The Dynamic Duo That Didn't Deliver In Denver

Suspense-Thriller author Jeb Bohn

By JEB BOHN

In hockey’s hallowed history, few duos have been as absolutely electric as Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. For parts of six seasons, the twosome formed a dynamic offensive flair while playing for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

When Selanne was traded to the San Jose Sharks in March of 2001, it seemed that the ride was over. There was, however, another chapter yet to be written in their collective careers.

Also, don’t worry, I’ve already smacked myself for the abundance of alliteration.

The 'Finnish Flash'

Drafted by the original Winnipeg Jets with the 10th overall pick in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft, Teemu Selanne wasted no time establishing himself in the league.

Well, almost.

Selanne’s rookie season came in the 1992-93 campaign, during which he suited up for 84—yes, 84, times were different—games for the Jets.

What did he do? Well, take a look for yourself:

That’s right, 76 goals. Selanne set the NHL record for goals in a season by a rookie, a mark that’s stood for nearly 28 years. The closest any player has come since in Alexander Ovechkin‘s 52 goal rookie campaign in 2005-06.

The Finnish winger went on to put up 147 goals and 306 points in 231 games with the Jets. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s an average of 1.32 points per game.

For some reason, the Jets saw fit to trade the skilled Finn away, sending him to Anaheim on February 7, 1996. At the time of the trade, Selanne had 72 points (24 goals, 48 assists) in 51 games in Winnipeg.

After arriving in Southern California, he amassed 36 points(16 goals, 20 assists) in 28 games, finishing the season with 108 points in 79 games.

Over the course of 394 games during his first stint in Anaheim (he would return to the franchise in 2005), Selanne netted 225 goals and 482 total points. After moving north to join the Sharks, Selanne scored 131 points (64 goals, 67 assists) in 176 games.

While his production had slowed, Selanne was still a viable offensive option. In the summer of 2003, the 33-year-old was an unrestricted free agent in search of a home.

We’ll come back to that in a bit.

Disney on Ice (Hockey)

If you were a kid growing up in the 90s—like I was—then The Mighty Ducks may very well have introduced you to hockey. The film was a financial success for Disney, spawning sequels, a cartoon, and an NHL franchise.

Wait, what?

Yep. With the league expanding, Disney was awarded a franchise in December of 1992. Taking their name from the film, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim went into the 1993 NHL Entry Draft holding the 4th overall pick.

With that pick, General Manager Jack Ferreira selected Maine Black Bears’ winger Paul Kariya. With a new team in a fledgling hockey market, it was crucial to land a hit with the pick.

That’s exactly what Kariya proved to be.

Breaking into the league for the 1994-95 season, Kariya put up 18 goals and 39 points in 47 games while playing on a struggling Anaheim squad. While this was an impressive start, Kariya had a star-making season in 1995-96.

Appearing in all 82 games, the sophomore exploded for 50 goals and 108 points. Kariya found instant chemistry with Selanne after the latter’s February arrival, a trend that continued until the trade that sent Selanne to San Jose.

Injuries limited Kariya to 69 games in the 1996-97 season, however, he still put up 44 goals and 99 points. A contract impasse and a concussion led to the winger appearing in just 22 games during the 1997-98 season, though he still managed 17 goals and 31 points.

The 1998-99 season saw Kariya rebound in a big way. He eclipsed the 100-point mark for the second time in his career, notching 101 points (39 goals, 62 assists) while appearing in all 82 games.

All told, Kariya appeared in 606 games with the Mighty Ducks, posting 300 goals and 669 total points. He added 29 points (14 goals, 15 assists) in 35 playoff games, including 6 goals and 6 assists in their run to the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals.

Almost unsurprising for such a closely linked duo, Kariya—like Selanne—was an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2003.

Rocky Mountain Reload

From their arrival in Denver, the Colorado Avalanche had established themselves as an NHL powerhouse. They captured the Stanley Cup in their first season in Colorado and netted a second championship 5 years later.

Over their first 8 seasons in Denver, the Avalanche accumulated 360 wins, capturing their division title each year. Veteran stars Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg were supplemented by rising talents such as Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay.

Through the years, General Manager Pierre Lacroix was able to add players like Patrick Roy, Ray Bourque, and Rob Blake through trades. The team had never been without high-caliber talent and their record reflected that.

Things began to change in the Mile High City, and not for the better.

Bourque, who had been traded to Colorado in 2000 to chase his first Stanley Cup, retired shortly after the Avalanche won the 2001 championship.

Roy, who had posted 262 wins and 37 shutouts since joining the team, followed suit in 2003. His last game was a Game 7 upset loss to the Minnesota Wild in the opening round of the 2003 postseason.

Sakic—the team’s longtime captain—remained a point-per-game producer, though he would turn 34 prior to the start of the 2003-04 season.

Forsberg, one of the most dominating players in hockey history, was 30 and suffering through an increasing amount of injuries. Blake, the talented, two-way blueliner, was 33.

Now, none of these players suffered an immediate drop-off, but Lacroix recognized that their window to win championships was slowly closing. The team needed a shot in the arm. As if sensing this, the Hockey Gods provided.

Granted, players the caliber of Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne don’t come cheap. Roy’s retirement freed up $8.5 million, easing the financial burden on the team’s owners. Kariya, who had earned $10 million in his final season with Anaheim, signed a one-year deal for $1.5 million.

Selanne declined a $6.5 million option to return to San Jose, taking a one-year, $5.8 million deal with Colorado. The pair had decided to sign as a package and accepted pay cuts to play on a loaded Avalanche team.

The tandem signing sent shockwaves through the league and, on paper, made the Avalanche favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

So...What Happened?

The Avalanche opened up the 2003-04 season at home against the Chicago Blackhawks. Colorado won 5-0 while featuring a top line of Kariya and Selanne centered by Sakic. Kariya notched a goal and 2 assists while Selanne picked up an assist on Kariya’s goal.

It was certainly a promising start.

Their second game, a 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues, saw Kariya pot Colorado’s lone goal with assists from Selanne and Sakic. They rounded back into form in their next contest, a 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild, a game that was capped off with Selanne’s first goal of the season.

This was followed by a 6-3 pounding by the Edmonton Oilers. Kariya notched his third goal of the year, again with assists from Selanne and Sakic.

Colorado carried a 2-2 record into an October 21 matchup against the Boston Bruins. Despite opening the scoring, the Avalanche dropped the game 4-1. Adding to their early-season woes was the loss of one of their new faces when Kariya left the game with a sprained wrist.

By the time Kariya returned to the Avalanche lineup on November 13, Colorado had a record of 9-5-1. Both he and Selanne were held without a point in a 3-2 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes and things only got worse.

The next game, a November 15 bout against the Dallas Stars, saw Colorado pick up a 3-0 victory but lose Kariya, who re-injured his wrist.

As the season progressed, Colorado’s game began to even out. This culminated in an 11-win January. Despite looking better during this stretch, the Avalanche had up and down months in both February and March.

Kariya, who had returned to the lineup again in January, suffered an ankle injury in the final game of the season, a 2-1 overtime loss to the Nashville Predators.

Colorado finished the season with 40 wins, their second-lowest total since arriving in Denver. This season marked the first time that the Avalanche failed to win their division, finishing 2nd behind the Vancouver Canucks.

Finishing as the #4 seed in the Western Conference brought them a first-round matchup against the Dallas Stars. Colorado prevailed in 6 games; Selanne picked up a pair of assists while Kariya remained sidelined with his injured ankle.

Their second-round opponent was a familiar one to Selanne: the San Jose Sharks. This was a slog from the opening puck drop as Colorado dropped the first 3 games, being outscored 10-3. They came back to win the next 2 and got the injured Kariya back for Game 6.

Unfortunately, the Avalanche were defeated 3-1 and their season was over. Selanne picked up 3 assists while appearing in 10 games; Kariya added an assist in his lone postseason appearance.

Postmortem

Needless to say, Colorado’s 2003-04 season didn’t play out the way that anyone expected, most of all Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. They planned to join a deep Avalanche team and compete for the Stanley Cup.

Instead, Kariya lost 31 games to injuries. In the 51 games that he appeared in, he picked up 11 goals and 36 points. That’s not terrible by any stretch but it certainly isn’t what he, Lacroix, or the fans in Denver expected.

Selanne appeared in all but 4 of Colorado’s games, notching 16 goals and 32 points in 78 games. This was, by far, the worst season of his career statistically at that point.

For his part, Selanne was dealing with his own ailment, specifically his left knee. In a 2006 interview with The New York Times Selanne stated that “my left leg had no power. I couldn’t use my speed.”

Luckily for Selanne, the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season gave him plenty of time to mend and return stronger.

For the Avalanche, this season was a harbinger. Decline slowly set in across the board as the luster of their powerhouse years began to fade. Forsberg signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in the summer of 2005; Blake returned to the Los Angeles Kings one year later.

Sakic, the longtime face of the franchise and the only captain the team had known in Denver, soldiered on. The Burnaby, B.C. native netted 83 goals and 239 points in 223 games from 2005-06 until 2008-09 when injuries forced him to retire.

With Sakic done as a player, the Avalanche saw diminishing returns on the ice, bottoming out with an abysmal 16 win, 39 point season in 2012-13. They wouldn’t win another division title until 2013-14.

Incidentally, the Avalanche named a new executive vice president/general manager in May of 2013.

Joe Sakic.

I also can’t fail to add that—under Sakic’s guidance—the Avalanche have returned to prominence as one of the best teams in the NHL.

Into the Sunset

So, what happened to our dynamic duo after their less-than-ideal year with Colorado?

Following the 2004-05 NHL Lockout, Kariya signed a 2-year, $9 million contract with the Nashville Predators. Thankfully, the speedy winger remained healthy, appearing in all 164 regular-season games. During this time, he picked up 55 goals and 161 points, a very nice turnaround after a disappointing 2003-04.

This resurgence earned him a 3-year, $18 million contract with the St. Louis Blues. Despite tying for the team lead in scoring with 65 points in his first season in the Gateway City, Kariya’s production was down.

This was exacerbated the following season when he suffered a hip injury that required surgery to repair a torn labrum. Kariya suffered an additional setback when a later MRI revealed that the opposite labrum also needed surgery.

All told, Kariya appeared in just 11 games during the 2008-09 season, though he put up 15 points (2 goals, 13 assists).

The 2009-10 season would prove to be Kariya’s last playing professional hockey. He appeared in 75 games, scoring 18 goals and 43 points, before suffering the sixth concussion of his career in a game against the Buffalo Sabres. As a consequence, doctors refused to clear him to play, leading him to sit out the entire 2010-11 season.

While his post-concussion symptoms abated during his year away, doctors continued to advise him against resuming his NHL career. As a result, Kariya officially announced his retirement on June 29, 2011. Kariya finished his career with 402 goals, 587 assists, and 989 points in 989 career games.

Reaching the Finnish Line

Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, Teemu Selanne returned to Anaheim, where he would play out the final 9 seasons of his career. In his first season back, Selanne scored 40 goals and 90 points in 80 games.

The 2006-07 season would be Selanne’s most productive since 1998-99. Appearing in all 82 games, the Finnish winger scored 48 goals (his highest total in 9 years) and 94 points. He followed this up with 5 goals and 15 points in 21 playoff games as the newly-rechristened Anaheim Ducks captured their first Stanley Cup.

Despite contemplating retirement after the Ducks’ championship, Selanne returned for the 2007-08 season. Unfortunately, he would suffer an injury that held him out of all but 26 games. He did, however, muster 12 goals and 23 points in that time.

His play would see mixed results over the remainder of his career, though he did put up 31 goals and 80 points in 73 games during the 2010-11 season. Around this time, Selanne tried to persuade the Ducks to bring Kariya back. That never materialized due to Kariya’s concussion concerns.

The 2013-14 season, Selanne’s last in the NHL, saw him put up 9 goals and 27 points in 64 games. He finished his career having played in 1451 games and accumulating 684 goals, 773 assists, and 1457 points. His goal total ranks 12th all-time while he sits 16th in all-time points.

Both players were exceptional hockey talents. Selanne had a long and remarkable career and holds several records:

  • Most goals by a rookie: 76
  • Most points by a rookie: 132
  • Most goals by a Finnish-born player: 684
  • Most career goals (Anaheim): 457
  • Most goals in a season (Anaheim): 52
  • Most career assists (Anaheim): 531
  • Most career points (Anaheim): 988
  • Most points in a season (Anaheim): 109

And no, that’s not everything; not by a long shot.

Kariya, unfortunately, was plagued by injuries, most notably the concussions that ultimately cut his career short. Admirably, Kariya has been a very vocal proponent in raising awareness around the prevalence of concussions with professional hockey players.

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