DENVER — Joe Sacco will be coaching with the NHL playoffs in full swing.
Only, it won’t be on the bench for the Colorado Avalanche after he was fired on Sunday as the team missed the postseason for a third straight season.
Instead, Sacco will lead a group of U.S. players at the world championships later this week. The roster includes some familiar faces, too, with Avalanche players Paul Stastny, Matt Hunwick and Erik Johnson making the trip with him to Europe.
A quick reunion and then a final farewell.
Sacco could never get the Avs on track in the lockout-shortened season, resulting in a last-place finish in the Western Conference. He just finished up his fourth season in charge of Colorado — going 130-134-30 — when the team announced his firing.
“The organization believes a change of leadership behind the bench is needed going forward,” general manager Greg Sherman said. “Joe has worked for this franchise for eight seasons and he is a dedicated and hard working coach. We appreciate all he has done and wish him the best in the future.”
The Avs will soon begin their search for a replacement.
They may also be in the market for a veteran forward, too.
Milan Hejduk, the last on-ice link to the 2001 Stanley Cup championship team, isn’t sure if he will be back for a 15th season. He took a moment to soak in the scene at Pepsi Center in the season finale on Saturday, winning the final faceoff of the year and taking the puck as a souvenir.
This wasn’t how he envisioned going out, should this indeed be his last season. It’s been a trying season in which Hejduk missed time with shoulder and torso injuries. He also finished with a career-low 11 points.
“We’ll see what’s going to happen in the offseason,” said the 37-year-old Hejduk, who is second in franchise history in games (1,020) and fourth in goals (375). “It was a short season, but it was a tough one.”
And a costly one for Sacco.
Sacco spent two seasons in charge of the organization’s American Hockey League affiliate squad, the Lake Erie Monsters, before taking over the Avs in 2009 after the firing of Tony Granato.
A former NHL player, Sacco preached a fast-paced style and it served the youthful Avalanche well in his first season as the team earned a postseason spot.
But Colorado couldn’t duplicate that success.
Moments after a 3-1 loss helped Minnesota clinch the final playoff spot in the West, Sacco was asked about his future, saying, “We’re certainly headed in the right direction.”
This much is certain: Colorado is guaranteed a high pick in the June draft. The team has an 18.8 percent chance of landing the top pick in a lottery that will be held on Monday, with the Florida Panthers — the worst squad in the league — having the best odds at 25 percent. Defenseman Seth Jones is widely considered the top prospect in the draft and a player who may instantly boost an organization.
A possible glimmer through the gloom of a long season, even if it was shortened to 48 games due to the lockout.
“This feels awful,” said Matt Duchene, who tied P.A. Parenteau for the team’s scoring lead with 43 points. “It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what caused it.”
Things got so bad that veteran goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere questioned the team’s heart earlier this month, ranting that some of the players were more focused on postseason vacation plans in Las Vegas than their performance on the ice. That got their attention, too, as the team went 3-2-2 down the stretch against teams that had already clinched playoff berths or contending for remaining spots.
“I know we have character in this room. We’ve shown that, with how well we can play,” said Giguere, whose team finished 16-25-7. “It’s never too late to start building on something positive and trying to change something — a losing attitude into a winning attitude.”
It’s certainly been an educational year for Gabriel Landeskog, who became the youngest player in NHL history to assume the captaincy role. The rookie of the year in 2011-12 missed 11 games with a concussion this season and scored nine goals.
“There are going to be some bumps in the road, but I’d rather take those now and get better,” Landeskog said.
Landeskog certainly had a good mentor, frequently calling Hall of Famer and former Avs captain Joe Sakic for advice on how to lead a team.
“It’s good to know he’s a phone call away,” Landeskog said.
Glad he was named a captain at such a young age?
“There are times, when you think maybe it was a little too early,” said Landeskog, who turned 20 on Nov. 23. “But it’s been great just learning and having that responsibility on my shoulders. That presses me to be better, both on and off the ice. That’s a good thing.”
Colorado never really found its footing in this fast-paced season. Not once did the team string together more than two wins and finished with a league-worst 4-16-4 record on the road.
The Avs also had the Ryan O’Reilly situation hovering over their heads for more than a month as he stayed away to negotiate a new deal. A few hours after O’Reilly signed an offer sheet with Calgary on Feb. 28, Colorado matched the offer of $10 million over two years, which included a $2 million signing bonus.
But even the return of the player nicknamed “Factor” to the lineup really couldn’t play a factor in a season that quickly went sideways.
“We had some tough sledding. We lost the handle on it,” Duchene said. “It’s disappointing. But come next season all of us have to have great summers and be ready to go. It was tough for us with the lockout. Teams that were ready when play resumed are in the playoffs. Teams that weren’t are not.”