The landscape of the Western Conference has changed. Ten years ago, even the most casual of sports fans would associate "Red Wings" and "Avalanche" together, and for good reason. Beginning in their very first season in Denver, Colorado and Detroit have had a storied relationship. Their epic battle in the 1996 Western Conference Finals -- when Claude Lemieux ran Kris Draper into the boards -- and who could forget their famous brawl early the next season? There has always been a special type of bad blood between these two teams.
Fast forward to the 2010 season, where the Avalanche again travel to Detroit. What was once the NHL's hottest rivalry has turned into just another game to every hockey fan outside of Denver. The rivalry has diminished from its once lofty heights, with the final blow being a severely anti-climactic 2008 playoff matchup between the two teams. Expectations before that series did little to help the blowout, where Detroit proved to be the superior squad by sweeping Colorado in four games and outscoring Colorado 21-9 on their way to yet another Stanley Cup championship.
Colorado? Their woes continued the next season as they finished the 2008-2009 season ravaged with injuries and placing dead last in the Western Conference, missing the playoffs for only the second time since moving to Denver. These two teams, long the dominant players in the Conference, were obviously heading in separate directions.
Now the 2010 season begins. Detroit has rediscovered the Chicago Blackhawks as their natural rival, leaving the Avalanche out in the cold. Colorado not only find themselves without a nationally recognized rival, but without a natural rival as well. The Northwest Division is scattered over thousands of square miles, with only Calgary and Edmonton counting as neighbor cities. In fact, Colorado may be the most remote team in the NHL.
So who is the new "team to hate" in Denver? With Detroit out of the picture, what is the new "must see" game at Pepsi Center? Dallas is a consideration. The Stars and Avalanche have eliminated one another from the playoffs multiple times, usually in fiercely contested series lasting six or seven games. The Stars are potentially the closest geographical team to Denver, and a prime candidate. Unfortunately, they are also in the middle of a rebuild and may not be competitive for several years. Furthermore, the lack of division competition has put this rivalry on ice unless the two teams happen to meet in the playoffs, recently a very rare event.
How about Minnesota? The Wild are a gritty, defensively-minded team that ended Patrick Roy's career in the first round of the 2003 playoffs. *Yawn* Or Calgary? Once stocked with players who were easy to hate (Dion Phaneuf), Calgary is now just plain old and mediocre. Besides, Calgary's proximity and historical competitveness with Edmonton makes Colorado an afterthought in Alberta.
The last remaining Northwest team is also the most likely rivalry candidate to replace the Red Wings: the Vancouver Canucks.
Vancouver is also isolated from other teams, and doesn't have a natural pairing within the division. They are heavy favorites to win the division and are also expected to be a Cup contender. There is plenty of bad blood between Vancouver and Colorado, as few will soon forget Todd Bertuzzi's attack on Steve Moore that ended Moore's career. The Canucks are a team in their prime and looking for a challenger, and Colorado appears likely to grow into that candidate. What will it take for this divisional matchup to blossom into heated rivalry? It's a very simple equation; the Colorado Avalanche need to be more competitive on the ice against Vancouver. Their previous campaign was embarrassingly one-sided. After winning the first game of the season series 3-0, Colorado was outscored by a 25-12 margin versus Vancouver the rest of the season. They were simply outplayed by a better Canucks team.
If this rivalry is to blossom -- and the potential is certainly there -- Colorado must first match them on the ice. Another season of competitive hockey and these two division teams will consider each other rivals. With the flames of the Red Wings bloodfeud dwindling away, it's finally time for another city to draw the ire of Avalanche faithful. Vancouver should be that team.