For years the Avs have been searching for an identity. Patrick Roy gave them one for a while but a coach is the guide, the players on the ice need to cohesively reflect a purpose not a personality. I think they had the beginnings of one in Gabe Landeskog’s rookie season as well but it was late-adoption of a style on the way out and ultimately fizzled. Now that we’re in the midst of Jared Bednar’s 3rd training camp it’s evident the team is building a brand new identity.
On October 15th, 2016, Jared Bednar made his debut as an NHL coach. The Avs played the Dallas Stars and squeaked by with a victory thanks to a hat trick from newly signed forward Joe Colborne. We all know how it went from there. This was not JB’s team, he had arrived with barely enough time to evaluate the roster and install a basic system. Compounding the problem was the World Cup which left him without the major players on the roster for most of camp. Almost two years later the only players left from that night are Landy, Mack, Soderberg, Gabe Bourque, EJ, Barrie, Z and Varly. Of the 15 players no longer with us only 2 are currently regular NHL players. Two.
After 4 wins between Thanksgiving and the All-Star break and some gravely serious Winter organizational meetings, Joe Sakic hit the campaign trail in February with some major damage control to be done. The hashtag #youngerfaster was born. They were going to break with the tradition of buying expensive washed up has-beens in Free Agency and turn the team over to their stock of young talent for a change. Despite only managing 9 more wins after the ASG and an underwhelming trade deadline, when the dust settled in April there was finally some hope.
After his first full off-season as Head Coach we got an idea of how Bednar wanted to do things. Practices would be fast and conditioning a large focus. Players that were not in shape either had their groins explode or they were penalized with bench time. Despite the Duchene trade saga dragging on, the Avs roared out of the gate with 4 wins in their first 5 games. Comparing season 1 to season 2 it’s interesting to note that after 8 games, both teams had 8 points but that’s where the similarities ended. After 41 games last year’s club was +20 points and by the end it was +47 and in the playoffs. #youngerfaster was working.
As we’ve seen reinforced over the past couple of weeks, the Avs are using their conditioning as more than a function of being NHL players in 2018. They are using it as the foundation of an identity. The staff are building systems and the roster to take advantage of it. For years opponents talked about coming to Denver and dealing with the effects of the low partial pressure of oxygen. The Avs used it to a slight advantage but they never weaponized it like they are now. 41 regular season games per year they have the opportunity to skate teams into submission and now they have the training and nutritional regimes to put them ahead. Altitude is a weapon.
We’ve seen the guys that have stuck around from the lost season get leaner and quicker and that’s had positive effects on their play overall. New players learn fast that showing up and “playing my game out there” isn’t enough. There’s an Avalanche player archetype developing and it starts with being in great shape and the ability to play at a high pace. It doesn’t mean skating 100mph all the time (although that’s not a bad ability to have) or shooting the puck without thinking all the time, it’s a calculated use of game pace used to wear down opponents and take advantage of mistakes. The ultimate expression of this is Nathan MacKinnon. No one’s going to be able to do what he can consistently but they can use that style to create their own opportunities.
A side effect of an archetype is that your talent pool becomes narrower, that can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand the endless parade of free agent vets that played out the twilight of their careers in Colorado is a thing of the past for now. On the other, it makes drafting and development trickier because it’s tough to project an 18 year old’s pace and endurance out several years. This plus the recent commitment to stocking the prospect pool means higher level of internal competition and ultimately good players that don’t fit moving on from the org. That’s a foreign concept for Avs fans but it’s one that we’ve subconsciously been yearning for for years. We have to get used to player X going to another team, having success and being fine with it as long as what the Avs do is working.
If the Avs do back up their performance from last season and start to exhibit a noticeable style then we may indeed have a team with a positive identity again. Coach Bednar has taken over how the Avalanche practice, play and train in the off-season. This Summer he started to put his mark on the pipeline with an appearance at Development Camp, observing the Rookie Showcase and professing an interest in how the Eagles will run their show this season. Developing an identity and a player archetype from the ground up would display a cohesive strategy that we’ve never seen from the organization. The question now is what effects will that have in the standings and playoff performance.