DENVER (AP) _ All of a sudden, the Colorado Avalanche have a coaching vacancy following Marc Crawford's shocking resignation.

``Everything was in line for me to expect him back,'' general manager Pierre Lacroix said Wednesday after Crawford announced he would leave the Avalanche to pursue other opportunities. ``I'm stunned. I'm shocked. In my mind, there's only one thing _ he was the coach of our club.''

Lacroix had a contract extension to offer Crawford that would keep one of the NHL's brightest young coaches in Colorado through the 1999-2000 season. Lacroix was all set to sit down with Crawford and discuss how to restore the team to its Stanley Cup form.

Then Crawford dropped his bombshell.

Calling it the most difficult decision he has ever faced, the 37-year-old Crawford said he opted to forego the final year of his contract so he could explore challenges elsewhere.

``It's not a decision about money. It's not a decision about stature,'' Crawford said. ``It has come down to that fundamental question, `Do I want to be here? Do I think I should be here?' Unfortunately, I came to the conclusion that, `No, I think that it's time to move on.'''

Because Crawford has one year left on his contract, it is uncertain how soon he can move on. Asked if a team would be tampering if it contacted Crawford before he is released from his contract, Lacroix said, ``No doubt.''

A native of Ontario, Canada, Crawford is believed to be the leading candidate to take over in Toronto if the Maple Leafs fire Mike Murphy. Crawford insisted the Toronto job did not influence his decision to leave Colorado, but said he expects to be coaching next year.

``I think we're all mature. We all understand the magnitude of this decision, and I expect that down the line I'm going to be able to pursue whatever opportunities there may be for me,'' he said.

Crawford, who won the 1996 Stanley Cup in his second season as an NHL head coach, compiled a 165-88-41 record in four years with Colorado, including a 31-21 mark in the playoffs.

The Avalanche had the Pacific Division's best record in 1997-98, but a first-round playoff loss to the Edmonton Oilers led Lacroix to spend three weeks analyzing the team. Without giving him a public vote of confidence, Lacroix encouraged Crawford to do the same.

``It's not about any perceived or unperceived problem between Pierre Lacroix and myself,'' Crawford said. ``It comes back to trusting your gut instincts, and my instincts are telling me right now the time is right to move on and accept a new challenge.

``It has to serve the best interest of the people around me, most notably my wife and children. It's very important for them to be around someone who feels fulfilled. In my life, that's what I need personally.''

Crawford is the second NHL coach with a Stanley Cup title on his resume to leave his job this month. Jacques Lemaire, who led New Jersey to the championship in 1995, quit as coach of the Devils on May 8.

Lacroix said he has not set a timetable for naming Crawford's successor, but he wants someone who can manage a blend of youth and experience on the ice.

``You can't replace Marc Crawford,'' Lacroix said. ``Marc has his own style and great ability. You can't replace him.''

In his first season as an NHL coach in 1994-95, Crawford led the Quebec Nordiques to the best record in the Eastern Conference and was honored as the league's coach of the year. After the franchise moved to Denver the following year, he led the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup title.

Seeking to defend the Cup, the Avalanche enjoyed the best regular-season record in the NHL in 1996-97 but lost to Detroit in the Western Conference finals.

``I don't know what's ahead,'' Crawford said. ``I don't have a crystal ball. I have a strong belief in myself. I believe that I have the ability to land on my feet and accept whatever challenge may be there.''