Trial by Fire Forged the Avalanche Core

The Colorado Avalanche core players faced a trial by fire two seasons ago, living through the worst season in franchise history, earning a meager 48 points. Instead of letting it take them out, the players found a way to channel their frustration, allowing it to refine them, so they entered the following season stronger and better. The real question for the upcoming season – can they continue to improve?

The Avalanche boast a young core of players still developing their game. Will players like Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen continue to improve?

Avalanche right wing Mikko Rantanen
Avalanche right wing Mikko Rantanen on the rise (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Will the young defensemen be able to take on more challenging blueline roles? Will the new goaltending tandem be successful? Will the Avalanche ever find another scoring wing? The start of a new season always brings forth questions and hopes. But before going into what’s in store, it’s worth looking at how far the Avalanche have come.

Avalanche Team Statistics

Let’s take a look at what changed statistically from the 2016-17 to 2017-18.

The 2016-17 team owned some dismal statistics:

  • Last in Regulation/Overtime Wins (ROW) – 21
  • Fewest goals for per game – a meager 2.01
  • Most goals allowed per game –  3.37
  • Second-worst penalty kill in the league
  • Least-effective power play in the league
  • A league-worst 48 points for the season
  • Last in 5-on-5 goal scoring at a dismal .59
  • Second-highest number of faceoff wins in the league

Compare those numbers to 2017-18, when the team managed a substantial turnaround:

  • 12th in ROW – 41
  • 10th in goals for – 3.11
  • 17th in goals against – 2.88
  • Fourth-best PK success rate – 83.3%
  • Eighth-best on the PP – scoring 21.9% of the time
  • 17th in total team points – 95 points
  • 15th in 5-on-5 goal scoring at 1.09
  • Last in faceoff wins

The Avalanche out-performed the previous year in almost every category except faceoffs.

2016-17 Season

During the 2016-17 campaign, anything that could go wrong seemed to. Starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov had to have hip surgery in January, ending his season with only 24 games played. Star Matt Duchene wanted away from the Avalanche. The locker room situation was untenable. Head coach Patrick Roy quit a month before training camp, which left the Avalanche front office on the hot seat and forced them to find a new coach in a hurry.

The new hire, Jared Bednar, came from a successful AHL campaign but had no NHL experience and didn’t even have time to hire his own staff.

Head coach Jared Bednar of the Colorado Avalanche
Head coach Jared Bednar joined the Colorado Avalanche as they were transitioning (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

Summer roster acquisitions didn’t match the new direction of the team. The season became about muddling through and finding a way to grind it out. The meager 48 points earned over the season spoke – loudly – about the effects of the upheaval.

But it also stoked a fire within the young core group. They didn’t like the bitter taste of losing. They didn’t like being in last place in the NHL. They didn’t like being overlooked. And they certainly didn’t like hearing the team was destined to be bottom feeders again in 2017-18.

2017-18 Season

Only nine players who skated in 25 or more games returned for the 2017-18 season. What did the returning players do? They could have whined and given a bunch of excuses. They could have said they lost their desire to play the game. But they didn’t. Instead, each player looked deep and used the offseason to improve themselves. They worked hard. They trained hard. And they came into last season’s training camp in some of the best condition of their lives. Instead of allowing the frustrations from the previous season to weigh them down, the players allowed the fiery trials to refine them, rekindle their desire to win, and then put the work in to improve. And it paid off big time.

In November, the Avalanche finally made the big trade, sending Duchene to the Ottawa Senators and getting four young players and three draft picks in return. How distracting was waiting for the trade? Alternate captain Erik Johnson admitted that the team “had some internal drama going on at this time last year” during Thursday’s media day. But when finished, it turned into a blockbuster trade, and not just for the haul the Avalanche acquired.

Yes, promising young defenseman Samuel Girard made an immediate impact. But the change in the locker room galvanized an already motivated group of players. In particular, the trade unleashed an intensely competitive Nathan MacKinnon on the hockey world and people started to notice.

Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon
Revitalized Nathan MacKinnon surprised the hockey world (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Avalanche nearly doubled their point total in the 2017-18 season. MacKinnon found another level of play which propelled him to being a finalist for both the Hart Trophy and the Ted Lindsay Award. Coach Bednar was a finalist for coach of the year. Captain Gabriel Landeskog turned a once toxic locker room into a cohesive band of brothers. And the Avalanche’s efforts, especially down the stretch, propelled them to their first postseason berth in four years.

The Playoffs

Expected to be an easy out for the mighty Nashville Predators, the Avalanche proved resilient in the face of adversity. Sometimes, the fire melds a team into something stronger. The next time the heat comes, it becomes just one more hurdle to overcome. Colorado proved stronger than expected as they forced Nashville to a six-game series, pushing last year’s Stanley Cup runner-up every step of the way. And the Avalanche did all of this while overcoming the nagging challenge of the injury bug.

The Avalanche were forced to dip deep into their goaltender pool. Varlamov suffered a knee injury prior to the playoffs, leaving Jonathan Bernier to start in net. Bernier got injured in the fourth game of the series leaving the goaltending duties to Andrew Hammond, who spent most of the season in the AHL. Hammond managed to help steal a win in Nashville to force a Game 6.

But the injuries didn’t stop there. The team’s number one defenseman – Erik Johnson – was unable to play after getting injured with only five games left in the regular season.

Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson
Erik Johnson’s injury cost him a playoff appearance (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

Fellow defensemen Nikita Zadorov and Patrik Nemeth both played injured, needing shoulder surgery after the playoffs.

Even with the injured and missing, the Avalanche managed to win two games against the Predators when most analysts predicted a sweep. They also lost two games by only a single goal apiece. The Avalanche-Predators matchup was the only six-game series in the Western Conference’s first round. Colorado gave Nashville a serious challenge and arguably softened the Predators up for their subsequent matchup against the Winnipeg Jets. Not bad for a group that was predicted to return to the cellar in the 2017-18 season.

Upcoming Season

Heading into training camp, it’s important to recognize how far this core group has evolved. A handful of players started trickling in for ‘informal practices’ nearly a month ago. As camp draws nearer, 32 players have hit the ice playing scrimmages and voluntarily doing bag skates. Bag skates, people, voluntarily.

Yet, in many ways, the Avalanche are still playing for respect. During the media day, MacKinnon stated his goal was to “try to get better…I still think we are trying to prove ourselves.” Johnson shared a similar sentiment in his interview when he shared “Our mindset from training camp has to be that …we are going to have to  re-prove ourselves and earn the same respect that we earned last year.” Unity of vision and purpose is a powerful force.

MacKinnon Rantanen Landeskog Avalanche
Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog are the heart of the Avalanche’s young core. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

The Avalanche are on a mission to prove last year wasn’t an exception, but the first step in establishing their reputation as a recurring postseason force. Colorado players want to not only get nominated for awards, they want to win them. The role of underdog still fits the team. Only now, the Avalanche know they have what it takes to overcome. They have all the tools to be a very dangerous team in the upcoming season. The Avalanche faithful have a lot to be excited about.