Despite Low Expectations, the Colorado Avalanche are Soaring

Colorado Avalanche are soaring
ST. PAUL, MN - NOVEMBER 19: Colorado Avalanche right wing Mikko Rantanen (96) celebrates with center Nathan MacKinnon (29) after MacKinnon assisted on Rantanen's goal in the 3rd period during the Central Division match up between the Colorado Avalanche and the Minnesota Wild on November 19, 2016, at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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The big joke in the hockey world for the past year and a half has been the Colorado Avalanche. A once-proud franchise with tons of awesome stories in its history, including eight consecutive division championships, tons of hall of fame careers, and two Stanley Cups, the Avs had hit a new low.

The Colorado Avalanche are Soaring: Most improved team in the NHL

Unfortunately, scraping the bottom of the barrel is nothing new for the team either. They’ve made playoffs only once in the past seven seasons, and have had to reset on a rebuild that never came together. That being said, 2016-17 was the worst season recorded by any team in the shootout era. The team won 22 out of 82 games, finished with a franchise-low 48 points, and had their logo become a meme posing as the poop emoji. Star players requested trades, players like Jarome Iginla and Francois Beauchemin played their worst. There were really not many bright spots in the disastrous season.

Going into 2017-18, expectations had never been lower for the Avalanche. Many expected big trades over the summer to start a fresh rebuild process (again). If not a trade, then at least front office and coaching changes would happen to truly reboot everything. Right?


No drastic change is somehow yielding drastic improvements

Head coach Jared Bednar was kept around, along with his staff. President and general manager Joe Sakic still had his job. The only significant off-season trade brought in Colin Wilson, a role player, from the Nashville Predators. Despite all that, the Colorado Avalanche are the most improved team in the NHL. They enter their bye week riding a five-game win streak, the last one coming in a 7-2 rout of the Minnesota Wild (on Milan Hejduk‘s jersey retirement night to boot). Not only that, but they sit in the second wild-card spot in the West. After only winning 22 games last year, they’re already 22-16-3 this season, at the mid-way point of the year.

While the league is encapsulated by the great surprise the Vegas Golden Knights have been, no one is talking about the Avs. They’ve slid under most people’s radars, so dramatically that people will still tell you “how bad they are”. One look at the standings says otherwise, so this team deserves a little attention.

If no one was fired, how did this franchise get better?

Believing in the front office and coaching staff

Rather than kicking Bednar, Sakic, or anyone else to the curb, ownership re-stated their confidence in their soldiers. This came as an unsettling surprise to many, as evident in the many anti-Sakic pieces (examples here, here, and even a small fan petition here). Sakic made rebuilding a clear priority for the franchise. Rather than re-tooling with aging veterans again like he had in summers past, the Avs promoted youth from within.

Bednar, who was hired after Patrick Roy walked out on his job a year before, actually had a full summer to prepare for the season this time around. He made players spend off-season time in Denver for team-building and conditioning, and demanded peak physical condition entering training camp. Youngsters J.T. Compher, Tyson Jost, Sven Andrighetto, Anton Lindholm, and Nikita Zadorov were handed a lot of responsibility for the first time in any of their NHL careers. The transition to youth on every line instantly made Colorado a much faster, more competitive team. The players are skating with their careers on the line every night. There’s a lot of players with a lot to prove to stay in the best league in the world. This internal competitiveness has translated to better, more consistent hockey all-around.

Removing bad attitudes

One of the biggest rumours in the NHL since before even the 2015-16 trade deadline had been Matt Duchene‘s future. It was obvious Sakic wasn’t giving Duchene up for anything less than what he valued the polarizing young centre being worth. After going all summer without a deal in place, critics lined up to take shots at the Avalanche manager. It was beginning to look as though the window was closing on a Duchene deal. Honestly, it wasn’t bothering Avs fans much either, as the team was playing well through the first 13 games. However, as soon as the Duchene blockbuster involving both the Ottawa Senators and Nashville Predators went through, it was clear that a cloud disappeared over the Avalanche locker room.

In a locker room interview with reporter Adrian Dater, Erik Johnson stated, “at the end of the day, we all want to play for the Colorado Avalanche and do great things here. And, [Duchene] didn’t.”  Clearly, the team had some unfavorable opinions on the situation.

To put the icing on the cake, Sakic was able to turn a bad situation into an awesome one. He flipped a negative attitude for a top-flight defensive prospect who has slotted in as a regular on the back-end.  Plus, the Avs snagged a 1st, 2nd and 3rd round draft pick (the latter coming in 2019). Oh, and two solid forward prospects. AND an experienced 3rd string goaltender. Talk about killing two birds with one stone, Sakic did just that.

(Did I mention Duchene’s Senators are near the bottom of the standings in the East?)

Trusting the core to grow and lead

A lot of people were starting to think Gabriel Landeskog wasn’t captain material. Many doubted Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie were truly good enough to be a top pair in the NHL. Nathan MacKinnon‘s best season to-date was his rookie year back in 2013-14. Semyon Varlamov had missed a lot of time with injury and it even seemed he may have peaked in 2013-14 as well. It wouldn’t have been too surprising had more of these names been moved during the off-season.

Instead, the coaches and front office restructured the team around these pieces. MacKinnon’s line with Mikko Rantanen and Landeskog has been one of the deadliest lines in the whole league. MacKinnon himself only trails Nikita Kucherov in the scoring race, as he’s already put away 52 points through 41 games. Before breaking his hand, Barrie was at nearly a point-per-game pace, and Johnson’s been a massive leader (especially in ice-time). Varlamov has been much better than last season, but having Jonathan Bernier backing him up has given the team a great 1-2 punch.

The players who the Avalanche have invested in are coming through with flying colors right now.

Half-way there

With 41 games remaining, the Avalanche still have much to prove. There’s no guarantee that their performance keeps up at this pace. However, the consistency they have displayed all year has people believing the Avs could be back in playoff contention. This is a team on the rise one way or another, and there’s a lot for them to be proud of. Keep on eye on this group, as they could very well be back in the post-season just 12 months after being the laughing stock of the league.