The Colorado Avalanche returned to the playoffs this season.
More importantly, they returned to prominence in the Denver sports landscape. No small feat considering the debacle the team had descended into culminating in a 48-point season in ’16-’17.
The Colorado Avalanche are the youngest team in the NHL. They saw nine rookies debut this season.
Interesting side note: I’ve done some Lyft and Uber driving over the past year. I live not far from Family Sports where the Avalanche practice. I got a call to Family Sports from an ‘Alexander’. Turns out it was Alexander Kerfoot, he had just been called up and was on his way to find a car and a place to live. His smile and excitement were infectious and I instantly felt guilty that I hadn’t followed the Avalanche more closely. At the time, I had no idea who #13 was.
People have asked in the wake of the Avs playoff loss to Nashville how it is that the Nuggets have garnered such criticism and the Avalanche such praise given similar results. It’s not too complicated a dynamic to work out.
First, the Avalanche spent a decade chasing the Broncos for the hearts of Colorado fans. Even with the Broncos lock on Denver’s fan landscape, the Avalanche made incredible inroads by being the premier franchise in the NHL . They got all the free-agents, they made one-sided trades that landed superstars in Denver, they did all the things perennial contenders do.
They also won two Stanley Cups in five years. Had the biggest stars the city had seen not named Elway. There was a genuine love-affair with the Avs.
Then came the 2004-05 NHL season. Owners proposed several salary options which players rejected and the season was lost to a lockout. Immediately following the resolution of the lockout, Adam Foote (Columbus) and Peter Forsberg (Philadelphia) bounced. Between the defection of two of Colorado’s three most popular players and the now-implemented salary cap the Avalanche squandered nearly every bit of the good will they had spent the previous eight years building.
The Avalanche were back-burnered, in Denver.
At the same time, the Nuggets were accelerating toward a Western Conference Finals showing against the Lakers. Carmelo Anthony and crew had emerged and leapfrogged the Avalanche for Denver’s affection. Add in the Rockies 2007 World Series appearance (and the show they put on to get there) and the Avalanche were dormant.
They’ve done things pretty well in the last few years. Nostalgia was addressed in the hiring of Sakic and Patrick Roy. They brought Adam Foote back for a victory lap. Peter Forsberg tried and failed at an Avalanche comeback but we got to see Foppa in his #21 (on TV, he never made it to his proposed home debut against Calgary) one last time.
Roy, tabbed for his first NHL coaching gig in Denver, brought an immediate sense of excitement and a lofty second-place finish in the Western Conference in the 2013-14 season. Citing a lack of personnel decision-making, Roy abruptly stepped-down before the 2016-17 season. With no time to replace staff or install his gameplan, Jared Bednar oversaw possibly the worst season performance in NHL history. Now, the Broncos had just won SB50 and the Nuggets were buzzing over a new coach and the potential of several young players.
It’s been assumed that Patrick Roy’s chief complaint was a lack of input into personnel decisions. Chief among those, the disconnect that led to Matt Duchene to request a trade. The Avs found a partner in Ottawa and moved the high-powered Duchene. Coincidence or not, the trade seemed to rejuvenate the Avalanche. Among the assets Colorado received were rookie defenseman Sam Girard, mentioned as only a prospect, he paid immediate dividends for the Avs blue line. Goalie Andrew Hammond proved invaluable when Colorado lost their top two goaltenders for the playoffs.
The Avalanche busted out of the gates strong, posting a 7-4 record in October. They fell back a bit in November, posting a 6-6 record. To be fair, they moved Duchene and then travelled to Stockholm for a two-game set with the Sens.
A February dip had the Avalanche sighting to secure a playoff spot down the stretch and it’s that run that solidified this season as the best in the team’s Denver history. After a nice streak of wins in March the team dropped the first three games in April setting up the now-famous play-in game with Minnesota.
During that run of games, fence-sitting Avalanche fans were exposed to the Hart-level brilliance of Nathan MacKinnon, the leadership and playmaking of Gabe Landeskog and the incredible skill of Miko Rantanen. That’s just the top line. Kerfoot has dazzling skating ability, JT Compher is a jack-of-all trades. Carl Soderberg, though overshadowed, is a great two-way player and has that decidedly Swedish penchant for blending skill and toughness. Barrie, Bernier, Jost, Barberio, Nieto, Andrighetti, so many players that are the glue that has pieced a fan-base back together.
It was an honor and a delight to share this run with the youngest team in the NHL. While they only made it six games into the postseason before bowing to the Predators, this was the Avs best season in Denver.
It was the best because the Avalanche have finally shed the last vestiges of past glory. This team stands alone and on its own merits. The attempts to tie the current team to the glory days have subsided and these Avs have rewarded that interest with a never-say-die style that personifies Denver sports.
Welcome back, fellas, we’ve missed you!