Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Hello! Welcome to Fourth Assist, a hockey blog focusing on everything between Colorado Avalanche and the Detroit Red Wings, to crappy ankle-bending beer league hockey! Yeah, I know it sounds like a contradictory set of topics, but I think we can make it work.

This blog used to be named Grading Dater, which focus was primarily picking on the Denver Post's utterly mediocre NHL and Avalanche coverage. So why the rebranding, you ask? Well first of all -- and you may not be ready to believe this --  I thought the title of the blog was a bit unfair to Adrian Dater. Don't get me wrong, he's still the worst NHL beat writer imaginable,1 but it's not only his work that sucks over at the Post, it takes a collective effort of a number of people pulling together as a team to suck that thoroughly. Grading Dater, Chambers, occasionally Frei, and -- as proof there is no God -- also Kizla just didn't have a nice ring to it. It's not Dater's fault that his name just happened to have the right meter and a bit of assonance with the word "grading," and so in my endless quest for fairness, I decided to change the name.

Second, I came to realize that Grading Dater had outlived its usefulness (this does depend, I admit, on the ridiculous notion that it had any usefulness to begin with). This is not to say that the Post's NHL coverage has improved -- far from it! If anything, they're getting worse... over at the Denver Post, they really don't care if they suck or not, they just want readers. They just want clicks on that blog and to collect followers on Twitter. Dater et al don't really care that they're creating ignorant, knee-jerk, Springfield-mob-type fans with their coverage; in fact, that's probably their goal. Sports journalism today is like reality TV: it doesn't have to be good, or educational, or even ethical... it only has to generate interest at an embarrassingly basic level. And much like reality TV, the only way it will ever go away is if we ignore it. Declining to further acknowledge the Post's hockey coverage is our own little contribution to this effort, and it leads right into reason number three.

Reason Number Three: The Grading Dater format limited, to a large extent, what I could write about. It was confining by design, which was fine and dandy for a while and actually created a comfort zone of sorts... it was a blog on one subject, even though that subject allowed me to write about hockey almost as an aside. A more stuck-up person than I might declare that he had "outgrown" the Grading Dater format, but you, dear reader, should know that chief among my innumerable virtues is humility... I am so F'ing humble, in fact, that I can simply say that the blog's format just got old and boring. By choosing to ignore Dater and the Post, I have stepped into a brave new world in which I can write about anything, with no pretense and no limitations! Whoo hoo!!!

With that in mind, on to our first topic:


Christ, I can't find it.
The hell with it!
The Avalanche, in case you haven't noticed -- and judging by the attendance, you haven't -- have the worst record in the NHL. They were hovering around .500 (in point %) when Ryan O'Reilly swooped down in his Charactermobile to save the season, and since that point the positive things that have happened to the Avs are as follows:

  • They ended Chicago's made-for-TV "unbeaten in regulation" streak, and 
  • Kyle Keefe called Peter McNab "Penis" on live TV. 

Seriously, that's the entire list.

There has been a certain faction of fans that has been calling for Joe Sacco to be fired since about halfway through the 2010-11 season. I have not been among them; the Avalanche were correct to continue with Sacco as their head coach this season. This team committed to a full rebuilding process in 2009 (Sacco's first year) when they drafted Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly. "Committing" to the process means you stick with the plan through a certain amount of rough spots, and that's what we've seen: from Sacco's hiring to the beginning of this season, the Avalanche have looked exactly like one would expect a rebuilding team to look. Unfortunately, all too few Avs fans have any idea what a rebuilding team actually looks like, because until now, they've never seen one. The problem this causes is that we don't know the difference between a rebuilding process that is on the right track, and one that is on the wrong track. Before this season, there was little evidence to suggest they were on the wrong track; the issues with the Avalanche from 2009-2012 were not rooted in their coach, but in their roster.

Sacco's first team in 2009-10, still peppered with veterans, surprised everybody with 95 points and a trip to the playoffs, Sacco was a finalist for the Jack Adams trophy, and Avalanche fans looked East with broad, gleaming faces towards a promising future. Since then, the Avs have gone through a lot of growing pains: a sharp decline back down near the bottom of the league in 2010-11, a bit of a ray of hope with a 41-win season (tempered by losing six of their last seven games to fall out of the playoff hunt) in 2011-12, and then of course, this season, which has devolved into nothing short of a disaster.

So coming into this season, I was in Sacco's corner, not because I thought he was a great coach, but because he was a coach in a tough situation, and patience was required as the roster took shape. Make no mistake, the team Sacco (and Greg Sherman) inherited was a freakin' mess, and there was a LOT of work to be done. The core of young talent that has been assembled by the Avalanche over the last four seasons is a good one... I really think this team can be very, very good before too long, but it will take some time. 

As I said, ups and downs like these are characteristic of a rebuilding team, and this team is most definitely a rebuilding team. Only seven members of that 2009-10 playoff team began this season on the Avalanche roster: Hejduk, Stastny, Jones, McLeod, and three who were rookies that season: Wilson, Duchene, and O'Reilly. So in the span of three seasons -- end of 2008-09 to start of 2012-13 -- 84% of the Avalanche roster was replaced. That's what rebuilding looks like, ladies and gentlemen, and those who blame Sacco for all of the Avalanche's woes seem to ignore this fact: the team he has been given to coach has been one in near-constant flux. A team where everything is changing needs something that doesn't change, and that's why I feel that keeping the same coach in place is a benefit to a rebuilding team. There is very little sense in firing a coach in the middle of a rebuilding process, especially when (as described above) the results were not entirely negative.

To back this up, I refer to the two most recent major rebuilds that started with a team in chaos and ended with huge success: the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks. The Penguins failed to make the playoffs for four straight years from 2001-02 to 2005-06. In that time, they were terrible, which allowed them to stockpile one high draft pick after another; they also changed coaches not once, but twice in that period. Each time they changed coaches, the team actually got worse... but after four years rebuilding (and not coincidentally, after adding one Sidney Crosby) the Pens came together. They made a first-round playoff appearance in 2006-07, made the finals in 2007-08, and won the Cup in 2008-09.

Similarly, the Blackhawks had a five-year stretch in which they failed to make the playoffs, from 2002-03 to 2007-08. After three consecutive years under one of the Sutters in which they fell about 20 points in the standings from each previous year (96-79-59), the Blackhawks (like the Pens) went through three coaches in the next three years as they built a youthful core of talent while languishing near the bottom of the conference. After their final coaching change, Joel Quenneville took them to the conference finals, and the year after that they were the Cup Champions.

Some would look at the above examples and conclude that all it took was for teams to find the "right fit" at coach, after which they gelled and became champions, but this ignores the larger fact here: every coaching change that was made too soon in the process either didn't make things better, or actually made them worse. Any team in a true rebuilding mode needs time to gain experience and to come together. More often than not, it gets worse before it gets better, but right around year four-five is when things start to improve noticeably. Any coaching change before that point is just wasted energy and accomplishes little.

The 2012-13 season is the fourth year of Sacco's reign and the third since their last playoff appearance, and based on previous successful rebuilding projects, it's the year some movement in a positive direction needed to be evident in Colorado. Considering the strength of the Western Conference, I'm not sure the playoffs was necessarily a reasonable goal for this season, but a competitive team moving in the right direction was vital this season. We saw some of that at the beginning of the year, but at this point, this team is a mess, and any movement in the right direction is obscured by the landslide of movement in the wrong one. Up until about four or five games ago, I thought the Avs were playing hard for the most part, but they were not always playing smart... now they're not even playing hard. They are not prepared to play, they are not reacting to what the opponent is doing, and they seem particularly lost in the defensive zone.

Much of this is still the result of an inexperienced roster lacking a veteran presence (the Avalanche did go and sign some veteran players -- a necessary part of any rebuilding team -- but the problem is that most of them just aren't any good, and if the young guys are learning habits from them, it's bad habits rather than good ones). However, the players they do have need to be improving even if they're not winning, and we're not seeing enough of that. Bottom line is this: it's not entirely Sacco's fault the Avalanche aren't winning in 2013, but it has become apparent that it is his fault they aren't learning from their mistakes, which are plentiful.

A team can play well and simply be outgunned, it happens all the time. On far, far too many nights, though, the Avs are not only outgunned, but they also play poor, sloppy, and confused hockey... which explains why they're dead freakin' last in the NHL.

The Avalanche should be at the stage where they start a demonstrative move up from the cellar to the next level. That move, which seemed possible at the end of last season, seems a million miles away with this group. Firing Joe Sacco prior to this year would have been jumping the gun, but in this year in which he needed to prove he deserved to keep his job, he's done little but to prove the opposite. Sacco should be fired at the end of this season, and replaced with an experienced NHL head coach who has been through this process before, and knows what buttons to push and strings to pull. Joe Sacco has had his opportunity with this team, but the time has come to give this team a new opportunity, with a new head coach.

1. This is not to claim that I have read each and every NHL beat writer in North America; rather, we are saying that to imagine a worse NHL beat writer requires a greater stretch of the imagination than we possess. And we once imagined a cross between a cheetah and an elephant. It was extremely fast and never forgot anything.

1 comment:

  1. I have not been one to call for Sacco's head particularly loudly, but I've thought (and said) for most of this season that his firing would probably be good for the team. I think Sacco has the potential to be a good coach, given the right team and situation, but he wasn't the right coach for this Avs team.

    What I'm not sure about is whether the Avs will find the right coach for this team. I suspect that Patrick Roy is in the running, and I'm confident that hiring Roy will be a bad decision . . . but if it's going to happen, let it happen now so that it can implode quickly and mercifully.