For Terry Frei's On the Colorado Scene commentaries, go here
Long under discussion, about to move forward, this page is intended to a preliminary,
free step before the rolling out of a new paid site with regular commentaries from a small stable of proven, respected Colorado professionals.
The emphasis will be on Colorado sports, but it will
be free form and eclectic. It can be simply reaction to events or deeply reported profiles or narratives with an attitude and viewpoint. There will be no attempt made to "cover"
any team and inform you of injuries, callups, obscure statistics, and minutiae with short shelf life, but to comment on what's
going on and illuminate.
The views expressed here will not necessarily gibe with mine ... and all that other small-print disclaimer stuff. These scribes will be
able to stand up for themselves. -- Terry Frei
Scroll down for:
June 12: Ryan Boulding on Ryan O'Reilly
June 4: Jeff Morton on Raptors exec Masai Ujiri
May 24: Ryan Boulding on what Pavel Francouz signing means
May 23: Ryan Boulding on Avalanche's offseason options.
May 20: Jeff Morton on the Nuggets' Tim Connelly melodrama.
By Ryan Boulding:
Ryan O'Reilly is a
Left to right: Gary
Bettman, the Conn Smythe Trophy, and Ryan O'Reilly
First of all, let me say congratulations to the St. Louis Blues and the Boston Bruins on one hell of an entertaining,
exciting, and tense Stanley Cup Final. The effort from both sides was top-notch the whole way.
There were also some incredible
storylines to follow throughout the playoffs.
Zdeno Chara playing through a broken jaw, and likely Vince Dunn as well, is not only
commendable but insanely dedicated. Pat Maroon taking a discount to return to his hometown, where his son was living, puts
a bow on a tender moment. The fact that the Blues went from last in the league in early January to winners of the top prize
in June is nearly impossible to comprehend.
And let’s be honest, the city of St. Louis landing its first-ever Stanley Cup
is certainly more enjoyable than watching the city of Boston take home another title.
Now to the meat of the column: Congratulations
to Ryan O’Reilly, the Conn Smythe winner as the playoff MVP.
It’s OK for those in Colorado to be happy about his accomplishment.
of a profane phrase in Avalancheland, mentioning O’Reilly often means being met with one of two emotions from those
who fanatically cheer the burgundy and blue.
vitriol from those who still feel a lingering sense of betrayal at the way things played out with the man who wore No. 37
in Colorado for three seasons before donning his signature No. 90 in 2012. Then there’s those who are lost in the void
of the question of what could have been had things not gone sour.
Both are steeped in the fact that "Factor," or "Radar," depending
on whom you ask, certainly was a fan favorite during his five and a half seasons — if you count the lockout shortened
2012-13 — with the Avs.
He stormed out of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, where he went 33rd overall, to become the youngest
player in team history to make his NHL debut and never looked back. The Clinton, Ontario, native put up 246 points (90 goals,
156 assists) with Colorado before a tenuous situation with management finally boiled over ahead of the 2015 NHL Draft.
It was during this
stretch where O’Reilly began to blossom into the Selke Trophy-worthy flower that he is today, a likeness of Patrice
Bergeron on either side of the puck. He could play offense, he could play defense, he could play center or wing. He would
run the bleachers in Pepsi Center after games, win or lose, just to constantly keep improving. He didn’t rest on his
green laurels. He could stay out of the penalty box and he wanted to get paid fairly for his services.
Unwilling to take
a bridge deal, as had fellow 2009 draftee Matt Duchene, O’Reilly entered a contract holdout situation after his entry-level
deal expired in 2012. The lockout didn’t help negotiations, and when word came down from on high that the season would
be played from the half-way point on, O’Reilly was still waiting for an equitable offer. He was playing in the KHL during
the work stoppage, and there he remained for a time when many of his fellow sojourners returned to their betrothed squads.
That detail is important,
because it very nearly played a disastrous role in what followed.
After returning to Canada to train for an eventual return, O'Reilly received an offer
sheet -- an NHL rarity -- from the Calgary Flames. That put Colorado in panic mode. The Avs had to quickly decide, on a night
when they were facing none other than the Flames at home, whether to keep the young talent or let a then division rival have
him at the hefty price of a deluge of draft picks. The organization matched the two-year, $10 million offer and looked to
move on, though neither club was cognizant of the fact that O’Reilly would have had to clear waivers had he signed with
the Flames, and that meant the Columbus Blue Jackets — last in the NHL at the time — could have claimed him for
still remember the awkward press conferences from Avs general manager Greg Sherman, downstairs, and Flames boss Jay Feaster,
upstairs in the press box.
“You can’t play hockey forever,” O’Reilly told us members of the media
after it was over. “It’s a business and you’ve got to get as much as you can when you can.”
While it was a reasonable
concept from a young man thrust into the professional sports spotlight and handed dump truck loads of money, that mentality
didn’t play well in the communist-like world of sports fandom. Either you’re all rowing in the mutual direction
of winning a Stanley Cup, for the greater good, or you’re not worth the expensive jersey your name is printed on.
And after a couple
more years and a salary arbitration to preempt another testy negotiation, O’Reilly's stature within the organization
had slipped to the point that he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres, along with Jamie McGinn, for Nikita Zadorov, J.T. Compher,
Mikhail Grigorenko, and a draft pick that would become A.J. Greer after a trade with the San Jose.
Even for those mad about O’Reilly
being “difficult over money,” there was no denying that his departure eventually helped Colorado get to where
it is today — a team that made a legitimate push in the postseason.
And while it’s easy to buy the public-facing
narrative of him being more worried about money than the team, it would be folly not to think that there was more going on
behind the scenes — perhaps including a lack of belief in the longevity of his particular talents.
It wasn’t all
sunshine and roses for him from there, as things tend not to be for young people learning their way in the world. Shortly
after landing a hefty seven-tear, $52.5 million contract from Buffalo, the 24-year-old was charged with driving while ability
impaired and failing to stay at the scene of a crime after crashing his truck into a Tim Hortons in Ontario.
to put the incident and the jokes -- they last to this day -- behind him as he did what he did best in Buffalo, but team success
would remain elusive.
Now would be a good time to mention an awkward interaction I had with O’Reilly at the 2016 NHL Draft
in Buffalo while at at a local beverage establishment.
kind and humble person that he is, O’Reilly joined me and some colleagues for some chit chat before mentioning he would
be driving back to Ontario with his wife, Dayna, for the summer.
As we were leaving, as any well-meaning though somewhat socially awkward person might say to another planning a road
trip, I told him to drive safe.
His reply was, “Oh
yeah, because of the Tim Hortons thing?”
backpedalling from yours truly followed.
Hard work, dedication, leadership, relentless drive, and a friendly Canadian demeanor
can only get you so far out on the ice in a team sport, and after a series of frustrating seasons, O’Reilly reached
“I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times and I need to get back to it
because it’s just eating myself up,” he told the Buffalo media at the end of the season.
Honesty of that caliber is rarely
rewarded in this league, and despite reiterating that he wanted to stay in New York, he was traded to the St. Louis Blues.
Woe would continue
for the Sabres, who not only missed the postseason again after a strong start, but also saw one trade piece, Patrik Berglund,
go missing in action from the team before showing up in Sweden, contract voided, in perhaps the weirdest story from the NHL
O’Reilly was on to his third team in just nine seasons. Many questioned how effective he really was. His team
again struggled mightily in the first half of the year and then suddenly things came together. Early campaign fights were
forgotten, hot rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington stepped up and became a keystone for the club, and O’Reilly went
ahead and had his best year to date with 77 points (28 goals, 49 assists) in 82 regular-season games.
From there, the Blues didn’t
stop. O’Reilly led (tied) playoff players with 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) in 26 games as his squad went 16-10
to take Lord Stanley’s chalice home to Missouri.
It’s an incredible story for an outstanding guy, and it’s OK and safe and
fair for Avalanche fans to feel happy for a former player that was near and dear to them once upon a time. There’s no
questioning your loyalty or judgement for appreciating someone of his ilk.
Despite the holdout, despite the trades, despite
the crash, despite the Sabres, despite the Central Division rival Blues, despite the meddling from his coach father —
hardly noticeable compared to Paul Stastny's father, Peter — this fine young man managed to win the hardest championship
Boy what a ride it’s been to watch him traverse the world of hockey.
Congrats to one of the good guys, a superb
talent and person.
Give Masai Ujiri
to roll the dice
June 4, 2019
It must be surreal - check that, it is surreal -- for hard-core Denver Nuggets fans to watch the 2019 NBA Finals matching the Toroto Raptors
and the Golden State Warriors.
National TV ratings are down a bit, largely due to the series featuring a team from Canada, plus Warriors fatigue.
But there is an
extra level of intrigue among Denver fans because of someone not featured on the court.
would be Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri.
He's the man who pulled off an extremely ballsy trade before the season began to acquire Kawhi Leonard from San Antonio,
with no guarantee the enigmatic two-way star would re-sign with the Raptors.
Before that, Ujiri was the Nuggets GM who managed to make the Carmelo
Anthony trade in 2011, after being greeted with Anthony's s "Trade me to the Knicks" ultimatum in the late summer
left the Nuggets and Ujiri with zero leverage. Zero? It might have been worse than that. This was not a star presenting team
with a list of acceptable destinations.
This was Carmelo saying: Trade Me to New York. It was where his
wife, La La, wanted to be in her career, and it would make things simpler.
Yet Ujiri got a package fom the Knicks that to a stunning extent mitigated the damages and enabled he
Nuggets to parlay that deal to other acquisitions.
(stay with me here, folks) Ujirii was the same GM who was the architect of the Nuggets' NBA franchise best 57-win team in
left the Nuggets in one of the most bizarre and chaotic offseasons since GM Bernie Bickerstaff gave star center Dikembe Mutombo
the proverbial finger in 1996, allowing him to leave for a package that totaled -- let's add all this up -- nothing.
I'm not alone
in documenting the trials and tribulations, plus eventual successes, that Nuggets Team President of Basketball Operations
Tim Connelly has gone through to make this very young 2019 Nuggets team what it is today.
Connelly's path is one of more struggle and certainly more of a rebuild than was the case fpor Ujiri,
the man Connelly replaced.
Meanwhile, after he went to Toronto, Ujiri hit the ground running and has generally had success every season while
being foiled every year by the LeBron James juggernaut.
Now Ujiri knows what Patrick Ewing and Pat Riley felt like in the 1990's with Michael
Jordan. But I digress.
The Nuggets are in an much more difficult conference than the Raptors.
They undertook more of a thorough rebuild than the one Ujiri was involved with in Toronto.
Yet there are some interesting parallels to draw between the 2013 Nuggets and the current Raptors.
Most significantly, they involve the highly risky trades that led off these seasons.
In 2013, Ujiri engineered a trade and brought Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets.
He since has stated (many times) that he had hoped to convince Iguodala, the former
Philadelphia 76ers star, to stay in Denver.
Now with the Raptors, Ujiri's strategy and hopes are the same with Leonard.
He is hoping the grand gesture and the big gambit pay off enough to convince Leonard to stay with the Raptors.
On the court, Leonard has more than lived up to the faith Ujiri showed in him. But there's no guarantee how long it will last.
That sort of
strategy blew up in the Nuggets' faces after Iguodala's, well, interesting
behavior during the series versus the Warriors. He spent virtually ALL of his free time WITH the opposing team and seemingly
showed little interest in Nuggets camaraderie.
Iguodala departed Denver shortly after Ujiri left town, and it didn't surprise anyone covering the team at that time.
The question now is: What will happen with Leonard after this season is completed?
If he leaves
and joins a team on the West Coast, what will that say about Ujiri's big gesture to go for broke in a now LeBron-less Eastern
It will be interesting
to see how it plays out once these Finals are over. In the grand scheme of things -- if you were asking me -- I have much
more respect for teams that go for broke rather than those who sit on their hands and preach endless patience. You only get
one shot and sometimes you have to go for broke.
The Nuggets are not quite in the "go for broke" territory.
The Nuggets have built slowly and plan to build.
Yet, the time will come when they need to do SOMETHING rather than count on the cards they have.
What will the Nuggets do when the chips are down?
Their former Nuggets and current Raptors GM risked quite a bit twice with (so far) mixed results.
Sometimes it's just worth
taking a shot.
clarifies only so much
about Avalanche net
two nets at the Avalanche practice rink. We can assume Philipp Grubauer is going to be
in one of them. Will Pavel Francouz be in the other?
With the news coming out today that Czech reminder Pavel Francouz signed a one-year
deal with the Colorado Avalanche, one piece of a convoluted summer puzzle—see my previous column below for more on that—has
seemingly fallen into place.
That is, with a few question marks at the goaltending position, Francouz is at least remaining
with the organization. Where he’ll be slotted is the next conundrum.
In a recent interview with Slovakia-based David
Puchovsky of Eurolanche fame, Francouz confessed that he didn’t feel the AHL had much to offer him moving forward.
“At the moment,
I don’t think it would give me all too much. I viewed it as a necessity in order to adapt to North American hockey,” the 28-year-old tender told Puchovsky. “I won’t make any ultimatums, but I would like to move forward,
to progress as a player.”
Stopping short of saying he’d rather return to Europe or test his luck as a goalie-for-hire
on the free agent market, Francouz did imply that the NHL is the next stepping stone on his personal hockey journey.
The comments mirrored
what was said about current Avs goaltender Philipp Grubauer before he was traded to Colorado from the Washington Capitals.
Grubauer wanted to be a starter, not anyone’s backup, and it would be just a matter of time before he usurped the job
from Semyon Varlamov.
Now Colorado is in wait-and-see mode. Wait and see if something can be worked out with Varlamov to bring
him back into the fold. Wait and see if there’s a cheaper goalie dipping a toe into the market on July 1 with a proven track record of NHL experience. Wait and see what Spencer Martin’s camp is looking for on the
23-year-old’s third contact.
So maybe a little honey was poured in Francouz’s ear. Maybe the front office told him that
they can’t guarantee that they won’t bring someone else in, but they can promise he’ll have a decent shot
at the backup job come training camp.
They’d certainly hate to lose a man of his talents, which is why he got a $260,000
raise for one more show-us-what-you-got season.
None of this plainly means Varlamov’s time with Colorado is done, either. Yet
it does make it seem more likely given the way things are stacking up on the back end organizationally, and when you consider
the now-known intentions of Francouz.
I maintain that Varlamov can still play exceptional hockey, though the extreme workload
he faced during his prime, in lean years for the Avalanche, certainly has taken its toll on his body. A good 60-40 split could
work for him somewhere with a solid defensive structure, and if he can’t find the contracthe’s looking for in
Denver —not doubt one with some term for a little security— he’ll head elsewhere.
A consummate team
guy, Varlamov is a competitor. He hates losing as much as anyone else in that dressing room, and that includes losing his
starting position and any standing within the organization. The same goes for any goalkeeper on the roster. They’ll
all fight for playing time and a higher spot on the depth chart and for a chance at Lord Stanley’s silver chalice.
As far as goaltending
up and down the depth chart, the only thing we know for sure is that Grubauer, Francouz, and Werner have contracts at this
point. How everything shakes out from here is up to the men behind the burgundy curtain. It will be telling to see what the
next goaltending contract, if there is one, is.
That's the move that will really show the masterstroke at play.
By Ryan Boulding:
Change coming for
new epoch of
Among the Avs' offseason questions: Will Semyon Varlamov be back? And, if so, at what price?
May 23, 2019
Make no mistake, changes are coming for the Colorado Avalanche this summer.
Like those of us unsure of what
our future looks like in a world without the reliability of the next season of "Game of Thrones," fans are entering
the summer wondering what lies ahead in this new epoch of Avalanche hockey.
Maybe it’s finally time for one of those hashtags
of yore to be suitable (#AvsNewAge, #NextEra, #WornWithPride).
Still, the winds of change will be blowing through Denver this offseason and they won’t
be bringing the usual Greeley-based bovine flatulence that we’re used to.
Get jazzed about the 2019 NHL Draft all you want.
After all, the organization owns the fourth —thanks Ottawa! — and 16th overall selections at the summer selection,
along with choices in rounds two, three, five, six, and seven. Prepare for the cupboards to be stocked there as usual, though
it’s unlikely that any of those kids will be ready to take the leap to the stronger, further, faster NHL.
Yet outside of the
annual frothing over futures, fans need be paying attention to the makeup of the overall organization. The Avs have only 26
players under contract for next season, which means a lot of qualifying offers and contract negotiations need to occur between
now and July 1.
Some decisions seem obvious, like finding a way to keep Semyon Varlamov as the 1B to Philipp Grubauer’s apparent
1A in the goaltending tandem, however unlikely that may seem at this juncture. Goalie fatigue is real, people, and asking
Grubauer to play 60-plus games in a season, something he has never come close to doing, is a lot.
So is expecting Pavel Francouz,
who made his North American debut last season with the AHL Colorado Eagles, to remain a keeper in waiting instead of seeking
NHL-level employment, whether ready for it or not, elsewhere. An unknown commodity at the top tier, Francouz seems likely to test the waters if not given a shot at the backup role, which means another new face—hello, Cam Talbot—could be joining
the backstopping squad.
Once heir-apparent Spencer Martin saw his footing in Colorado’s system slip when Francouz joined
the organization as a summer acquisition and quickly became the Eagles' go-to in net for the majority of the season and all
of the playoffs. Things for Martin went from not ideal to complicated when Swedish monster Adam Werner signed a two-year,
entry-level deal last week, making official his full-time leap to the North American goaltending game.
The departure of Varlamov
and Francouz ensures more AHL time for Martin, who will need to accept a qualifying offer or file for salary arbitration in
order to stay, but he’ll continue to slip down the depth chart unless real progress is made soon.
On the defensive end
of the ice, once the Avalanche’s bane, things are looking up. Everyone knows the impact Cale Makar already has made,
and he’s likely to see time the way Sam Girard did when he arrived in town. That leaves a six-man set once Nikita Zadorov
gets the big payday he’s been looking for since holding out to get more money on his last contract. Arbitration certainly
seems like a possibility there.
So what does that mean for Patrick Nemeth, Mark Barberio, Ryan Graves, and Conor Timmins?
Nemeth is going to
walk. Depth dictates that. Barberio and Graves, once the latter signs a nice qualifying offer, will both be AHL primaries
or seventh defenseman guys.
Timmins is a different case altogether. The 20-year-old defensive stalwart missed an entire year
of hockey, and that’s not something you just bounce back from. His development has taken a major blow, and now he’ll
have to work twice as hard to regain his confidence and timing. Expect him to spend the entire summer working to get to zero
and his first year as a pro with the Eagles as he rediscovers what made him such a great prospect in the first place.
Mason Geertsen, Anton
Lindholm, and Sergei Boikov will all be qualified, which gives the Eagles an abundance of blueliners and makes David Warsofsky
somewhat of a question mark—though he did lead Eagles defenseman with 32 points.
Then there are the forwards. Top-to-bottom,
this is where the tapestry of change will be seen. Joe Sakic and Co. have to decide how many young stars they’re willing
to dedicate consistent ice time to and how many players they’re willing to let walk in order to grow that talent. The
trouble is, those young guys—J.T. Compher, Vladislav Kamenev, Alex Kerfoot, AJ Greer, Dominic Toninato, and Sheldron
Dries—all need new deals of their own.
(If you’re keeping count at home, that moves Colorado up to 40 contracts with
a goalie and Warsofsky).
Then there are the tough choices.
Analytics darling Gabriel Bourque should be allowed to walk at free agency. The team
needs his spot for (insert one of Greer, Toninato, Dries, or Martin Kaut). Derick Brassard wasn’t worth the deadline
gamble and can find work elsewhere. There’s value in keeping Colin Wilson around, though his spurts of productivity
make you wonder if a prospect could also manage 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists) in 65 regular-season matches.
And what about Sven
Andrighetto? The Swiss firecracker was scratched frequently last year after seemingly falling out of favor with head coach
Jared Bednar and his staff—though he still managed to see action in 64 games. His case was so perplexing that, at one
point in December or January, a visiting Swiss reporter actually interviewed me in the press box during intermission. His
questions were about what Andrighetto needed to do to crack the lineup and whether he could still play at the NHL level. My
answers were the obvious, “It’s hard to say but it seems like an uphill battle," and “I certainly think
he could fill a bottom-nine role," respectively.
Andrighetto is a restricted free agent, which means the team only needs to make him
a qualifying offer to maintain his rights. However, he can—and likely will—file for arbitration in order to have
a third-party determine his value. It’s safe to say that, for the Avalanche at least, he isn’t worth the $1.4
million he was making last year. So that means the team needs to decide whether to walk away and let the 26-year-old become
an unrestricted free agent or qualify him for at least $1.4 million and then attempt to trade him or stash him in the AHL,
which would require him to pass through the waiver wire. A sign-and-trade scenario is most likely here, unless he asks for
On the prospect side of things, Julien Nantel will likely receive his offer and continue to work on his game. Nantel
and Lindholm are the only two prospects left from what was a disastrous 2014 NHL Draft. Uncertainly about the proper direction of the team and questionable decision making
at the top left the Avalanche with an enormous void in the pipeline with this age group.
Max McCormick, acquired from the Ottawa
Senators in a minor-league deal that sent J.C. Beaudin the other way, will get another shot at being a veteran leader on the
Eagles. So will Andrew Agozzino, who worked his tail off to finally score his first NHL goal last year, and Scott Kosmachuk,
who played a little over half the season last year.
Gustav Olhaver, Colorado’s seventh-round selection in 2015, will see his rights
enter the free market on July 1. The six-foot-six, 215-pound Swede never quite panned out for the Avs, and his eight points
(four goals, four assists) in Sweden’s lower-tier Allsvenskan league are proof that he doesn’t have what this
organization is looking for.
Now none of this means anything without talking about the $8 million Finnish gorilla in the room:
Mikko Rantanen, a pending restricted free agent. Obviously, Rantanen will be signed for the foreseeable future, but how nasty
is it going to get between now and the day the ink hits the page?
If you’re Colorado, the sales pitch is that Rantanen is the future, but he needs
to be a team player! He needs time to settle into the player he'll be for good! He needs to take the same -- albeit extremely
low -- deal MacKinnon ($6.3 million a season) took before he really broke out! Hell, even Sidney Crosby makes it work for
the Pittsburgh Penguins, right? This gives Colorado room to maneuver and also doesn’t upset the ego of MacKinnon, who
at this point is the squad’s best player.
Think David Pastrnak’s $6.6 million booking with the Bruins. I mean, Mark Stone
only made $3.5 million per year on his second deal, so the Avs have that too.
But Rantanen is worth more than that—so is
MacKinnon—and he’s proven it the last two seasons. Add him skating in Game 7 on what was very clearly a painful
lower-body injury suffered in Game 6, and the 22-year-old couldn’t do much more to show his commitment.
His camp will have
eyes on deals coming down the road for Mitch Marner in Toronto, Sebastian Aho in Carolina, and Brayden Point at Tampa Bay.
These are all similar players in similar roles from the same draft class looking to get paid.
However, Rantanen’s camp
could also push the envelope and say that he’s roughly on pace with Jack Eichel, who is making $10 million per year
for the next eight seasons, and Stone, who received $9.5 million for the next eight years, after Rantanen pushed the pace
with 209 points (80 goals, 129 helpers) in 239 games (.87 points per game in that span) since entering the league.
Splitting the difference
not only makes Rantanen the highest paid player on the club, but it brings him closer to a $7.5-8 million deal, which will
probably be in the six to eight year range.
That brings us to a total of 46 contracts, leaving room for the organization to bring
in four more players before reaching the NHL-mandated 50-contract cap.
With such little wiggle room, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a trade happen
at or around the Draft, as Colorado has bargaining pieces to use without hemorrhaging futures for the now.
What the team desperately
needs is a reliable second-line center, a player that can provide the spark the teams needs after splitting up the top scoring
trio—which I maintain should be called the Twine Line—while also allowing Carl Soderberg to bolster the third
There are a few young and cheap options out there, like Ryan Dzingel, who had 56 points in 78 games—mostly
with Ottawa—last year while making $1.8 million, or Anders Lee, a young vet looking to step up from his $3.75 million.
A splashier option
at center could be wooing San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, who would come at a price but also may be weighing his options
ahead of some roster uncertainty with his current team in California.
Whatever it may be, the Avs as you knew them are looking to evolve and move forward
this summer, and they have a lot to do to accomplish it.
Ryan Boulding on Twitter: @rboulding
By Jeff Morton:
Hey, SOME of what
was out there about
Connelly even was right
May 20, 2019
You've got to fish or cut bait.
was my initial reaction to Monday's announcement that Tim Connelly, the Nuggets' president of basketball operations, indeed
would be staying with the organization and not pursuing the same position with his hometown Washington Wizards.
But I also am certain it saved the franchise as we know it.
Your perspective rests entirely
on your view of Connelly and his role in the Nuggets' improvement to 54 wins, the Northwest Division championship and the
No. 2 seed in the Western Conference this season.
Does he deserve the credit
that has been given to him recently, or is his success a product of a well-crafted team effort?
Connelly would immediately say it was a team effort and that he receives far too much praise for what he has accomplished
as leading the Nuggets' rebuild the past six seasons. This mindset was enforced with collective front-office contract extensions
in February, including for General Manager Arturas Karnisovas.
Yet, with team President
and Governor Josh Kroenke impressed with Connelly's vision for the Nuggets future, Kroenke Sports and Entertainment recognized
something that we all came to realize this last weekend of nail-biting:
If anything, Connelly hasn't gotten enough credit.
almost as if he's taken for granted.
In a league in which trying to maneuver behind the scenes to be considered
the architect of all franchise progress while -- and this is important -- playing up that collaborative team effort in public, Connelly has been refreshingly honest.
The Nuggets were Team Chaos in 2013.
They were a Western Conference
No. 2 seed in 2019.
The progress was even greater than is evident on the basketball
court, given the unique inner workings of the front-office structure.
Connelly sits at the head
of a very efficient, almost family-like front-office structure, with a knowledgeable staff that works in unison. It truly
is a machine that is greater than the sum of its parts, and Connelly deserves credit for not caring about hogging the spotlight.
He set the tone, he oversaw the collaborative process while having crucial, indispensable input, and it worked.
organization has seen these pivot points before and has largely failed to step up.
Repeatedly, the organization and ownerships made
the wrong choices, then went in the wrong direction for long stretches. It's a legacy of closing to the verge of greatness
or elite status, then fouling up, and it goes far back.
How far back?
How about when the Nuggets -- with the paint still drying on the logo switch from Rockets
to Nuggets -- giving David Thompson the largest contract in professional sports at the time in 1978? That's considered genius
now, but the fact was, the ownership couldn't afford it at the time and it nearly bankrupted the franchise. This wasn't the
Nuggets' fault, but it also was part of what led Thompson down a path of crippling cocaine abuse.
How about owner
Sidney Shlenker succumbing to the arm-twisting of Commissioner David Stern and in 1989 selling the Nuggets to two businessmen
who couldn't afford to operate the team as a major-league entity? The ensuing decade of ownership chaos coincided with the
worst downturn in Nuggets history.
How about the departure of GM Masai Ujiri in 2013 after a franchise-best
So as the word came that Connelly was on the Wizards' radar to succeed the fired Ernie Grunfeld, those knowledgeable
about Nuggets' history and their tendency to foul up in these crossroads moments wondered if it might happen again.
Connelly left to join the Wizards, Karnisovas' promotion from the GM job to president of basketball operations was likely.
In all my discussions, I've come away with the feeling that KSE's faith in their long-time No. 2 basketball executive as a
potential head of the front office was deep-rooted and genuine. (It's interesting to note the differences in job titles in
KSE's two teams. Joe Sakic, clearly the head of the hockey operation, is the the Avalanche's executive vice president and
in Karnisovas would have tempered KSE's disappointment in losing Connelly, but the point is, Connelly is a proven commodity
now, deserving of both praise and that contract extension. Pique over Connelly listening to another team -- a team granted
permission to speak with him -- and virtually hoping he left would have been misguided.
The complication is that there was so much misinformation out there about Connelly and the Wizards.
media for the most part got it wrong.
Here's the bottom
line: At no point did Connelly commit to doing anything more than speak with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and listen to what
he had to say.
Connelly wasn't trying to get out of Denver. Not even close.
He grew up in Baltimore and to this day doesn't try
to downplay his affinity for his hometown, and his family for the most part still resides in Maryland and the DC areas.
He cut his scouting teeth with the Wizards, then
known as the Bullets, for 15 years. That organization gave him his first shot in the NBA.
wouldn't he listen to the Wizards, and in particular Leonsis, like Stan Kroenke among the richest figures in the country?
As the saying goes, however, listening does not mean accepting and after Josh Kroenke -- Stan's son and also the president of the
Avalanche -- spoke with Connelly over the weekend, Connelly's decision was to stay. Also, Kroenke is a different sort of boss
in hockey, where he concedes what he doesn't know, than in basketball, a sport he played at the collegiate level and knows.
He has supreme confidence in his own ability to navigate the ins and outs of an increasingly complicated league.
That's all crucial to the Nuggets' future. It shouldn't meet with diminishing shrugs,
implying that if Connelly left, the franchise now is moving in the right direction would have been just fine.
Even though Connelly has been the GM/Team President
for six seasons (the third-longest tenure in Nuggets history, behind Carl Scheer and Bernie Bickerstaff), the Nuggets ascendancy
on the national stage has taken place only in the last year or so. Connelly's departure would set the Nuggets reputation and
perception back. Fairly or unfairly, that's reality. In a time when you need to pitch to potential free agents that Denver
is the place you need to be, stability is No. 1. The Los Angeles Lakers serve as a cautionary tale.
Semantics can come into play in these sorts of discussions -- What constitutes an offer? What
doesn't? -- but my understanding after checking around is that the Wizards eventually made Connelly a conceptual offer, but
the earlier reports that they were to the point of haggling over whether the contract would be for four years or five years
were, to put it nicely, inaccurate.
This consistency is the start of a much-needed franchise evolution. The perception of the Nuggets has always
been that they will find a way to take the wrong path. From Josh Kroenke down the team seems to want to buck history and build
upon what has been started and improve everything in the organization. Can they do it? That answer will come in the next few
years. But keeping the architect of your 54-win, second-seeded team was a very nice signal -- and a nice start.
At a time in the past where the Nuggets would so often shoot themselves in the feet with a magnum, they decided
to take what for them has been a path less traveled (for them).
Regardless of how things shake out, that first step
is always a great start.
Jeff Morton: email@example.com
Jeff Morton, Nate Timmon and Ross Martin's
Colorado Sports Guys podcast, latest on Nikola Jokic