In just a single season, the Colorado Avalanche changed the entire trajectory of their franchise. Two seasons ago, Colorado suffered the worst season in the NHL since the 1999 Atlanta Thrashers.
The 2017-2018 season was a different story. The Avs were a playoff competitor that took the Presidents’ Trophy winners to six games in the first round of the playoffs. Had it not been for a certain first-year expansion team playing for the Stanley Cup, the Avalanche may have been hockey’s biggest feel-good story.
Yet, it takes more than a great pregame speech and a few solid practices to turn around the season the Avalanche had in 2016-17. It takes the moving of players from lines, calling up and sending players to the minors, and making quality trades that can retool the roster. The simple truth is that no one person can be more credited for the rejuvenation of the Avalanche than former Avs captain and current general manager Joe Sakic.
How’d the process begin? To answer this question, it is important to look back to the end of the 2016-17 NHL season, a season most Avalanche fans wish they could forget.
Trade Rumors and Dysfunction
The entirety of the 2016-17 season was a complete debacle for the team. Lines were constantly switched around, the power play could not score, and rumors that star center Matt Duchene wanted to be traded to a contender were permeating through the air. The season was a disaster, to put it lightly.
All of this culminated in January 2017 with trade rumors that were swirling about Duchene before the impending trade deadline. In an interview with the Denver Post‘s Mark Kiszla, Duchene did not shy away from the rumors; rather, he embraced the talks, saying, “I’m open to it… I know it’s part of the business and it’s something that might happen.”
As the trade deadline approached, Duchene became the focal point of NHL trade talk. Was he going or was he staying? Per an article by Jim Parsons of The Hockey Writers, Duchene was the third-highest rated commodity on the trading block, with teams such as Ottawa (keep this team in mind), Montreal, and Nashville being interested. The season was a wash, and attendance was the lowest since 2010-11 (the Avs finished 30-44-8), so it would make perfect sense to try and get something out of Duchene and salvage a bit of the season.
Sakic was not about to give up such a hot commodity — unless he got a hefty return for beloved center. Unfortunately for Duchene, that deal never came, and he was stuck on the gimping Avalanche for the rest of the season. The only shred of light for the team was the new and impressive young star talent of Mikko Rantanen.
Rantanen Jumps on the Scene
Mikko Rantanen got the call-up from the AHL affiliate San Antonio Rampage in late October 2016. Interestingly enough, he played his first career NHL game against another promising rookie, Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets. It did not take long for Rantanen to earn his way into the hearts of Avs fans everywhere, either. Less than two weeks later, Rantanen netted his first goal against that same Winnipeg Jets team.
Rantanen proved to the league that he was a rookie to watch and a key component to the struggling Avalanche team, as he finished third in team scoring with 38 points, netting 20 goals and dishing out 18 assists.
Even with the breakthrough season Rantanen had, the attention remained on Duchene. Questions circulated on if and when Duchene would be moved, where would he go, and whether Sakic would give up on his demands for a blockbuster trade.
Sakic Gets His Blockbuster
Skip ahead past a relatively uneventful offseason, jump straight into the 2017-2018 season, and lo and behold, No. 9 Matt Duchene is still on the Avs. However, he wouldn’t be there for long. A month into the season, Elliotte Friedman first broke the news that Duchene had finally parted ways with the Avalanche, meaning that Sakic finally got the blockbuster deal he desperately wanted.
The trade is official. Now we have to find all the pieces. Duchene to OTT, Turris to NASH.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) November 5, 2017
What were those pieces to the trade? In the three-way trade, Duchene would be sent to Ottawa (which was expected to be a heavy competitor at the time for a Cup run) and Kyle Turris would be sent to Nashville.
The Avalanche would receive a slew of young talent, including Samuel Girard and Vladislav Kamenev from the Predators, as well as a 2018 second-round draft pick. The Avs also received goalie Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond and 2017 first-round pick Shane Bowers from the Ottawa Senators. On top of that, the Avalanche received the Senators’ 2018 first-round pick and 2019 second-round draft pick.
In short terms: the Avs made away like thieves in the night.
Now that the distraction of the Duchene trade rumors were out of the way, the even younger Avalanche team could focus solely on the long season ahead.
The Avalanche Connect
With new young talent and an improved top line of Gabriel Landeskog —Nathan MacKinnon — Rantanen starting to rack up the points, the Avalanche found themselves hanging on with league leaders heading into the Christmas holiday break, sitting at a 17-15-3 record.
The honey-glazed hams the team ate over the break must have been incredibly nutritious, because, after the break, the Avs proceeded to shock the hockey world. After dropping their first game from the break to the Arizona Coyotes 3-1, the Avs won 10 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in team history.
During that streak, Jonathan Bernier made eight straight starts in net, replacing Semyon Varlamov, who was injured in a game against the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 2, 2018. Bernier saved 250 of the 262 shots (95.4 percent) that were fired at him.
Avalanche forward and Hart Memorial Trophy candidate Nathan MacKinnon scored eight goals and recorded 11 assists during the win streak, and scored another goal in the game in which the Montreal Canadiens snapped the streak at the Bell Centre. The team would rebound two days later against St. Louis, a game that even then had major playoff implications down the road (unbeknownst at the time).
The streak would catapult the Avalanche into the wild-card spot in the Western Conference, and the Avalanche would spend the rest of the season riding on the backs of MacKinnon for scoring, Nikita Zadorov on defense, and the surprise emergence of Girard on defense.
Entering the final week of the season, the Avalanche were on the brink of returning to the playoffs for the first time in four years and had blown every expectation of the team out of the water. How impressive was the season leading to this point? According to an article by USA Today‘s Kevin Allen, the Avs were supposed to finish 30th in the league in preseason power rankings, just in front of the Vegas Golden Knights. Instead, the Avalanche found themselves just one game away from clinching a playoff berth.
That game was the last one of the season against the then-second wild-card team, the Blues. The Avs needed a win in regulation. They pulled through. With spectacular goals from Girard and MacKinnon, as well as Tyson Barrie, Landeskog and Matt Nieto, the Avalanche beat their division rivals 5-2 and knocked the Blues out of the final playoff spot for themselves.
After the game, MacKinnon addressed the accomplishment of the Avs, who were one point shy of doubling their point total from the year before (48 points in 2016-17, 95 in 2017-18).
It’s got to be one of the greatest accomplishments in modern sports history… We did the unthinkable. It’s obviously a huge deal.
The Avalanche were able to celebrate the playoff berth for only a short period of time. After all, the team had a date with the Nashville Predators in just a few days’ time.
Avalanche Stand Ground in Playoffs
Heading into the postseason, the Avs entered as heavy underdogs against the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Many thought the team would struggle to win a single game against a red-hot Preds team. Yet again, the Avalanche defied all expectations. In the first two games of the series, the team scored on the first shot of each game. Though they lost 5-2 and 5-4 away from home they managed to stay within a single goal of the Predators entering the third period in each contest. The Avs went back to Colorado to prepare for Game 3 knowing that they could beat the Predators. The writing was on the wall; the team just needed to execute.
Game 3 of the series validated the team’s place in the playoffs. The team started the game fiery and aggressive, yet again starting off strong in scoring on the second shot of the game this time. With a deafening home crowd backing the team, the Avalanche didn’t look back, either. With a three-goal first period and a two-goal night by MacKinnon, the Avalanche propelled themselves to a 5-2 victory in a game where Pekka Rinne was pulled from the net.
After the game, Landeskog commented on the aggression of the team stating.
“We did a really good job of staying aggressive and staying on the gas even after we scored,” Landeskog said.
The Avalanche dropped the next home game and also lost goaltender Jonathan Bernier in the process. That meant the “next-man-up” mentality had to be executed, as Andrew Hammond became the main man in the crease.
Down 3-1 in the series, Hammond put on a spectacular show, only allowing a single goal in Game 5, making 44 saves in the come-from-behind victory for the Avalanche to extend the series to a Game 6. Landeskog scored the game-tying goal with less than five minutes to play in regulation, and Sven Andrighetto scored the go-ahead goal less than three minutes later to secure a 2-1 victory.
The Avalanche proceeded to lose Game 6 in a 5-0 shutout, but they proved to be a young team that would be there to make a splash in the NHL for years to come.
It is no surprise with the turnaround season the Avs had this year, the team is expected to perform even better the following year. And with the first and second-round draft picks acquired from the Duchene trade, the Avs could be looking at locking up another wild-card playoff berth or even a third-place finish in the Central Division (behind Nashville and Winnipeg). How will they do it? One must look to the star players of this past season, and note that these players, as well as some young guns, are the keys to the Avalanche’s future success.
Nathan MacKinnon — 39 goals, 58 assists, 97 points
Mikko Rantanen — 29 goals, 55 assists, 84 points
Gabriel Landeskog — 25 goals, 37 assists, 62 points
Nikita Zadorov — 7 goals, 13 assists, 278 hits*, 179 blocks
Tyson Barrie — 14 goals, 43 assists, 40 hits, 79 blocks
Erik Johnson — 9 goals, 16 assists, 114 hits, 139 blocks
Samuel Girard — 4 goals, 19 assists, 46 hits, 69 blocks
*Led league in hits (Stats from Hockey Reference)