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Sakic: 2019-20 Season Won't Be Easy

Avalanche aims for strong season and long spring

by Ron Knabenbauer @RonKnab / ColoradoAvalanche.com

It's a long time until April, May and June, but playing hockey well into the springtime is the goal for the Colorado Avalanche heading into the 2019-20 season.

Executive vice president/general manager Joe Sakic held his annual pre-season media availability on Wednesday morning at Pepsi Center, and the former player turned Avs top boss says the expectation for the club is to have a strong regular season to help give itself the best chance at winning the Stanley Cup come playoff time.

"We expect to make the playoffs and make a run to win the Stanley Cup," Sakic said. "It is pretty much every GM at the start of the year is going to say the same thing. That is our expectation, is to have a really good year. Have a good start, be consistent, we like our group. Internally, we want to win and that is our goal."

Sakic said getting to that position will be a challenge, and it will take a solid regular season to do it. There are going to be ebbs and flows during the year, plenty of ups and downs along the way, but teams that are the most consistent during the 82-game marathon are usually the ones in the best spot once the 16-team tournament begins in early April.

"First is to get off to a good start, make the playoffs and then try and get to the highest seed that you can," Sakic. "It's not going to be easy. We have to play well and win a lot of hockey games. Most important thing is to try and get to the playoffs and at that point it's staying healthy, play your best. That is down the line. We just have to worry about tomorrow and try and get better as a team every day."

Video: Avs GM Joe Sakic on the upcoming 2019-20 season

Sakic has been one of the busiest GMs in the league since the Avalanche last played a meaningful contest, as he re-signed 11 players, had two first-round drafts picks, inked three new skaters in free agency and acquired four others in trades during the offseason.

There are many new faces on the Avs' 2019-20 roster, but Sakic says the strong chemistry and locker room dynamic remains as captain Gabriel Landeskog enters his eighth season in that role.

"We have a long way to go. I believe in this group," Sakic said. "I believe that we have a chance. It's not going to be easy. It never is, but we're confident in this group and we know what type of characters that we have in there. They have one goal and that is to win, and we believe in them."

Colorado's last game was on May 8 in Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round at the San Jose Sharks, a contest the Avs lost 3-2. Having home ice for decisive outings such as that one doesn't automatically translate into success once the puck drops, but Sakic says it's better to have it than not.

"We have a tough, tough division, but if you can have home ice and have a Game 7 in your building, it's a big difference," he said. "It doesn't mean that you're going to win it, but any Game 7 on home ice, I think that is what anybody would prefer."

Having that luxury of playing a Game 7 at home will be based on the work the team puts in during the regular season, and the Avs need to be consistently good for the next seven-plus months to earn that opportunity.

"We're excited about the group that we have, but we know there is work to do and that starts [Thursday]," Sakic said. "We got to play hard. We got to work every day, we got to get better, we got to play as a team and good things can happen if you just stick to the process."

Here are other topics that Sakic discussed ahead of the season opener:

MIKKO LOCKED UP

The last order of Sakic's offseason business was to strike a new deal with restricted free agent forward Mikko Rantanen. Sakic had said that he preferred to ink the Finnish right wing to a long-term contract, and the two sides were able to finally come to an agreement on a six-year contract on Saturday.

"We're happy that he is here. Six years, seven, eight, we wanted him long term. Both sides are happy with the outcome," Sakic said. "To be honest with you, going into the summer with all of those RFAs that were in the same situation, I don't think anybody thought any of them were going to sign early. We knew it was going to be a waiting game. We're extremely happy. He's here for six years, and he's here and ready to play opening night. That was the goal the entire summer."

Rantanen posted a career-high 87 points (31 goals, 56 assists) in 2018-19 and has produced 209 points (80 goals, 129 assists) in 239 career NHL games.

He arrived in Colorado on Sunday evening, joined his teammates for his first practice on Monday and is expected to take his old spot on the team's top line with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog on Thursday in the season opener against the Calgary Flames.

TIMMINS MAKES TEAM

Conor Timmins nearly made Colorado's squad out of training camp heading into the 2017-18 season, but the defenseman finally cracked the opening night roster this year.

He not only had to battle through a deep defensive pool of candidates in the Avalanche's system to earn the spot, but he also had fight back from post-concussion symptoms that forced him to sit the entire last season. Prior to this year's rookie tournament and preseason, the last game Timmins had played was Game 5 of the 2018 Ontario Hockey League Finals with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

"To be honest, he's earned it. He had a tremendous preseason," Sakic said. "Going into the summer, I would be lying if we didn't say that he was going to start in the AHL. The preseason that he had, he's [on the] opening day roster and he's going to play a lot of minutes, and we'll see where it goes. I give him a lot of credit. A year and a half without playing and what he did in the summer to get healthy and get to this next level and work real hard. You can just see it when he has the puck, his hockey sense, his IQ, he's done everything to earn his spot in the lineup.

"He did everything that he could and we're pretty proud of him because he's earned everything that he's got."

MORE FROM MACK

Nathan MacKinnon has posted back-to-back career seasons, but Sakic says there is still another level that the three-time NHL All-Star can get to.

"I think for him, he just wants to win. He's the ultimate competitor. He gets upset with a poor performance, and I think that is a good thing," Sakic said. "He holds himself, he holds everybody accountable to try and achieve the goal of getting to the next level and winning. Is there another level? Offensively, he's there. I'm sure he just wants to keep rounding out his game. What is the saying? If you're not getting better, you're getting worse, so I think he's still getting better."

MacKinnon tied for seventh in league scoring with 99 points last year, while his career-high 41 goals ranked tied for sixth overall. The forward also led the team in assists (58), shots (339, NHL high and franchise record), ice time (22:05) and plus/minus (plus-20 rating). He was the only NHL forward to lead his respective team in average ice time and the first forward to lead the Avalanche in ice time since Sakic in 1998-99.

SPACE TO WORK WITH

The Avs enter the 2019-20 season with some of the most salary cap space in the league, and they will likely stay near the bottom of team salaries for the next year due to the amount of players the squad needs to sign. Colorado presently has 16 contracts expiring in the next two seasons,

Sakic says he's not going to be handcuffed by that number. If there is a move to be made that will improve the team, he'll make it.

"Yeah, we've got cap space, but we know in two years we're not going to have that cap space. We got some guys to sign," Sakic says. "We're going to keep everything open. We're always looking to try and get better. We like the roster that we have right now, and we're going to go with it to start the year."

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