points. We have to find a way to win, and if that means blocking a shot or getting hit, so be it.

We've struck bottom a couple of times this year. There's only one way to get out of it, we all have to start working as a team. Together, we'll get out of this.
Derek Morris
"If that's what the questions are, that's what my answers are going to be. I want to win hockey games, and that's the way I want to play."

Hartley said it would be wrong to focus on the fallout of the Morris-Drury trade, which also has an asterisk: Dean McAmmond still hasn't played for Colorado as he tries to recover from a back injury.

"The power play is a five-man unit," Hartley said. "It's not a case of one guy not doing his job, or one guy not doing his job. It's a five-man unit, moving the puck. We see some flash, and there's no doubt in my mind that with the quality of the players we have, we're going to get on a roll and we're going to start scoring our share of power-play goals.

"We're at .500, and that's where we deserve to be right now. We're not happy being a .500 team, but we're basically at the same spot we were last year and we all know what happened. The sad thing right now is we're throwing valuable points in the garbage."

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," will be released by Simon and Schuster on Dec. 2.