The Colorado Avalanche Have Come a Long Way, But the Journey Is Far From Over (feat. AJ Haefele)

(Special thanks to AJ Haefele and BSN Denver for all the work they do covering all the Colorado Avalanche, and the rest of the Denver sports teams. They do great work over there, and inspire me to be the best writer I can be.)

(If you don't want to read a detailed history of the last few seasons of Avalanche hockey, feel free to skip to AJ's interview. It will be well worth your time.)

The Colorado Avalanche have been one of the most fun teams in the NHL over the last two seasons. After years of struggling, the organization finally took a step forward and qualified for back-to-back playoff berths. For Avalanche fans, the team finally showing signs of competency was a light at the end of a tunnel that was desperately needed. While the Avs had qualified for the playoffs in 2010 and 2014, those brief glimpses of hope were crushed by poor underlying possession numbers and lack of talent that led to quick regression back to Earth once the next seasons rolled around. Patrick Roy's 13-14 Avs, in particular, were a curse disguised as a blessing, as that one year of success allowed Roy to drive the team off a cliff over the next two seasons by influencing the front office's decisions of bringing some of that good ol' fashioned grit and leadership, because, surely, that was all the team needed to take that elusive next step forward. The team took a step forward alright, a step straight into a maelstrom of confusion and very, very bad defensive positioning. As it turns out, acquiring Andrew Bodnarchuk (great name), Shawn Matthias, Mikkel Boedker, and Eric Gelinas doesn't get you a playoff spot. Who could have guessed?

Despite having a talented core of Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Tyson Barrie, the Avs lacked the skill and depth necessary to be a consistent playoff team. But in Roy's second and third season, the front office, coach, and maybe even the players liked to pretend that they really did have what it took, that thy were right at the cusp. The organization's identity was a weird conglomeration of young underachieving talent who mostly cared, old underachieving talent who sometimes cared, players who weren't actually talented that much, and players that were really talented at getting injured. The team was a mess, on the ice and in the locker room, but that mess was ignored until it was too late, all in pursuit of unattainable contention. Patrick Roy saw the reckoning that was coming, and abandoned the ship he'd spent years putting holes into. In came Jared Bednar, who had to watch a comedy of errors unfold on the ice in front of him while he tried to implant a new team vision. The 2016-17 Avalanche were very bad, entertainingly bad. They lost sixty games. They had -112 goal differential. They were the worst team in the Western Conference by twenty one points. They traded Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla for nothing. They signed Joe Colborne. Joe Colborne scored a hat trick on opening night and then disintegrated out of existence. Nothing went right.

But even though nothing was going right, General Manager Joe Sakic was finally allowed to enact his vision alongside of Bednar, no longer having to clash against the vision of Patrick Roy. Sakic and Bednar let the kids, and the speed, take over. Youngsters like Alexander Kerfoot, J.T. Compher, and Tyson Jost were implanted into the lineup. Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog had career years next to Nathan MacKinnon, who exploded into true stardom once the long-anticipated departure of Matt Duchene arrived. The Duchene trade is well known as a boon for the Avalanche, bringing in young defenseman Samuel Girard, talented but unlucky Vladislav Kamanev, promising prospect Shane Bowers, and several draft picks, including the pick the became Bowen Byram (but we're not there yet).Jared Bednar got all the "passengers" of the bus, and was ready to roll with a lineup he helped design.

In 2017-18, the team bounced back from a 48-point season with a surprise playoff berth, fueled by Nathan MacKinnon's ascension into a nightly highlight machine, Alex Kerfoot scoring a bunch of goals despite being legally obligated not to shoot the puck, Blake Comeau deciding not to pass pucks backwards on breakaways anymore, Semyon Varlamov and Johnathan Bernier being a competent goalie tandem for half a season, and a bunch of other unpredictable nonsense like Matt Nieto scoring hat tricks or Andrew Hammond winning playoff games. It was everything and more for Avalanche fans that had been spurned by the team for most of a decade, because beneath all the wackiness, something big was happening. The Colorado Avalanche, while still very flawed, were starting to do things the right way. They leaned into their identity of being a young, fast team, had an excellent penalty kill, and stayed collected under pressure. They did just enough of those good things to qualify for the playoffs in their last game of the season, in a dramatic loser-goes-home showdown with the Saint Louis Blues. In the end, complete catharsis for a 48-point season rocked Pepsi Center:

(Don't worry Saint Louis fans, things worked out ok for you in the end.)

After giving Nashville a good fight in the first round of the playoffs, the Avalanche looked to carry momentum into the next season. And for the first two months, they did, with Mikko Rantanen leading the NHL in scoring and the team sticking around the top five in the standings until December. But then the goaltending exploded, with neither Varlamov nor Grubauer really stringing together quality starts until mid-February, with the season already looking like it was a lost one. The offense and defense were actually playing pretty well most nights, certainly better than the season before, but it looked like it wouldn't matter. That is, until Phillip Grubauer remembered how to goalie and led the team on a torrid winning stretch to end the season. The Avalanche, after appearing dead in the water with mere weeks left in the season, qualified for the playoffs in the penultimate game, one game ahead of last year's schedule. From there, the Avs shelled the Western Conference Champion Calgary Flames in five games for their first playoff series win since 2008, before falling to a stacked San Jose squad in a game seven where almost nothing went the Avs' way and yet they still almost won.

Emboldened, Joe Sakic went to work during the 2019 offseason. In came Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook from the draft, more talent for the future to store in the cupboard (unless Byram becomes talent for the present). Out went Carl Soderberg, Alexander Kerfoot, Tyson Barrie, Semyon Varlamov, and Patrick Nemeth. In came Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, Pavel Francouz, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and a full season of Cale Makar. Sakic went about trying to improve his team without breaking the bank, expecting players like Kadri, Donskoi, and Burakovsky to improve if they're given the right opportunity and linemates (perhaps each other?). The same can be said for Tyson Jost, someone who has spent the last two seasons trying to carve out a role for himself on the team and not entirely being able to do so yet. With Kadri coming into the organization to solidify the No. 2 center position, Sakic is expecting the players behind Landeskog, MacKinnon, and Rantanen to make the jumps they are capable of making.

How Jared Bednar deploys his lineup will be key to those improvements occurring. Bednar, like most NHL coaches, has a knack for using "inoffensive" players a bit too heavily. Players who won't contribute much of anything offensively, but won't have a major defensive mishap that leads to a goal against, either. But those players aren't game changers. For the Colorado Avalanche to take the next step in the 2019-20 season, Bednar must use the game changers in the middle of his lineup (Compher, Jost, Burakovsky, etc.) more freely, and put them in positions to succeed.

But that's just my opinion, and I was curious to see how well it helped up against someone a little more qualified in the field. I talked to AJ Haefele, one of my heroes and editor-in-chief for BSNDenver, about the team and its future outlook to see what he thought about the upcoming season. I am beyond thankful for AJ letting me conduct the interview, so as a token of my appreciation, I gave him a little ribbon:

Ur da best, AJ.

Here's what he had to say:

-What is a team identity, to you? How much does having an identity benefit a National Hockey League team?

I think identity is a team's soul, if you will. Who they are to their core. You are what you repeatedly do. I'm a big believer that the best teams in the NHL are comfortable with who they are and embrace their identity. They know what they want to do every night and how to make opposing teams hate playing against them. A team's identity is tied to their approach and what they put on the ice. When you look at the franchises that consistently struggle (this recently included Colorado), a major component of their struggles revolve around lacking an identity.

-Joe Sakic and Jared Bednar seem to have a very similar vision for the team. Would Sakic still have signed Bednar as coach if Roy had left at the beginning of the offseason, rather than a few weeks before training camp?

The Avs conducted a full-scale coaching search. They might have missed out on a candidate or two but for the most part, they interviewed the field of candidates they wanted.

-At the start of his tenure, what did Bednar do differently than Roy? How well did he coach a team that was out of playoff contention in December during his first season as coach?

Bednar was a completely different style of coach than Roy. More of a communicator, more of a calming presence, certainly better Xs and Os at the NHL level. His first year was a total disaster, almost a throwaway because absolutely everything went wrong. They were historically awful offensively, had an old and ineffective defense, and their starting goaltender was lost for the season in December. Combine that with a coaching staff he was assigned and not one he selected, and Bednar was always climbing uphill.

-This one’s just for fun: What is your favorite memory of the 48-point season? Something that represents just how hilariously awful that season was?

The 10-1 loss to Montreal was the perfect microcosm of that season. My favorite good memory was Zadorov's domination of the Jets, including a hit that caused the entire press box to stand up, something I've yet to see happen again. That was a fun night.

-How important is Gabe Landeskog’s role as captain to giving the team a sense of stability? How much did he impact the team’s turnaround the last two years?

Extremely important! He wanted to be part of the solution and that gave him an in with a coaching staff that was trying to figure out who wanted to be in Denver and who was looking for their next destination. Landeskog's willingness to fight through the adversity helped forge the bond he and Bednar share today. It's an interesting dynamic they've developed because MacKinnon has become such a huge part of the team's culture now, too. Landy has had a big impact in building the accountability that now exists in the room but didn't used to when they were relying on so many veterans.

-How would you describe Colorado’s team identity over the last two seasons?

Speed, skill, skating, tryhard. That's who Bednar wants them to be.

-How differently would this offseason have gone for the Avalanche if they hadn’t made the playoffs this year? In March, it seemed very likely that would be the season’s outcome.

I don't think it would've gone drastically differently. The only difference is the faith in Grubauer may not have been there and they might have made a more aggressive move to keep Varlamov to hedge their bets in net. But with Grubauer stepping up, it probably changed their approach to that position. The rest of it I think was pretty obvious writing on the wall.

-The Avs moved out a lot of familiar faces and brought in a lot of new faces this offseason. How will the team have to evolve going into next year, after remaining fairly consistent the last two seasons?

The team has had a lot of moving parts the last couple of years but they've relied so much on young players that now that some questions have been answered, it was time to fill obvious holes. They still have the core of the team around and there are not enough changes in important positions (Kadri for Soderberg is the biggest one imo) to drastically alter the locker room chemistry. On the ice, there's a chance they are significantly improved. Significantly.

-If you had to change one thing about Bednar’s coaching tactics going into next season, what would it be?

This was really the hardest question. It's really tough to coach in the NHL and sitting back with a thousand-yard view makes it seem like there are obvious things that are fixable that should change but basically everything is done for a reason and a lot of times we simply aren't privy to that reasoning. With that in mind, it's hard to exactly what real changes I'd make to Bednar's tactics but if I have to pick, I'd say the low-to-high offensive scheme drives me the craziest. So much of Colorado's offense is predicated on scoring in transition, which is smart given the analytics involved there, but when they get into the cycle game and have extended possessions, the Avs tend to focus solely on getting pucks out high to D for point shots, which have shown to be the least valuable shots in the game and are really a dice roll on good fortune. The chances the puck actually goes in on a point shot is under five percent; the real hope is for a deflection of some kind. Hoping to be lucky versus good is a really questionable approach to offense. It sounds silly but I'd do what you do in video games - crash the net and fire pucks from everywhere. Create chaos, baby!

-For the Avalanche to compete for the Central Division title next season, what has to happen? (And do you think that will happen?)

This answer isn't really unique to the Avalanche because the pathway to the postseason, and a division title is part of that, is pretty straightforward: Your best players have to stay healthy and be your best players, your goaltending has to be there, and your special teams have to not be an abomination. A team can survive one special teams unit tanking them but not both. The game is just too tightly contested to be successful in non even strength situations. For the Avs, MacKinnon and Rantanen have to be elite, Kadri has to be a 50-point player (minimum), Grubauer has to be a legit starter, and the defense has to overcome its relative youth in key spots (Makar, Girard, potentially Byram and/or Timmins at some point). If the talent wins out, the Avs could be a monster. And seriously. STAY. HEALTHY. 

See? He sounds much more professional than me.

The last decade of Colorado Avalanche hockey has been a rollercoaster, and sometimes, it hasn't been a very fun one. Sometimes, it's been one of those vertigo-inducing rollercoasters everyone tells you to avoid. But the team finally has the direction, identity, and talent to keep forward momentum and create a consistent, winning culture, reminiscent of the team's early days in Denver. Perpetual success is hard to come by in an NHL landscape controlled by the salary cap, but Joe Sakic has built a young, cost-controlled core (pending a Rantanen signing) that could be a force for years to come. But that "could" is big because sports are ridiculous and nothing, nothing, is ever guaranteed. The time to win is here, and Sakic and Bednar have the Avs poised to take advantage. All that's left to do now is take the next step.

(Sources: Mile High Hockey, Mile High Sticking, BSN Denver, Sportsnet, ESPN, TSN, Bleacher Report)

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