A look at the Colorado Avalanche’s & Quebec Nordiques’ All-Decade team for the 1990s
This is part of a series detailing the all-decade team for every NHL franchise for the 1990s. The all-time teams were compiled using a mix of skill, longevity and statistics; it is not necessarily the best, most memorably or most talented players. Instead, this is the list of players by each position who had the best numbers over a prolonged period (i.e. at least three full seasons between 1990-91 and 1999-00) during the regular season.
Team: Colorado Avalanche (1995-96 to 1999-00) & Quebec Nordiques (1990-91 to 1994-95)
368-312-106, .536 WIN PCT, 2,610 GF vs. 2,454 GA, +156 Diff, 7/10 Playoff Appearances, 1 Stanley Cup
The decade certainly started out fugly for the Quebec Nordiques; they lost 50 games in ’90-91, and 48 games in ’91-92. They won a combined 36 games during those two seasons, with a goal differential of -181 and a win percentage of 30.6%. After finishing dead last in 1991, they selected Eric Lindros first overall. He refused to play for the team, and they dealt him to the Philadelphia Flyers in arguably the biggest trade in franchise history. The turnaround was immediate and profound: the Nordiques went 111-82-23 over the next three seasons, posting a win percentage of 56.7% and a goal differential of +87. They made the playoffs two of those three years, but couldn’t win a series (even blowing a 2-0 series lead over Montreal in 1993). It wasn’t enough though; the team moved to Colorado before the start of the ’95-96 season. And BOY did that move pay off: The newly-christened Avalanche won the 1996 Stanley Cup, and made the Conference Finals in 1997, 1999 and 2000. They went won 221 out of 410 games, posting a 61.0% win percentage and a +250 goal differential.
Overall, Colorado/Quebec’s combined win percentage in the 1990s was solid at 53.6%. This ranked them 8th out of 26 teams that played at least four seasons during the 1990s. Even counting their struggles in the early 1990s, the Avs/Nords combined to score 3.32 goals per game. This ranked them 3rd during the decade, behind only Pittsburgh and Detroit. Defensively they were suspect: they allowed 3.12 goals against per game, a fairly average ranking (14th). Their goal differential was just above average, at +156 (ranked 10th). Their defense was dragged down by the fact that they averaged 4.20 goals per game in ’90-91 and ’91-92; over the next eight seasons, their GAA was just 2.85. The Nordiques are still missed; they were always an exciting team even when they were bad, and they made for fantastic rivals with the Montreal Canadiens. A nice rivalry between Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec would be an absolute blast to watch in the current NHL. And it isn’t fair that Quebec lost their team JUST on the cusp of greatness (Peter Forsberg’s rookie season was ’94-95), and Colorado was handed a perennial contender with some of the greatest players in the game. But at least the Nordiques gave Quebec nearly 20 years of NHL hockey.
Left Wing: Valeri Kamensky (460 GP, 166-248-414, +45, 303 PIM, 22 GWG)
Kamensky debuted for the Nordiques in the ’91-92 season. He only played 55 games between ’91-92 and ‘92-93, but he scored 22 goals and 58 points. Over the next six seasons he was a little inconsistent, but a solid player. He had three seasons in the 26-28 goal range and 65-66 points range, along with his best in their Cup-winning ’95-96 season: 38 goals (18 on the powerplay, 5 game winners), 85 points and a +14 rating (all highs for his tenure with the Nordiques/Avalanche). His +/- was positive six times in eight seasons: he was typically in the -2 to +5 range, although he had three years in +12 to +14 territory. He had 22 game-winning goals, a healthy 13% of his total. He had four seasons with 4-5 GWG and five seasons with at least 5 PPG. Combine that with four seasons of 165+ shots on goal and you have a consistent offensive threat on the left wing.
Centre: Joe Sakic (702 GP, 341-555-896, +32, 317 PIM, 51 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Peter Forsberg
Peter Forsberg arguably the best player of the 1990s, but he had durability issues. He was always a point-per-game threat, scoring 50 points in 47 games as a rookie. He then followed that up with four seasons of at least 25 goals (including two 30-goal seasons) and at least 86 points (including a high of 116 in ’95-96). He then had 51 points in 49 games during an injury-shortened ’99-00. 26 game-winning goals too. But the cold, hard truth is that it would’ve taken a Mario Lemieux or a Wayne Gretzky (i.e. an all-world and all-generation talent) to unseat Joe Sakic as the #1 centre of Quebec/Colorado in the 1990s. Sakic spent his entire career with this franchise, and played 60+ games in each year of the 1990s (except the shortened ’94-95 season). In the lockout, he still scored 19 goals and 62 points (or a pace of ~30 goals and ~100 points). Beyond that, he scored at least 22 goals and 63 points in every year. He had three seasons where he scored 48-51 goals and 105-120 points. He had three other years of 92-96 points. Over the course of the decade, he had 60+ assists three times and 50+ assists on four other occasions. His +/- was weak (negative four times and even once in 10 seasons), but his ability to score in the clutch was unquestionable. He scored 5+ game-winning goals seven times, and he finished with 51 GWG (15% of his total). He also had 10+ powerplay goals seven times, including a high of 20 in ’92-93. He even added 26 shorthanded goals, including a high of 6 in ’95-96. During the 1996 playoffs, Sakic scored 18 goals and 34 points in just 22 games to lead the Avalanche to the Cup (winning the Conn Smythe as Playoff MVP).
Sakic didn’t win any regular-season individual awards during the 1990s: centres like Gretzky, Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Mark Messier were all in their prime, eating up the lion’s share of awards and attention. But Sakic played in six All-Star Games (five straight from 1991-1996, and another in 1998). And just after the 1990s ended, Sakic led the Avs to another Stanley Cup in 2001: he won the Hart (regular season MVP), Lester B. Pearson (MVP as voted by the players) and Lady Byng (most gentlemanly player) while finishing as a First-Team All-Star. Joe Sakic is unquestionably the greatest player in the history of the Nordiques/Avalanche, and the best player from their most successful era.
Right Wing: Owen Nolan (268 GP, 117-107-224, -9, 540 PIM, 12 GWG)
Owen Nolan is the only player from this list who didn’t win a Cup ring with the 1996 Avalanche. He was with the Nordiques all five seasons in the 1990s, but was traded early in the ’95-96 season to San Jose for Sandis Ozolinsh. Nolan was, to be blunt, AWFUL as a rookie in ’90-91: 3 goals, 13 points and a -19 rating in 59 games. He clearly wasn’t ready for the NHL. But the next year, boy was he. He had 42 goals and 73 points in ’91-92, and then 36 goals and 77 points in ’92-93. His +/- was weak, but he had 183-185 PIM and 15-17 powerplay goals in each of those seasons. He played in just 6 games during the ’93-94 season, but then rebounded for 30 goals and 49 points in 46 games (along with a +12 rating, 13 PPG and a staggering 8 game-winning goals) in ’94-95. That works out to a 50+ goal pace in a full season. He had 8 points in 9 games before being traded in ’95-96. Nolan was a physical force to be reckoned with. He rebounded from what could have been a crushing rookie campaign to put together three fantastic seasons as a power forward in the early 1990s. Trading him was difficult, but the right move: Nolan became the face of the Sharks at a time when they desperately needed an offensive star, and the Avalanche got the puck-moving defenseman they needed to put themselves over the top. Which brings us to the next player on our list.
Defense: Sandis Ozolinsh (333 GP, 72-181-253, +19, 271 PIM, 11 GWG)
Acquired early in ’95-96 for Owen Nolan, Ozolinsh gave an offensive jolt to Colorado’s blueline. He scored 50+ points four times in five seasons, including a high of 68 in’96-97. And he would have hit the 50+ point mark in ’98-99 had he played more (he recorded 32 points in 39 games). He hit double-digits in goals four times as well, including a high of 23 in ’96-97. He was always a threat on the powerplay, posting at 6+ PPG four times (with a high of 13 in ’96-97). He also contributed 11 game-winning goals, good for 15% of his total. One of the best offensive defenseman in the league during the late 1990s.
Defense: Adam Foote (558 GP, 28-103-131, +87, 868 PIM, 4 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Jon Klemm, Curtis Leschyshyn
Jon Klemm was an imposing figure on the Avalanche blueline in the back half of the 1990s: he was physical but disciplined, but lacked an offensive game. Curtis Leschyshyn had one of the toughest names to spell in all of hockey. He struggled with the Nordiques early on, but his stride with the team after the Eric Lindros trade: he had three seasons in the +25 to +32 range, and had six straight seasons of double-digit points (including a high of 32 in ’92-93). But Adam Foote had a more sustained impact over a longer period of time. He didn’t display much offensive flair with the Nordiques, scoring just 38 points in 207 games from ’91-92 to ’94-95. But he scored 16-21 points each year with the Avalanche from ’95-96 to ’99-00. During his nine-year stint, he was negative for +/- just twice, and never worse than -4. On the other side of the spectrum, he was +16 or better four times (including a high of +27 in ’95-96). He was tough too: three seasons of 124+ PIM, and three others in the 88-98 range. That combination of modest offensive skills and disciplined, physical play in his own end gives Foote the nod over Klemm and Leschyshyn.
Goalie: Patrick Roy (290 GP, 155-89-37, 19 SO, 2.37 GAA, 0.916 PCT)
Honourable Mention to Stephane Fiset
Stephane Fiset arrived just as the Nordiques were making their turnaround. He was Ron Hextall’s backup in ’92-93, but played well enough to seize the #1 role during the ’93-94 and ’94-95 seasons. His record was up-and-down with the team, but he was 84-62-21 overall with a 3.23 GAA and .895 PCT. He was a stellar 22-6-7 in 37 games during ’95-96; but when an all-world talent like Patrick Roy comes along, he’s taking the starting job (Fiset appeared in one playoff game, earning a Cup ring, but he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in the offseason). Sir Patrick was phenomenal. He didn’t get much in the way of individual awards with Colorado, but he won the Cup in 1996 and represented them in the 1997 and 1998 All-Star games. And JUST after the decade ended, he won the Conn Smythe as Playoff MVP when they won the cup in 2001. But back to the 1990s: Roy dressed for 39 games in ’95-96, going 22-15-1 with a 2.68 GAA and .909 PCT. And that was his WORST season as a member of the Avalanche. Over each of the next four seasons, he played 60+ games, won 30+, had a GAA of 2.39 or better and a save percentage of .914 or better. Overall during that four-year stretch he went 133-74-36 with 18 shut-outs, a 2.32 GAA and .917 PCT. Stellar numbers even for the Dead Puck era. It speaks to the depth of NHL goaltending in the back half of the 1990s (Dominik Hasek’s dominance, in particular) as to why Roy’s trophy collection did not expand during the back half of the 1990s. But he was the final piece of the puzzle that pushed Colorado from contender to champion.