x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Colorado will miss extraordinary Joe

Joe Sakic's two-decade tenure as the face of the Colorado Avalanche - and the Quebec Nordiques, lest we forget - was extraordinary and exemplary.

They sent his jersey to the rafters on the opening night of the 2009/10 NHL regular season, and few players have deserved the honour more. Joe Sakic's two-decade tenure as the face of the Colorado Avalanche - and the Quebec Nordiques, lest we forget the pre-1995 version of the franchise - was extraordinary and exemplary: two Stanley Cups, a Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP, several 100-point seasons and more than 1,600 career points, the eighth highest total in league history.

And, in the bigger sense, Sakic's prowess and the rise of the Avs - which coincided with the team's arrival in Denver from Quebec - helped re-establish NHL hockey in Colorado, where the Rockies of the 1970s had tried (ineptly) and failed (spectacularly). But now he is gone, skating classily into retirement, and Colorado look dangerously close to resembling the awful team that Sakic joined in 1988, a team that would endure years of losing before becoming successful as Sakic entered his prime in the mid-1990s.

Last season, without an injured Sakic for 60-plus games - he hurt himself in a snow blower accident - the Avalanche were a shadow of the powerhouse that ruled the Western Conference for so long. And at first glance, things did not look good for the Avs going forward. But while the immediate future of the Sakic-less team is not promising, there are a few hints of Joe in the long-term outlook. For starters, the new Sakic in town is Paul Stastny, son of Peter (who defected to Quebec from Czechoslovakia in 1980 and became an instant star and a teammate of a rookie Sakic in 1988).

The younger Stastny, like Sakic (and Peter), is an understated and underrated player who lets his on-ice action do his speaking for him. Like Sakic, Stastny is a highly skilled centre who missed most of last season because of injuries. But, unlike Sakic, Stastny is back on the ice and, assuming he can stay healthy, his presence alone will benefit Colorado, who finished a desperate 28th overall in the 30-team NHL last season.

The good news is the Avs picked a good year to be bad. Their lowly finish gave them the third overall pick in June's entry draft, and they selected the stellar Matt Duchene. Like Sakic, Duchene is a bit on the small side and boasts great speed and sublime offensive talents. The teenager has needed all of two NHL games to prove himself in the big-league; if he can build on his super-fast start to the season, Avs fans will be able to look up at Sakic's banner in the rafters with gratitude - rather than a longing for No 19's return.

With Stastny and Duchene as the Colorado's one-two punch down the middle for the next decade or so, the Avs can breathe easier about their forward corps. Other questions remain, of course. Is goalie Craig Anderson a true starter in the NHL? Do the Avs have enough depth - and talent - at any position? Is Joe Sacco a capable rookie NHL coach? The same question can be asked of Greg Sherman, the team's unheralded GM, in his first year calling the shots.

And how about the fans, so spoiled by a decade of Sakic-led success? Will they continue to pack the home rink to support a losing team? They certainly didn't in the 1970s; although to be fair, the woeful Rockies never came close to a winning season, let alone winning a championship. The long-time captain is gone, and the good ship Avalanche is under duress while charting a new direction. But with a pair of young Sakic-esque talents in Stastny and Duchene, there is still a sense of Joe in the Denver mountain air.

smccaig@thenational.ae