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If the prevailing theory sounded any wackier, you would have
thought Colorado had held its training camp in Roswell, N.Mex.
Anyway, here goes: The team with the best playoff goalie,
Patrick Roy; the best pair of centers, Joe Sakic and Peter
Forsberg; a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman, Sandis Ozolinsh;
and a wealth of supporting talent isn't starting 1997-98 in
search of a third straight Stanley Cup, because it traded
hulking winger Chris Simon early last season.

The theory is equal parts fact and fancy. Sure, the Avalanche,
the NHL's most aesthetic team, got a little too pretty after it
dealt a fighter who was skilled enough to play on a top line
without embarrassing himself. But to think that the absence of a
roughneck winger who hardly dressed during the 1996 run to the
Cup was the reason for Colorado's semifinal exit at the hands of
the Red Wings is too facile. Not only does the simple Simon
theory give no credit to Detroit's near-perfect play, but it
also ignores untimely injuries to Forsberg, winger Keith Jones
and defenseman Uwe Krupp.

"We also didn't have the hunger," coach Marc Crawford says of
his team's elimination last spring. "Maybe we were a little full
of ourselves."

This time a hungrier Avalanche will be back for seconds on the
Stanley Cup. Yes, the lack of toughness remains an issue, the
mole on the chin of this attractive team. Crawford has stressed
"shared responsibility" for physical play, a noble concept that
doesn't totally compensate for the lack of a player who is so
ferocious that opposing players wet their beds at the mere
thought of him. But even if Colorado doesn't come up with an
enforcer--6'4", 213-pound rookie defenseman Wade Belak, who got
the best of Simon in an exhibition-game fight, might be the
guy--Detroit proved in the finals that a thoroughbred can handle
a Brobdingnagian like Philadelphia.

Colorado general manager Pierre Lacroix did, however, take care
of his most pressing problem last summer when he matched the
Rangers' three-year, $21 million offer sheet for Sakic, who was
a restricted free agent. Of course, the entire package wasn't
the sticking point for Colorado. The Rangers front-loaded the
contract with a $15 million signing bonus, and cash-strapped
Ascent Entertainment, which owns the Avalanche and the Denver
Nuggets, had to cobble together a partnership with Fox Sports
Rocky Mountain and Liberty Media to come up with the money in a
week or Sakic would have been Broadway-bound.

There's a history between these organizations in the way, say,
Jerry and Newman have a history. The ill will began in 1992 when
the Nordiques, as the Avalanche was known before it moved from
Quebec to Colorado in '95, traded Eric Lindros's rights to both
Philadelphia and New York, an inexplicable bit of double-dealing
that had to be sorted out by an arbitrator. Then, in '95,
Lacroix incurred the wrath of Rangers general manager Neil Smith
by making backdoor inquiries about New York defenseman Sergei
Zubov. Finally, in July, before making its bold bid for Sakic,
New York signed Colorado's unrestricted free agent Mike Keane, a
superior penalty killer and one of hockey's best leaders.
Lacroix harrumphed, "We all know the Rangers have been very
active in the galaxy of free agency. I'm sure the first alien
will sign and play for the Rangers one day, but only if his
planet cannot match."

In a talent-poor league in which some teams have trouble putting
together one good line, Colorado has two fabulous units. Sakic,
who swapped wingers like trading cards last year, will play with
Claude Lemieux on his right and have Jones on his left when
Jones returns to action in mid-November. Forsberg, the NHL's
most complete forward, will play with Adam Deadmarsh and Valeri
Kamensky on a No. 2 line that is more dangerous offensively than
the first.

But the 32-year-old Roy remains the Avalanche's most significant
player. Although his mobility is diminishing and his
puckhandling remains frightening to his own team, Roy is a force
in the dressing room. He's the overgrown imp who taunted the Red
Wings, urging them, for example, to show up with their best
stuff for Game 4 of the semis. Roy, alas, got his wish. "I think
the problem was that we depended on Patrick to bail us out of
every situation," Crawford says. "The more you look at the
season and the playoffs, you see he was phenomenal." Colorado
will again count on Roy to play at least 60 games, while keeping
highly regarded 20-year-old Marc Denis in the minors for at
least another year of seasoning.

As the careful handling of Denis shows, the Avalanche's talent
is starting to stack up like 737s over Denver International in a
snow squall. Colorado is trying to work Eric Messier into a
solid defense that includes Krupp, Ozolinsh, Adam Foote and
Sylvain Lefebvre, and it had no choice but to ship Scott Young,
a veteran winger with valuable offensive skills, to the Mighty
Ducks for a third-round draft choice. Lacroix has stockpiled
three first-round draft choices and five other picks in the
second and third rounds in 1998, giving him leverage to make
deals. Add the infusion of cash from Fox and Liberty Media, plus
the soon-to-be gurgling revenue streams from a new arena, due to
open in 1999, and the future appears as bright as the present.
One way or another, the Avalanche is going to be tough for




COLOR PHOTO: DAN HAMILTON/VANTAGE POINT Talent-rich Colorado, led by nonpareil center Forsberg, is shooting for a second Cup in three years. [Peter Forsberg in game]



1. Paul Kariya, Mighty Ducks
2. Sergei Fedorov, Red Wings
3. Peter Bondra, Capitals


1. Joe Sakic, Avalanche
2. Brett Hull, Blues
3. Paul Kariya, Mighty Ducks