On the Colorado Scene is my commentary page. This also includes links to my Mile High Sports commentaries and magazine pieces. Links to selected Greeley Tribune columns and features are on a separate page.

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February 7, 2019

 

Sakic support of Bednar

seems genuine -- and it's

the right thing to do 

Bednar5.jpg

 

 

The Avalanche is reeling. 

 

After a 4-3 overtime loss at Washington Thursday, the Avs had lost five in a row and were 5-15-4 in their last 24. Yes, only five wins in their past 24, or since they were 17-7-5 after a December 6 win at Florida.

  

Especially in hockey, I've always felt that it's unseemly to be among the first to broach the issue of whether a coaching change is imminent, and/or needed. That's because it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm not saying a single writer or media member bringing it up makes a change inevitable, but once the speculation starts, it can gather momentum.

 

This is a league in which general managers -- some of them former coaches -- have championed the scapegoating phenomenon, deflecting the blame for on-ice problems from the front office to the bench. And it goes beyond that. If players "tune out" coaches, it's often because they've gotten the impression they can or are expected to -- and can get away with it.

 

So Joe Sakic's decisive statement that he's not considering firing Jared Bednar is a bit refreshing. It's also fairly convincing because Sakic already has shown he will defy NHL convention, as evidenced when he stuck with Bednar after the horrendous 48-point 2016-17 season, the worst bang-for-the-buck season in NHL history. It would have been embarrassing to fire Bednar after only one season, but it also wouldn't have been all that surprising. Sakic was convinced that Patrick Roy's August resignation put Bednar in a difficult position, but he still could have taken the easy way out and made another change.           

 

This is not an unconditional, blind endorsement of Bednar's work. The coach must be accountable, too, and if Sakic concludes after the season that something must be done, fair enough. But now? It would be panic, it would be making Bednar accountable for having awful goaltending and a roster with other deficiencies being exposed. Bad goaltending is deflating and demoralizing, and it affects everything. But this also is a team still without enough scoring depth beyond the top line -- when it's together -- and with two smallish defensmenen among its top six. Yes, Tyson Barrie and Samuel Girard are adept puck-handlers and offensive threats, but it's playing with fire in the defensive zone. (Plus, Girard hasn't been as productive offensively as he needs to be.)          

 

It's this simple. It really is. If either goalie, Semyon Varlamov or Philipp Grubauer, gets his act together, the other issues suddenly will seem less significant and debilitating.  The question is how soon, or even if, that will happen. The most amazing thing of all is that the Avalanche hasn't fallen completely out of playoff contention. The Avs can get back in the hunt -- that's a tribute to Irv Brown -- with one good run. 

 

A coaching change now, or in the foreseeable future, isn't the answer.   


January 26, 2019

Is it time to try the

confectionary store

clerk in the Avs' net? 

 

Hardy2.jpg 

 

At the arrival of the All-Star break and then its bye period, the Avalanche had gone 5-13-3 in its previous 21 games.

 

The biggest shock of all is that Colorado still is hanging on to what would be the second wild card playoff spot in the Western Conference by its fingernails. Seven teams, including the Avalanche, are within three points of one another in the race for the two spots. Yes, the Avs, thought to be on the rise after last year's 95-point season, seems to have been reduced to shooting for a wildcard spot again.     

 

I'll concede this:  The Avalanche is not perfectly constructed.

 

The Avs need more secondary scoring, beyong the NordiCanadian Line of Nathan MacKinnon centering Gabe Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. 

 

They every once in a while falls victim to the perills of having two undersized, if speedy and crafty, defensmen among the top six. Neither Tyson Barrie nor Sam Girard are capable of physically intimidating work in front of the Colorado net. Or anywhere else. And as a group, the Avs' "D" has been no better than mediocre.  

 

But let's be real. 

 

The major problem here is the goaltending.   

 
The lack of faith in the men is in the net is debilitating for any team, and one of the reasons is that it becomes a rationalization. . . or a self-fulfilling prophecy. Teammates become tight, overly concerned that a single mistake too often can lead to a puck in the back of the (wrong) net. And on the rare nights when the goaltending is major-league and larcenous -- in other words, on the nights when the Colorado goalie has done his job -- the post-game narrative is a condescending overreaction, as if Semyon Varlamov or Philipp Grubauer has reprised Patrick Roy or Dominik Hasek in their primes and the game video should be sent to the Hall of Fame in Toronto.

 

With 32 games remaining, of course, it's possible that one or the other could snap out of this and give the Avalanche competent work in the net. But for now, this is just flat-ut unacceptable: Varlamov has a goals-against average of 2.82, only 25th among NHL qualifiers, and a save percentage of .908. In his contract year, while attempting to prove that he can stay healthy, the issue of whether he again can do elite work moving forward in the net has reappeared. Grubauer's goals-against of 3.38 is awful, 46th among the 50 qualifiers, and his save percentage of .891 is below what I tend to call the Astrom Line for a reason.

            

Flashing back to the 1979-80 season -- yes, nearly 40 years ago -- the outspoken and snappily-attired Don Cherry passed through to coach the lowly Colorado Rockies for one season.

 

 

Cherry hated his goaltenders. The goaltending indeed was bad, but in retrospect, I probably concurred too easily with Cherry’s position that Hardy Astrom, who was acquired from the New York Rangers and making decent money, was the worst NHL goalie of all time. That team had a lot of problems beyond its own crease.

 

A handful of others in the league who played twenty or more games that season had worse goals-against averages than his 3.75, and there were even a couple who played more than half their teams’ games—Hartford’s John Garrett and Los Angeles’s Mario Lessard. Regardless, Cherry held his nose long enough to use Astrom in 49 games, while also trying Bill McKenzie, Michel Plasse, and Bill Oleschuk in the net.

 

It came to a head in February, when the Rockies had to settle for a 4–4 tie at Hartford when Plasse had only 17 saves.

 

Cherry had let loose many times, but he got into high gear that night. “Our goaltending was horse—-,” he said, standing a few feet from the trailer where I had done a between-periods interview with a fledgling Connecticut-based cable operation called ESPN. “Let’s face it. Come on. Let’s be honest. We’re not going to go anywhere until we get a goalie. I’ve tried everyone except the guy who works in the confectionary store.”  

 

Jared Bednar's code word for substandard goaltending is "OK." As in, "He was OK." He hasn't tried to insult anyone by letting the goalies off the hook, but he hadn't let loose, a la Cherry, either.


It's that simple. If the Avalanche doesn't big-time goaltending, from someone, down the stretch, this season will be both regression and a huge disappointment, wasting the magical work of the top line. 

 

 

       

January 20, 2019

Can Kroenke

Sports Empire

Stay on a Roll? 

Court.jpg

After the Avalanche routed the Los Angeles Kings Saturday, workers put the finishing tuuches on installing the floor for what turned out to be the Nuggets' romp over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

 

The Los Angeles Rams are going to the Super Bowl. And they're just part of the Stan Kroenke sports empire that also includes the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Rapids, Colorado Mammoth, and Arsenal FC.

 

Could this just be the start? 

 

An audacious thought, I know, but the Kroenke portfolio mostly was struggling mightily on the field, court, ice and pitch not all that long ago and this already represents a turnaround.

 

So...

 

The Sean McVay-coached Rams obviously have a bona fide chance of giving Kroenke an opportunity to accept the Vince Lombardi Trophy -- which is no Stanley Cup -- after Super Bowl LII in Atlanta in two weeks.  

 

Can that be just the start of a big year for the Kroenke empire?

 

The question, of course, is what would qualify.   

 

I'd say on this side of the pond, it would be the Nuggets and the Avalanche both at least reaching their Western Conference finals, the Rapids returning to respectabiity in Major League soccer after a dreadful 2018, and indoor lacrosse's Mammoth recovering from a slow start to make the National Lacrosse League playoffs.   

 

And on the other side of the Atlantic, it would mean Arsenal -- currently embroiled in controversy and mediocrity at best on the pitch in the English Premier League -- at least do well enough to convince the rabid and critical soccer fandom that the Kroenke ownership isn't incompetent at the real football. Kroenke has been involved in ownership since 2007 and has been sole owner since last August.  

  

The Nuggets, with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray leading the way, are a half-game behind the Warriors in the Western Conference going into Monday's games are are the top candidates to make a deep playoff run. The problems are that last Tuesday's Warriors rout of the Nuggets in Denver was remindful that Golden State is meandering through the regular season and capable of flipping the switch at any time -- and on any night. A title? If -- and that's a big if  -- the Nuggets get past the Warriors to reach the NBA Finals, they've had problems with Milwaukee, the most likely finalist from the East.

 

The Avalanche has been maddening, mercurial and underachieving and the biggest favor anyone can do for them is to stop making excuses. They aren't playing Hall of Fame goalies every night, their puck luck isn't always bad, and any team with three linemates headed to the All-Star Game should be held to a higher standard now that residing on the playoff bubble.

 

But we all know the way this league works. In some ways, I'm convinced the Avalanche has a better chance of making its league finals than does the Nuggets. I'm not sayin g it will happen. I'm saying it could. That's because there's no Warriors here and if Semyon Varlamov stands on his head from the second he arrives at the rink to the time he leaves, the whole dynamic changes. Plus, this now is a talented -- talented, not deep -- enough team to pull it off in a wide-open league. 


Beyond the Nuggets and Avs, the Mammoth needs a bunch of sock tricks, the Rapids need to stop collecting ties, and the Rams need to continue to have the guys in stripes let 'em play. 

    

 

January 13, 2019

 

Alex English was both

smooth and breathtaking

 .  

alex3.jpg

 Alex English at the Nuggets' game against Portland Sunday night. 

 

  

On Sunday night, the Nuggets commemorated "Skyline" night by wearing their retro jerseys -- which look like someone put the original skyline jerseys in the washing machine with way too much bleach -- against Portland and honored former smooth-as-silk forward Alex English.

  

I went to say hi and be a part of English's pre-game media availability.

 

The previous time we visited was at the Nuggets' home opener last season, against Sacramento in October 2017. The Nuggets honored a handful of former players that night, including English, David Thompson, Dan Issel, Byron Beck and Dikembe Mutombo.


This time, the spotlight was on English ... alone.

 

Although his number (2) was retired in 1992, when the Nuggets still played in McNichols Sports Arena, and it now hangs in the Pepsi Center, English for many years felt a disconnect with the Nuggets after his trade to Dallas and then during his working career as an assistant coach and scout. He wasn't shunned; it was more apathy. Now, in part thanks to vice president of basketball operations Lisa Johnson, a treasure trove of institutional knowledge, the Nuggets have done a better job of re-embracing their past.         

 

"I feel much better," English said. "If you look at most teams that are successful, they're successful because they have a history that is part of their success. You look at the Lakers, you always see Kareem and Magic and Kobe talk about that being their team. And the Celtics as well. So I think history is vey important. I can compliment them on reaching out to all of their former players and bringing them back and making them feel like they are a part of what they have been, what they've built." 

   

He said of his reacton when he returns: "Of course, it's a different arena. But it's always great to come back, especially now that they're doing so well, and to see the fans come out to support them ... I have fond memories of being here in Denver and playing for Doug Moe and playing for the teammates I had. I had a wonderful time."

 

I joked with him about having fond memories of the irascible Moe, whose verbal prodding made English a better player -- and whose passing-game, relentless-movement offense made English a star.


"To you guys, he was probably like a big mean, ol' bad boy," English said. "But he was a big baby. You get him off the court, get him out of the environment, he's just a big baby."   

 

After the hockey Rockies moved to New Jersey in 1982, I was switched to the Nuggets beat.

 

Alex was aready there.

 

Because of the convivial atmosphere in McNichols Sports Arena in those days, with media wandering through both offices, I didn't feel as if I was starting from scratch, and I knew a lot of folks in the Nuggets' organization. Moe already was calling me "Dip----," as he did with everyone he liked (or, in some cases didn't like).

 

One of my first assignments on the beat was to cover the then-troubled Thompson's trade to Seattle, and all the dramatic subplots surrounding it. (He never got to wear the skyline jersey.)

 

Thompson's departure nudged English a bit more to the Nuggets' forefront, and that was the silver lining.

 

English was the sneakiest, sleekest, smoothest big-time scorer in NBA history, always moving in the passing game. He was not made for SportsCenter highlights; what he did was maneuver, glide, float ... and score. His nickname -- "Pink Panther" -- was apt.

 

At the end of the night, if you weren't tracking it, you'd go: "He had how many points?" And they all counted.

 

He was a great player who didn't get enough credit because of his low-key personality and a game that took paying attention to, to truly appreciate. The Nuggets were his third stop, after Milwaukee and Indiana, and we hadn't seen this coming.

 

Among the English highlights the Nuggets show of English when they honor him is one that believe sums him up. It was a gliding shot over and past a challenging Maurice Lucas, then with Phoenix. It was nothing flashy, but he simply got the shot with one of the most physical players in the league with his arms up and within, oh, 18 centimeters.

 

That's how Alex scored. averaging 25.9 points in 11 seasons with the Nuggets. He scored in traffic or without flashiness leaned almost imperceptively just far enough to get the shot off -- and in.

 

I asked him how his game would fit in today's league.

 

"Well, you know I'm not a three-point shooter," he said. "I still would be a mid-range game player. There's some room for mid-range. I worked with DeMar DeRozen in Toronto. He's a mid-range player that I love to see play. That's missing in the game today. But it's exciting to see guys come down and if they know how to shoot threes, to make threes. It's exciting to see that. Different style, though. For a minute there everybody was talking about defense and trying to play like the Pistons. And as we evolved and as the Golden State Warriors started playing like the Denver Nuggets of old, everybody said, 'That's how we need to be playing.' Everybody's kind of migrated back to the old ways with the addition of the threes." 

  

He was asked what he thought when seeing James Harden launch 15 three-pointers in a game.

 

"It drives me crazy," he said. "Even though I scored a lot of points, and I shot the ball a lot, I was a team player. I liked getting my teammates involved and letting them be a part of the game as well."

   

But that was the beauty of the passing game, with its constant moving -- of both bodies and ball. By definition and design, everyone was involved, regardless of who scored. Including guard T.R. Dunn, who rarely kept the ball for more than four-tenths of a second.


"I wish I was still coaching," English said. "It's an unstoppable offense. Even if you wanted threes, you still could get threes. But nobody has adapted, or tried to adapt Doug Moe's offense. It was so successful, as you know ... And contrary to what people say about us playing defense, if you look at the teams that forced the most turnovers, blocked the most shots, we were always there. We had three, or four, actually, of the toughest defenders that have played the game in T.R. Dunn, Bill Hanzlik, Elston Turner, and Wayne Cooper's got to be there for shot blocking."   

   

English has been watching this Nuggets team with great interest from afar.

  

"They've got a good vibe going," he said. "They're winning. It helps when the fans come out and support you. And they've got a good coach. Mike Malone's a very good coach. He's done a very good job of bringing them together ... I personally feel they'll be in the Western Conference Finals, if they continue to play like this. They're such a balanced team. Even though (Nikola) Jokic and (Jamal) Murray get a lot of credit, when I watch them I see a lot of different pieces that contribute. I'm glad to see Will Barton back. I feel like he's a major part of their success and once he gets back and gets acclimated to playing, he's going to be a big contributor. And you all haven't had Isaiah Thomas yet. I coached Isaiah Thomas in Sacramento. I think he's going to be a bg plus for this team because he can score. Tough little guy."

   

Sandy Clough of "The Fan" asked him about Jokic, who a little later would have 40 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists against the Blazers. 

  

"He sees the floor so well, he scores, he shoots threes," English said. "The only other player in the league right now that I feel is comparable to him is DeMarcus Cousins, who I coached in Sacramento. He's got a lot of the same skills and maybe Anthony Davis."  

 

Now, about those skyline jerseys. I've told this story before, but it's appropriate. The Nuggets unveiled the original version at a news conference after holding a fan contest to design them. At the news conference, they said they had brought in a special model, and then Kiki Vandeweghe came out in the new jersey. And we were told that after lengthy negotiations, he had just agreed to a new, long-term contract. They had managed to keep that quiet, and it was a big deal.

 

Shortly thereafter, the winning designer visited me at the newspaper office.


He was mad that the Nuggets hadn't exactly followed his design.