August means everyone is making lists, and that means people are ranking the best players to ever play for the Colorado Avalanche, and there’s one player I’m seeing ranked a little too low for my liking.
Sure, Ozolinsh wasn’t exactly Cale Makar (especially in his own end), but he was, in a way, the Makar of that era. A dynamic offensive defenseman that teams could not account for.
When the Avalanche acquired him for Owen Nolan at the start of the 1995/96 season, he really added a dimension to their defense they lacked. They had the solid defensive defensemen in Adam Foote, Alexei Gusarov, and Curtis Leschyshyn, but they didn’t have that defender who could jump into the play and make life even more difficult for the opposing team. That’s what Ozolinsh provided, not just in the regular season, but in the playoffs as well. A powerplay that had incredible pieces up front now had the quarterback at the blueline to make it truly unstoppable.
Did Ozolinsh leave a lot to be desired in his own end? Absolutely, but that’s not why they brought him in. They already had the defenders that could shut opposing forwards down, but they didn’t have that offense from the blueline. That’s why he was the perfect acquisition. Building a team is like putting together a puzzle, and Ozolinsh was a missing piece at the start of the year.
It wasn’t just that Ozolinsh was incredibly good, but he was also remarkably consistent in his time in Colorado. His worst season was his final year with the Avalanche, where he picked up 52 points in 82 games. That’s a .63 point-per-game season. Not bad for a “down” year. In his other four seasons with the Avalanche, he never averaged below .75 points-per-game.
And that’s just the regular season.
In the playoffs, he was a difference maker. His first three years in Colorado, he was essentially a point-per-game player when the playoffs rolled around. The Avalanche might not win the Stanley Cup in 1996 without Ozolinsh. His overtime winner against the Blackhawks sent Colorado into the Conference Finals. You would often find Ozolinsh down low, even when you weren’t expecting it, and that’s what happened on this goal.
Ozolinsh held out for a bigger contract during the 1998-99 season, and that was the beginning of the end of his time in Colorado. He was eventually traded in 2000 to the Carolina Hurricanes for the Avalanche’s current assistant coach, Nolan Pratt, and some draft picks. One of those draft picks was dealt to Los Angeles for Rob Blake, so it wasn’t a complete loss, but overall, not great value.
These days, Ozolinsh is back in the Avalanche organization, serving as an amateur scout overseas. He’s not the only member of that 1995/96 defense to return in some capacity, as both Gusarov and Leschyshyn are also scouts for the team.
So yes, I feel the need to put some respect on Ozolinsh’s name. Without him, I’m not so sure that ’96 team goes all the way. A dynamic player who likely would thrive even more in today’s NHL.
And I hope people don’t forget just how good he was.