When the Colorado Avalanche exited the playoffs in the second round
against San Jose, the perceived underachievement raised a couple of issues:
1. Whose fault was it?
2. Did the likely return of Peter Forsberg to Sweden and the
possibility of a salary cap in the next NHL season -- whenever that is -- mean
the franchise is headed for a significant regression after a decade among
the league's elite?
Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix was adamant the day after
the Colorado playoff elimination that head coach Tony Granato remained a
bright coaching prospect in the league, and that he would be back for the
next season. He preferred to emphasize Colorado's 100-point regular-season,
which wasn't quite enough to bring the franchise a 10th straight division
championship, but came in the wake of Patrick Roy's retirement.
In a league that makes an art of scapegoating coaches, Lacroix's quick endorsement of
Granato was a decisive vote of confidence.
But in July, Lacroix hired Joel Quenneville, the one-time Avalanche
assistant, as the new head coach, and said that Granato had acquiesced in
his own demotion.
Granato had 31 games of coaching experience, all as a Colorado
assistant, when he succeeded Bob Hartley in December 2002.
"We hired Tony Granato because we thought he had the qualities to be
a great head coach and a great asset for our company," Lacroix said
recently. "Three months later, we have to have a head-coaching move. Going
outside was an alternative. If we stayed inside, and we believed that
Granato had the potential to be a great head coach, all we were asking was
for him to take over earlier. He took the challenge and he handled it very,
very well, better than expected. Then he loses his assistant coach (Rick
Tochhet, who resigned). You could put an ad in the paper and say you need an
assistant coach, but we're particular in our details."
Eventually, after talking with Granato for several days about the
vacancy on the coaching staff, Lacroix brought up Quenneville.
"I said, 'Tony, there's another way, if you want to think about it,' " Lacroix said.
The other way was going after Quenneville.
So when the Avalanche begins to play again, it will be with the
former Colorado Rockies defenseman running the bench, and with Granato as
his assistant. And Lacroix is adamant that he wasn't considering bringing in
Quenneville late in the season, when he was rumored to be doing so.
If the lockout ends in time for a 2004-05 season, Quenneville still will
have a deep roster. The Avalanche added Antti Laaksonen, Ian Laperriere and
Vincent Damphousse in the offseason. Paul Kariya remains in limbo, probably
until the CBA is settled, but it's likely that both he and Teemu Selanne
have played the final games for Colorado.
And Forsberg's status will remain up in the air, though it seems he has maneuvered his contract status to allow him to play at least one season in Sweden.
As the Avalanche -- like everyone else -- waited to see what happens
with the CBA, Lacroix responded to ESPN.com's questions. Keep in mind the
context: In his decade as a general manager, Lacroix consistently has
publicly advanced the view that the organization is like a family, and his
assessments often are guarded and emphasize the positive.
ESPN.com: Your assessment of last season?
Lacroix: "We had another successful season with 100 points, despite
facing adversity with over 415 man-games lost to injury. It was the fifth
100-point season we have had in nine seasons in Colorado, and we have to be
pleased with it."
ESPN.com: Which players had the most impact last season?
Lacroix: "Many of the young players who were developed through our
system enjoyed strong seasons -- David Aebischer, John-Michael Liles and
Marek Svatos. Unfortunately, Svatos missed the majority of the regular
season with a shoulder injury. Also, as they have done every season, our
core players responded with another strong season."
ESPN.com: Which player needs to take the next step?
Lacroix: "Several of our young players are developing well and we're
looking for them to continue to improve."
ESPN.com: Who in your system might be ready for the NHL?
Lacroix: "Every training camp, we've had pleasant surprises, and I am
convinced it will not be any different this year."
ESPN.com: What was the top priority to improve the organization this
Lacroix: "Our main priority has always been to provide our fans with a
competitive and exciting product on the ice and show them that we want to
play in the last game of the season every year."
ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment of the season?
Lacroix: "Reaching 100 points despite adversity. Also, Patrick Roy
Night on Oct. 28 was a special moment for the organization."
ESPN.com: And your least favorite?
Lacroix: "We tried our best and fought hard, but it would be not
reaching our ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup."
ESPN.com: What took you the furthest away from hockey this summer?
Lacroix: "I enjoyed a lot of great times with my grandson, Max."
Terry Frei, of The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."