And they said it couldn’t be done.
Heading into the 2009-10 NHL season, the so-called “experts” took one look at the Colorado Avalanche’s roster and universally slotted the team to finish at or near the bottom of the Western Conference come season’s end.
Those prognosticators pointed to a number of variables that would certainly cement a long season in Denver. The Avalanche’s new starting netminder, Craig Anderson, was unproven. The franchise’s long-time captain, Joe Sakic, had retired during the offseason following an illustrious career, leaving the team without its greatest leader. Colorado’s roster was just too young to contend for a playoff spot in a heavily competitive Western Conference.
At the very best, the Avalanche was a few years away from again challenging for a berth in the postseason.
How wrong they were.
Colorado earned a 4-3 shootout victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night during the club’s 79th game of the season. The win, coupled with Calgary’s 2-1 loss to San Jose earlier in the night, guaranteed the Avalanche would return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs following a one-year hiatus.A Fresh Start
The credit for Colorado’s quick turnaround from finishing last in the conference to gaining a playoff spot within one year’s time can be distributed throughout the organization.
From the day he took over as Colorado’s general manager last summer, Greg Sherman made one thing clear: the 2009-10 Avalanche would be an exciting team to watch.
After hiring former Lake Erie Monsters head coach Joe Sacco to fill the club’s vacant coaching slot, Sherman went to work on building a team that fit the organization’s identity - one built around youth, skill, energy and skating.
And those are the exact traits Sacco’s club has shown throughout the year.
“From the start of training camp, we wanted to be a hard team to play against,” said Sacco. “I wanted guys who could provide energy, play physical and skate. I think we’ve done a pretty good of that this season.”Youth Gone Wild
That identity building began at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, where the Avalanche selected Brampton Battalion forward Matt Duchene
with the third overall pick. A crafty center with speed, the Avalanche had high hopes for the rookie from day one and hoped he would make an impact during the 2009-10 campaign. He’s done just that, leading all rookie scorers with 54 points (23g/31a) while being considered one of the favorites for the Calder Trophy.
What many people didn’t expect was that second-round pick (No. 33 overall) Ryan O’Reilly would have such an immediate impact. Showing poise and maturity beyond his years, O’Reilly turned heads in training camp with his two-way play and ended up making the club’s opening night roster. That meant the Avalanche would be starting the season with a pair of 18-year-olds on its roster, the first time that had occurred in the NHL since Shane Doan and Jason Doig suited up on opening night for the Winnipeg Jets to begin the 1995-96 season.
Rather than keeping his rookie centers on a short leash, Sacco has allowed them to play through their mistakes – the same type of errors all first-year players make from time-to-time – and it has paid off in the long run.
“They’ve been given the opportunity to play important minutes this season and they’ve taken advantage of that opportunity,” Sacco said of his now 19-year-old centers. “They’ve gained more confidence as the season has gone on. They knew that if they made a mistake they’d be put in the position to recover or respond from it. I think that allowed them to gain confidence in their games and feel more comfortable on the ice.”
If the Avalanche’s youth movement had ended there, you could still say the future is looking bright in Denver. However, Duchene and O’Reilly haven’t been the only rookies to make an impact at the NHL level this season.
A number of other first-year players, including T.J. Galiardi, Ryan Wilson
and Brandon Yip, have played significant roles for the Avalanche. In fact, Colorado’s rookies have combined for 158 points (60g/98a) this year, a total that leads the league by a wide margin.
Those numbers don’t include the totals put up by some of the Avalanche’s other young players, including second-year forward Chris Stewart. The 22-year-old has experienced a breakout season, leading the Avalanche in goals (28) and ranking second in points (64).
Stewart’s linemate, Paul Stastny
, is another Avalanche player having a career year. At the “ripe old age” of 24, Stastny has already set a career high with 58 assists and has tied his career best with 78 points.Strong Veteran Presence
It’s doubtful that Colorado’s youngsters would be nearly as successful as they have been if not for a few veteran leaders. Following the retirement of Sakic – the only captain the Avalanche had known in its history – veteran defenseman Adam Foote was given the honor of donning the captain’s ‘C’.
Applyingthe knowledge and lessons he’s learned through his 18 NHL seasons – and not to mention, his time spent playing with Sakic – the two-time Stanley Cup winner guided the young Avalanche squad and taught them what winning was all about.
“It’s an honor to serve as this team’s captain, especially following in Joe’s footsteps. It’s been fun playing with all the young guys on this team,” said Foote. “I’m not surprised that our rookies stepped in and made an impact, but I am surprised on just how big of an impact they’ve had.”
Between The Pipes
And what about that unproven netminder?
After serving primarily as a backup during the first seven seasons of his NHL career, Anderson earned the Avalanche’s starting job in training camp and never looked back.
All he’s done since is appear in 70 games (becoming the first goalie in Avalanche/Nordiques history to do so) while also setting franchise records in starts (70), minutes (4,174), shots faced (2,200) and saves (2016).
The netminder picked up his 38th victory of the season Tuesday in the playoff clincher, tying him with Patrick Roy for the second-most wins in a single season in franchise history.
“Craig has given us a chance to win each and every night he’s played, and that’s all you can ask for from your goaltender,” said Sacco. “Certainly, he’s been one of our most important and consistent players throughout the course of the season.”
Using a combination of strong rookie play, solid veteran leadership and stellar goaltending - along with a team philosophy centered around speed, skill and youth - the Avs have returned to the playoffs.
Right where they belong.