DENVER (AP) – One by one, the Colorado Avalanche players yanked off their jerseys and handed them over to lucky fans before skating off the ice.
A fitting final tribute Saturday night since the Avs obviously won’t need those sweaters again.
For a second straight season, there will be no postseason hockey in the Mile High City as Colorado crumbled and crashed down the stretch. In the hunt until the last week of the season, the Avalanche simply ran out of steam, dropping six of seven to send them into the offseason.
The next time this squad assembles, there could plenty of new faces should management elect to eschew this youth movement and shake things up.
The biggest decision facing the team is what to do with coach Joe Sacco, who just finished up the third and final year of his contract. The team has yet to officially indicate whether he will be back and Sacco was reticent to address the topic after a 6-1 loss to playoff-bound Nashville in the regular-season finale.
“Can’t talk about that now,” Sacco said. “I feel bad for the players.”
Colorado may be in need of another on-ice leader as well. Captain Milan Hejduk remains torn between a return for a 14th season or retirement.
In the immediate wake of such a displeasing season, Hejduk said it wasn’t the right time to decide.
His emotions were far too raw.
Should Hejduk hang up his skates, the last remaining link to the team’s Stanley Cup days goes with him.
Still, Hejduk feels strongly this organization is headed in the right direction with or without his services. Under his watch this season, the Avs improved by 20 points from the year before, when they had the second-to-worst record in the league.
Not only that, but the team saw the rise of forward Gabriel Landeskog, the 19-year-old Swedish standout who’s a leading candidate for rookie of the year after a season in which he led the team in goals with 22.
“Look, we came up short and that’s disappointing,” Hejduk said. “But we have lots of young, talented guys. They’ll be even better next year.”
That’s a compelling reason for Hejduk to return. So is this: He’s just nine games away from reaching 1,000 for his career.
On the flip side, his confidence is waning after a sub-par season where he finished below the 20-goal mark for the first time since his rookie year in 1998-99.
Are his skills slipping? Can he still keep pace in a league dominated by speed?
Those are all questions tugging at him.
“I would like to know for sure if this was a bad year or this is actually it,” said Hejduk, who helped the team to the 2001 Stanley Cup crown. “It’s not going to be an easy decision.
“This year has been a little disappointing.”
A sentiment shared by many in the Avalanche locker room.
It was supposed to be a breakout season for Matt Duchene, the player who has drawn comparisons to boyhood idol Joe Sakic. But the 21-year-old Duchene had an injury-plagued and often inconsistent season for the Avalanche. A knee injury cost him 20 games and an ankle ailment another four. He just never got on track.
Through the trying times, Duchene attempted to keep an upbeat attitude.
“Whatever adversity we face and whatever holds us back right now will make us better down the road,” Duchene said. “I’ve gone through some stuff I’ve never gone through with two pretty major injuries. I know it’s going to make me a better player.”
One of the bright spots was the play of Semyon Varlamov, who may be emerging as the big-game goaltender the Avalanche have lacked since the days of Patrick Roy.
Colorado paid a steep price for the young Russian netminder last summer, surrendering an upcoming first-round pick in the deal with Washington.
Early on, it looked like the trade completely favored the Capitals. But as the season went along, Varlamov steadily improved. He had a stellar second half of the season, going 11-6-1 in his last 18 starts with a 1.88 goals-against average.
“He’s been the MVP,” Peter Mueller said. “You see how he’s playing over the last three months. It’s phenomenal to watch. It’s exciting to know you’re going out there with one of the top goaltenders in the league having your back.”
Whether Mueller returns remains up in the air. A talented scorer, Mueller played in just 32 games this season in large part due to a head injury. He missed all the 2010-11 season because of concussion-like symptoms.
Mueller is a restricted free agent, along with defenseman Erik Johnson, leading scorer Ryan O’Reilly and Duchene. So are Jamie McGinn and Steve Downie, two players the Avalanche acquired in separate deals before the trade deadline that provided a late-season boost.
McGinn had 13 points in 17 games since his arrival from San Jose – the team that edged out the Avs for the final playoff spot – while Downie was on a torrid pace before a shoulder injury slowed him down.
The unrestricted free agents include players such as defensemen Shane O’Brien and Matt Hunwick along with forwards Jay McClement, Cody McLeod, David Jones and, of course, Hejduk.
“I’ve never been in this situation before,” Hejduk said. “This is the first time (facing) the possibility that I might be done. I want to let things settle down and have a clear head to make a decision.
“But this team will only get better. There’s definitely a bright future.”
By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer
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