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Monday, February 25, 2008
Forsberg wagering reputation, legacy on his latest NHL mission

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

A year ago, we wrote rather breathlessly of the Nashville Predators' shocking acquisition of Peter Forsberg. We wrote how Forsberg had instantly given the Predators a leg up in the ultracompetitive Western Conference playoff arms race.

That arms race lasted five games for the Preds and Forsberg, who hasn't played an NHL game since the end of that first-round series loss to San Jose.

Now, a year later, we employ a much more measured, indeed skeptical, tone for Forsberg's return to his former team, the Colorado Avalanche.

A year ago, Forsberg wasn't 100 percent, plagued by foot/ankle problems that led to groin problems. Still, the gifted center represented something special when he went from Philadelphia to Nashville, or at the very least represented the promise of something special.

Now? Forsberg's return is colored more by unanswered questions and doubt than real optimism.

A week ago, Forsberg's agent, Don Baizley, let NHL teams know his client didn't think his on-again, off-again ankle could withstand the rigors of NHL competition and he was unlikely going to be available for the rest of this season.

NHL general managers, even GMs who weren't in the running for Forsberg's services, praised him for his forthrightness, for not selling them a bill of goods based on the ghosts of past performances. Yet, less than a week later, that's exactly what Forsberg has done to the Avs; he's sold them on the chance that he might, for at least a short time, be what the team and its fans remember from his first stint in Colorado.

Forsberg said Monday he hadn't had a setback, but rather he didn't want teams holding off on other plans by waiting on him. In short, he didn't want teams depending on him. That's not necessarily a good thing.

There are many reasons Forsberg ended up back in Colorado. One of them, apparently, is the Avs made it clear they were going to share the risk with Forsberg because risk is part of the package when dealing with Forsberg.

It's not really the money that's at stake here (a $5 million deal prorated over the rest of the NHL season for about $1 million), but rather the potential for disappointment. No one disputes Forsberg's work ethic or desire to play even if, as Forsberg admitted, some of his friends think he's crazy to come back.

"I miss playing hockey," he said. "It's hard when you're sitting on the side when I think I can go out and do good."

But the bottom line is that no one, not even Forsberg, has the slightest notion how this is going to play out.

He doesn't know exactly when he'll come over to North America. He doesn't know exactly when he'll rejoin the Avs. He's likely to do it all as soon as possible, but when that might be, well, who knows?

Peter Forsberg
Peter Forsberg was at the height of his game during his Hart Trophy-winning season with the Avalanche in 2002-03.

Forsberg was unequivocal on one topic -- he won't play if his ankle isn't 100 percent.

"I don't want to do that," Forsberg said.

Asked to quantify his ankle's readiness, Forsberg seemed uncertain.

"I feel good, but it's hard to say," the 34-year-old said. "It's tough. I can't really tell you what number I'm at."

Whether he's half broken-down or all broken-down or just a little broken-down, Forsberg will fit in with a Colorado team that is put together with baling rope and a few sticks of chewing gum. Joe Sakic is just coming back after missing the past 38 games. Ryan Smyth, one of the team's key offseason free-agent signings, recently returned from a broken ankle and is still not in top form. Paul Stastny also just came back from an appendectomy that cost him more than a month of playing time.

Coach Joel Quenneville, who should deserve some coach of the year consideration for keeping this ragtag bunch of players in the playoff hunt, will now have to introduce yet another part to the lineup, even if Forsberg is familiar with the ins and outs of the Pepsi Center after playing nine seasons in Denver. "He gives us a lot of options," Quenneville said.

Forsberg was attractive to a host of NHL teams because all they needed was money to bring the unrestricted free agent aboard.

No doubt Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren felt a bit chagrined when he heard the news late Monday that Forsberg had decided to return to the mountains, even though Forsberg probably owed the Flyers more than any other team given the less than two disappointing seasons he put in there after the lockout.

Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon offered three years for Forsberg's services, a year more than pretty much anyone else did. No doubt he wonders how Forsberg ended up in Denver.

There were other teams that were hot for the center, whose rare blend of skill and grit made him, when healthy, arguably one of the best in the world.

In the end, those teams may be thankful their money could be spent elsewhere because there is at least a strong likelihood Foppa's return to Denver will turn into a Floppa.

Will he play five games? Ten? Maybe he leads the Avs into the playoffs. Maybe he helps them pull off an upset versus Anaheim or Detroit or Dallas. Maybe he signs on for next season and Colorado GM Francois Giguere looks like a genius. Or maybe it unravels in a big hurry, a once-great player reduced to limping around and hoping against hope his foot will hold up for one more game as his team scratches and claws to try to sneak into the playoffs.

In that sense, Forsberg may have risked far more than the Avs. All Colorado put up was money and hope; Forsberg has wagered his reputation and legacy on this mission.

Forsberg said he chose Colorado because of the fit, the comfort. He knows the coaching staff, the training staff; he knows the city and his place in that city's sporting lexicon. And maybe that's why this went down the way it did.

Giguere said he believed the Avs were in the best position to bring Forsberg back to the NHL because of his connection to the city, the two Stanley Cups, the Hart Trophy.

"No matter what happens moving forward, that legacy is going to stand," Giguere.

Maybe that was enough for Forsberg to pick Denver as the place for Foppa's last stand.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.