Young, speedy Avalanche show promise before playoff exit
AP Sports Writer
DENVER — Fair warning to the rest of the league: As fast and young as the Colorado Avalanche were this season, general manager Joe Sakic vows to make them even faster and younger.
It’s become a full-speed-ahead priority.
That blend of quickness, youth and skill boosted the Avalanche from the bottom of the league a year ago to a playoff contender this season. Having an MVP candidate like Nathan MacKinnon leading the charge certainly didn’t hurt, either.
“We love the way we play the game,” Sakic said a day after the Avs were eliminated from the first round of the postseason by top-seeded Nashville in six games. “It’s fast. It’s entertaining. It’s exciting.”
Few expected this kind of run from a Colorado team that had just 48 points in 2016-17. But youthful energy kept the Avalanche in the playoff chase until the end, where they earned the final postseason spot on the last day of the regular season. Their 47-point turnaround from a season ago matches the fourth-highest year-to-year improvement over a full season in NHL history, according to the team.
That bodes well. That is, once the sting of losing to the Predators fades.
“We’re going to stay the course and let this team grow because they deserve it,” said Sakic, whose squad was one of the league’s youngest with an average age of 25.8. “We’re going to stay young and in the next couple of years may even get younger. If we can, even try to get a little bit quicker and faster out there.”
The Avalanche fully bought into the message of even-keeled coach Jared Bednar, who will be around two more seasons after Sakic announced Monday he recently agreed to a one-year extension with the former American Hockey League coach.
“It’s a cool story that we went from last to the playoffs, but we’re trying to win a Cup,” said the 22-year-old MacKinnon, who had 39 goals and 58 assists in the regular season. “We showed a lot of fight this season. … Hopefully we can use some of that next season.”
Things to know about a season in which the Avalanche returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2014:
The Avalanche returned the aura back to the Pepsi Center. They won 28 games at home in the regular season, which tied the franchise record held by the 2000-01 squad that captured the Stanley Cup crown.
“To see the way this Colorado crowd and the city responded to us was great,” defenseman Erik Johnson said.
The future is certainly bright with a total of 11 rookies dressing this season. Even more, nine players got their first taste of the postseason.
“It was great to get into the playoffs just to feel the different level, where you’ve got to go emotionally and intensity goes up,” Sakic said. “We can’t take it for granted.”
MAC’S OFFENSIVE ATTACK
MacKinnon had a season worthy of consideration for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. He led the league in home scoring this season with 67 points (27 goals, 40 assists). That’s tied with Sakic (2000-01) for most in Avalanche history.
In addition, MacKinnon’s 284 shots were also the most by an Avalanche player since Sakic (332, ‘00-01).
He was frequently paired with captain Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, giving them one of the league’s most potent lines.
“If you want to bring someone to their first hockey game, you want to bring them to watch Nathan MacKinnon,” Sakic said.
Colorado had a 10-game winning streak that began with an overtime win over Toronto on Dec. 29 and ended Jan. 23 with a loss at Montreal. It was the second-longest streak in team history.
“Great group, fun to coach,” Bednar said. “It was a good season, a fun season — especially for a lot of our guys who went through probably their worst season, myself included, last year to respond and have a season like this.”
Colorado dealt with its fair share of injuries, including the loss of starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov and Johnson to knee injuries before the playoffs. In the postseason, backup Jonathan Bernier went down. The Avs had to rely on third-stringer Andrew Hammond, who was acquired as part of the three-team trade in November that sent Matt Duchene to Ottawa.
“I know we’ll come back stronger,” Landeskog said. “I’m proud of this team.”
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