A version of the following story appeared in the 2019-20 first edition of AVALANCHE, the official game magazine of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey Club. For more feature stories, purchase a copy of the magazine during Avs home games at Pepsi Center. All proceeds from game-magazine sales support youth hockey associations in Colorado.
It wasn't a full makeover, but this season's Colorado Avalanche looks significantly different than its previous iteration.
Being young and playing fast are still characteristics of the franchise, but the team bolstered its depth in the offseason to become a more well-rounded squad. Adding players with offensive skill but also a little grit to their games were priorities for general manager Joe Sakic over the summer, and he accomplished that with the addition of several new skaters.
Colorado signed Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Joonas Donskoi and Valeri Nichushkin in free agency and acquired Andre Burakovsky (Washington Capitals), Nazem Kadri and Calle Rosen (both from Toronto Maple Leafs) in trades.
"We decided to add as much depth as we could to our group," said Sakic. "We like the depth that we have right now."
Colorado is coming off back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the first time it reached the postseason in consecutive seasons in 13 years. This year's goal is to not only return to the playoffs for a third straight campaign but to also do some damage once there.
A good way to ensure a long spring is to have home-ice advantage for a potential Game 7 scenario, and the best way to have that decisive contest played at Pepsi Center is to win the division, if not the conference.
As the conference's second wild-card team last year, the Avs started on the road throughout the playoffs. Despite that disadvantage, they eliminated the Calgary Flames--the Western Conference regular-season champions--in five games in Round 1 before falling to the San Jose Sharks (the West's second seed) in seven contests in the conference semifinals. Colorado lost Game 7 by one goal, and that outcome could have been different if the contest was played in Denver instead of in San Jose.
"I don't think anyone expected us to get to the second round and take it to Game 7 on top of that," said forward Tyson Jost. "Last year was last year, and the year before that is kind of history too. We got to learn from those two years. Each year is a clean slate, you all start at zero points again. I think our No. 1 goal this year is go get home ice in the playoffs, that's the regular-season goal. And then obviously winning the Stanley Cup."
The Avs secured the last remaining playoff berth after going on a 15-5-3 run from Feb. 18-April 4. Colorado needed all the wins it could get in the final seven weeks of the season as a couple more games without points could have kept the squad out of the Stanley Cup tournament.
"From Dec. 1 to March 1, we weren't playing nearly good enough," said team captain Gabriel Landeskog. "I don't know how many games we managed to win (in that time), but it wasn't enough and it nearly ended up costing us a playoff berth. That would have set us back and all of sudden maybe we wouldn't have been as aggressive this offseason. I'm proud of the way the guys battled through and got to the playoffs."
Sakic's busy summer helped make the Avalanche better prepared for the grind that comes with playing a seven-plus month season, and hopefully a long playoff run that goes until June.
Finding secondary scoring has been an objective for the Avs in recent years, and the offseason additions fit that bill. Both Burakovsky and Donskoi will be given more offensive opportunities than they had with their previous teams, while Kadri is already a known commodity and has proven to be one of the top two-way forwards in the game.
Entering this year, Kadri had recorded 161 goals and 196 assists in 561 career NHL games since making his debut with the Maple Leafs in 2009-10. He has tallied at least 40 points in each of the previous four seasons and registered back-to-back 32-goal campaigns in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
"Hitting the 30-goal mark back-to-back times, I think that is pretty tough to do in the NHL," Kadri said. "I certainly have that potential… I am feeling the best I really ever have. I have been working for redemption this season so I feel strong, I feel great. I strongly believe that my best years are yet to come, and I think Colorado will be a really nice next step for me."
The London, Ontario, native is also known for playing with an edge to his game, as he isn't afraid to get to the front of the net or into the corners to knock opponents off the puck. He racked up 387 penalty minutes in his nine-year tenure with Toronto.
"If there's one thing he does, he competes, he wants to win, he battles and will do anything for the team," Sakic says. "With him and the way he plays, we feel we've added a lot of grittiness to our team as well."
Receiving Kadri, Rosen and a 2020 third-round draft pick from Toronto was a big get by Sakic, but he had to give up quality players in return as defenseman Tyson Barrie and forward Alexander Kerfoot, along with a 2020 sixth-round pick, headed to Canada's largest city.
Kerfoot finished sixth on the Avs in scoring last season and had recorded at least 40 points in each of his first two NHL campaigns. Barrie was drafted by Colorado in 2009 and left as the franchise's all-time leader in goals (75), assists (232) and points (307) by a defenseman after suiting up in 484 games over the course of eight seasons.
"He is a great person, and we are going to miss him," Sakic said of Barrie. "But with what we've got coming, we feel we really needed to expand our forward group. We really wanted to get that second-line center… We felt that it was one of those trades for both teams, they were looking for a right-handed defenseman and we were looking for the second-line center. That's where this deal made sense for both teams."
The Avalanche was too one-dimensional in its offense in parts of last season, sometimes only getting production from one line, but the additions of Burakovsky, Donskoi and Kadri should help alleviate some of the pressure that is put on the team's top unit.
"We are happy and think this group of forwards can compete with any group of forwards in the league," says Sakic. "Obviously, for us, we know we had the best line in the league. Now we are adding scoring depth to that group. The coaches have a lot of options to mix and match with line combinations."
Burakovsky won a Stanley Cup with Washington in 2018 and has recorded 12 goals in three straight seasons. He is expected to get more opportunity with the Avs and will likely see top-six minutes to begin the 2019-20 campaign.
"Obviously the guys we signed and traded for are very special players," said Nathan MacKinnon. "Good depth guys. I think a guy like Burakovsky, he has a lot of untapped potential."
Sakic also sees Burakovsky as a player that can have a breakout campaign in Colorado.
"He's got major skill, he can shoot a great shot and is super fast," said the Avalanche GM. "He can fly up and down the ice, he gets pucks out of the blue line, he anchors the offensive blue line with incredible speed."
Donskoi is similar to Burakovsky in that he'll probably be utilized in a more offensive role with the Avs than in the previous four years with the San Jose Sharks. He has scored 14 goals and at least 32 points in each of the last two seasons and tallied the game-winning marker in Game 7 to eliminate Colorado from the postseason last spring.
"He's a 200-foot player that you can put in different spots in your lineup," Sakic said of Donskoi. "He competes, and coaches are going to love the type of game he is going to bring. We feel, with that group and trying to add more depth to our lineup and improve our fourth line, that that should help."
The Avalanche has dreams of a Stanley Cup title, and the new additions aim to fortify the club's pursuit of that championship. There is a lot of work to be done before a parade can be planned in downtown Denver, and the team is well aware of it. Landeskog said quite frankly before this year's training camp began that "until you win that last game of the year, you're not going to be satisfied."
There are more expectations for the 2019-20 Avs based on the club's recent success and the moves that Sakic made in the summer, and Landeskog and company welcome the challenge.
"It's nice to have some pressure," MacKinnon said. "We're not the 'bad Avs' anymore. We're a contender, and that's fine. We all want pressure. It's no fun coming in as an underdog, it got kind of old. The best teams have pressure on them, and it feels good."