Three seasons, three different stories. The last three seasons for the Colorado Avalanche have been interesting to observe.
Two seasons ago, the Avalanche had the worst record in the modern era of hockey. Their 22-56-4 record was the franchise’s worst in its 21 seasons in Denver. It was also the worst in the NHL since the 1999-2000 Atlanta Thrashers, who went 14-57-7. The Thrashers were also an expansion team in an era where every expansion franchise was expected to be bad. In other words, the Avalanche had no excuse to be this bad and ended up being the laughing-stock of the NHL.
The mindset of the locker room seemed to mirror how bad their season had been with rumors of Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog fighting in the locker room. Players hinted that there were many guys in the locker room who did not want to be there. During the summer some veteran players were let go, but not much was done to this damaged roster.
The 2017-2018 season appeared to be starting off with the same attitude with trade rumors at an all-time high for a club that had no “safe” players. Nikita Zadorov, who used the threat of bolting to the KHL to make negotiations more difficult for Colorado, sat out and was scratched for the 1st game of the season. But it was Duchene who was the main focal point for most of the criticism. Duchene’s way out of Colorado was well documented and teammates knew he wanted out. My favorite part of that saga was the famous team photo in which he looked “miserable.” GM Joe Sakic, after months of fans calling for him to be fired, made one of the most genius trades that ultimately saved his job and possibly saved the franchise.
The trade that Sakic was able to pull off was one of the biggest we’ve seen in a long time and is still helping the team today. Per the Avalanche on 11/5/17:
The Colorado Avalanche Hockey Club announced today that the club has acquired defenseman Samuel Girard, forward Vladislav Kamenev and a second-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft from the Nashville Predators, as well as forward Shane Bowers, goaltender Andrew Hammond, a first-round selection in the 2018 NHL Draft and a third-round pick in 2019 from the Ottawa Senators.
This was the trade that keeps on giving. Also noted in the trade is that Ottawa’s 2018 1st round pick to Colorado is top 10-protected. The Senators have exercised their option to keep the pick and now Colorado is looking at a potential top 5 draft pick almost two years after the trade was submitted (to which Sakic said “thank you very much”).
From there, the story shifted from negativity and despair to optimism and a fresh breath of air for a franchise that has only seen the playoffs once since the 2009-2010 season. The Avalanche may have traded one of their most prominent stars, but as one left another was born.
Nathan MacKinnon had arrived. Yes, he had already been a part of the organization for four years. Yes, he had broken onto the scene and won the Calder with 63 points as a rookie. Since that rookie season though, MacKinnon was a good player, but not the kind of elite talent everyone expected from a former 1st overall pick. Sometimes young players just find that gear at random times and boy did MacKinnon find his gear. He finished the 2017-2018 season second in the NHL in points per game (1.31) to McDavid’s 1.32 and he also finished runner-up in the Hart Trophy race to winner Taylor Hall. MacKinnon did put his name on some of the top records for the Avalanche. His 39 goals and 97 points were the most goals by a Colorado player since Milan Hejduk’s 50 in the 2002-2003 season and his points were the most since Sakic’s 100 in 2006-2007.
The result of MacKinnon’s breakout season and the new positive attitude saw other players blossom. That season also saw the emergence of the sophomore Mikko Rantanen (84 points) and the revitalization of captain Gabriel Landeskog, who was almost traded along with Duchene for the culture change. Defensemen Tyson Barrie would also benefit from this, producing new career highs in goals (14), assists (43) and points (57). The narrative of this rocky mountain quickly changed from being the most talked about team for all the wrong reasons to becoming one of the best comeback stories in sports.
Now fast-forward to the present – two seasons later with two very different outcomes. The Avalanche now have one of, if not the best, lines in hockey. Through those 19 games, Rantanen has 29 points, which leads the NHL and has been the leader in points the last two weeks. Meanwhile, MacKinnon is following up last year’s amazing season with… another amazing season! The Avalanche’s number 1 center has 26 points this season, which is good for 3rd in the entire league and is only trailing some guy named Connor McDavid. The 3rd man on this amazing line is “Landy,” as most of his teammates call Landeskog, who has 20 points to his name.
If Rantanen leads the team in scoring this year he will be the 3rd different player in the last three seasons to lead the Avalanche in scoring. He would also be the 2nd player from that 2016 draft to lead a team, as well (hypothetically, of course, as Nathan MacKinnon is very capable of taking that scoring title). The consistency of defensemen Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, and Zadorov combined with the play of budding star Samuel Girard has made Colorado’s top four very formidable. Not to mention a healthy Semyon Varlamov has made this once laughable team a playoff hopeful. This all leads me back to how this season is different again for this Colorado team. This season the team has the expectation to be competitive and to make it back to the playoffs in this central division, which looks to have spots open as other teams falter. The expectation to make it to the playoffs is something a Colorado Avalanche team hasn’t experienced since the Sakic and Forsberg days – the team hasn’t been to the playoffs back-to-back in almost 15 years.
The Avalanche have had many ups and downs, but the future looks very bright in the hands of MacKinnon and Rantanen. The prospects also look solid with Cale Makar leading the way at the University of Massachusetts as a captain. They will also be watching the Eastern Conference standings as they hold the right to a potential top 5 pick from Ottawa. One thing is for sure, though – if you’re a fan of the Avalanche, you can be excited to watch your team again.
stats from nhl.com, wikipedia.com and hockeydb.com