The Colorado Avalanche wanted to surprise the world of hockey last season, and the team did just that.
A Central Division championship, 112 points, 52 victories, three individual award winners and a trip back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010 highlighted the Avalanche's 2013-14 campaign.
This year Colorado has faced expectations, but the team also wants to surprise the world of hockey once again; proving that last season wasn't a one-year run and that just making the postseason isn't good enough. The team is eyeing to compete for multiple Stanley Cup championships.
"Last year we approached it that we wanted to surprise the world of hockey, and I think if we can go even deeper in the playoffs that would surprise the world of hockey again," head coach Patrick Roy said before the season.
Last year was a special season for the Avs, as only the 2000-01 Stanley Cup championship team had a campaign with as many wins and more points. This year's squad realizes that it may not be able to duplicate its success from a year ago, but the Avs do feel they are a better overall team than the one that helped raise a ninth division title banner to the Pepsi Center rafters.
"We want the expectations high on us, and I think we expect a lot of good things out of ourselves," said team captain Gabriel Landeskog. "I think it is important to realize that we might not get 112 points this year, we might not win the division, but at the end of the day we are still going to be a better team. I think as long as people realize that and put realistic expectations after seeing that and hearing that, I think we're going to be good at the end of the day."
One reason why the Avs understand that it might be difficult to repeat last year's success is because of the strength of the division and conference the team plays in.
The Central Division had five of the seven teams make the playoffs last year—the maximum amount a division can have under the current postseason format—and the other two clubs were within seven points of a spot. The conference as a whole was tough as five of the top seven teams in the league were located in the West, and the Los Angeles Kings went on to become the sixth Western Conference squad to win the Stanley Cup in the last eight years.
"I think the next step for us, coaching staff and players, is to remain very humble. We’re playing in a conference that it’s pretty easy to stay humble," Roy said. "There are so many good teams in this conference. We're going to have to play the same type of hockey."
The Avalanche's success last season carried into the summer as the organization picked up three trophies at the NHL Awards. Roy won the Jack Adams Award as the league's coach of the year, Nathan MacKinnon picked up the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year and Ryan O'Reilly was named the recipient of the Lady Byng Trophy, given to the player that best combines skill and sportsmanship.
Part of the reason why Roy was named coach of the year was for his ability to get the team to the playoffs, as the Avs finished with the third best record in the NHL. However, the Colorado coach said many times that he wouldn't have won the award if it was not for the players' hard work and belief in his and his coaching staff's system.
Now it's Roy's job to help the team have a return trip to the postseason and to go further—a process he had thought about since the Avalanche's playoff run ended last April.
"I think it's going to continue to be a great challenge for us," said Roy. "I think we all learned a lot, and we realize we haven't reached our objective… Even after the season, the first thing I was doing was thinking about 'what can we do to get to that next level?' I think it’s very simple: we need to continue to grow. We need to continue to learn, and I think that is going to help our team."
Other than internal team development, the Avs targeted several areas this past summer that they wanted to improve in. According to Avalanche executive vice president/general manager Joe Sakic, some of those areas were bringing depth, toughness and veteran experience to the roster.
Sakic said the team feels it has added the right pieces this past offseason to help fill those needs with the additions of veterans like Daniel Briere, Jarome Iginla and Brad Stuart and strong-depth players like Zach Redmond and Jesse Winchester. The team also signed several other depth players for the minor leagues that could be called up at any time and easily placed into the lineup.
One of those depth players from the minor leagues was Swedish forward Dennis Everberg, who was entering his first professional season in North America and had such a good training camp that he made the Avalanche's opening-night roster.
"We needed to work on our depth and team toughness, and I think we did a pretty good job of trying to fill those needs in the offseason," Sakic said. "We are as deep depth-wise as we have ever been."
The team signed Iginla, Everberg, Redmond and Winchester as free agents and traded for Briere and Stuart, but one common response among the new Avs on why they wanted to play in the Mile High City was the direction the team is going.
"I think this team, there is no question that they are on their way up. The young guys are only going to be getting better and more confident," said Iginla, a 17-year veteran in the league. "Sure there will be some external pressure and even internal to try to keep it going and stuff, but I think naturally how competitive guys are here, and everybody here being very driven to go with the talent they have, that is a great recipe. There are going to be bumps, every team goes through that during the year, but with the group here I think it's going to get even better."
Briere agrees and said he thinks the addition of a few older guys—like himself—benefit the club.
"I like the makeup of the team. The good blend of young guys and veterans, and what they did last year was tremendous," said the 36-year-old Briere prior to the season. "I’m hoping that, and along with a couple older veterans we can come in and help them out even more."
With the new additions and with the team having signed several of its young core players long term, Colorado now has the highest payroll in franchise history. The Avalanche is considered a 'cap team' as it is close to the league-mandated $69 million salary cap ceiling.
"Our ownership has been incredible. Both Stan and Josh [Kroenke] are very supportive of us, right from day one," Sakic said. "This is their team, and no one wants to see this team win a championship more than Stan and Josh.
"They have given us the green light to do whatever we can to make this team win."
The Avs want to win, and no longer are the team's younger players satisfied with just making the postseason.
They want the 34.5-pound trophy at the end.
"Last year we just wanted to make the playoffs and make a push. I think we sent a strong message to the hockey world," said Landeskog. "Now it is about taking that next step and sending another message that we want to be a Stanley Cup contender.
"This is the first step."