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Younger, Faster And Hungry For Success

The Avalanche players put last year behind them with a renewed focus

by Ron Knabenbauer @RonKnab /

A version of the following story appeared in the 2017-18 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.

The Colorado Avalanche has a clear identity for the 2017-18 season.

Colorado wanted to get younger and faster and be the hardest working team in the NHL. The Avalanche meticulously made careful roster moves to achieve just that.

The detailed changes the team made included adding more depth to the squad while providing some of the organization's blooming prospects a chance to showcase their skill at the highest level.

"We wanted to get more compete in the lineup," Avs general manager Joe Sakic said. "We wanted to get quicker. [Head coach Jared Bednar] likes to play a fast-paced game, and this league is a fast-paced league. We feel we've accomplished a lot of it. We're excited about the depth of our team, and we know we're going to be more competitive and a lot faster out there."

Compete was the big word used around the Avalanche in the offseason and during the team's training camp. After coming off an extremely disappointing season in which the club finished at the bottom of the standings, no one in the organization was happy with the performance, both as a group and individually.

"I think everyone is talking about hitting the reset button, but we actually have to hit it and forget about it because a season like that can really stick with you," said defenseman Erik Johnson, an alternate captain on this year's squad. "I think we need to learn from it and remember what it felt like, but not dwell on how bad it was. You just need to start over and start fresh. I think it will be easy for us to do that with a lot of the younger guys who will provide some good energy for us at the start of the year."

The 2016-17 campaign was for many players one of the most disappointing seasons of their careers, but it also served as the driving force for them and the rest of the staff in the club's renaissance.

"I'm confident that we can make major improvements on last season," says Bednar. "I think it was clearly a tough season, and I think we're a motivated group. I think if you speak with the guys that are returning, they're motivated to induce the change and make sure that we're improving on a daily basis.

"We want to put last year behind us. It's over. A lot of new faces this year. A lot of young kids that we're looking forward to seeing come out and play for this organization. This is a good year where we start something good and start building something."

The preparation for this season really began back in the early months of 2017, when several young players were called up from the minor leagues and inserted into the lineup, adding youthful energy and pushing the veterans of the group to be better. J.T. Compher, Tyson Jost and Anton Lindholm played key situations late in the campaign and are again seeing action with the club this year.

When the season ended in April, the players were challenged by the Avalanche's coaching staff and management to improve and have the best offseason training of their lives. Bednar told each player what to expect in September's training camp, noting that there would be 15 physical tests, both on and off the ice, waiting for them when they arrived.

"We had to get strong, both mentally and physically," Bednar said. "The mental fortitude and resolve to push through tough times wasn't there to the level it needed to be last year. Physically, we wanted to make sure that we're one of the top conditioned teams and one of the hardest working teams. Every team says that, but I think our guys--from the testing and looking at rookie camp, we made it a priority to get young guys in here and train over the summer and push some of our veterans. I liked the leadership that we had from our veteran guys over the summer to come in and train."

The results showed when the players reported for the new campaign.

"Our veterans, our returning players, they came into camp in great shape," Sakic said. "This is the best I've seen a lot of them. They're ready to go. They want to have a bounce-back year, and to see what they did in the offseason and where they are now, they put in a lot of effort during the offseason."

When practices began, there wasn't any dip in the intensity. Playing fast and skating hard were staples in each on-ice session.

After the two-day training camp, many of the players said it was the toughest camp they had ever been a part of, but it was also rewarding to see their summer effort paying off.

"We got to be a hardworking team, a fast team. Obviously a skilled team, but skill takes over when your work ethic is on point and when you're working hard," said Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog.

Playing with speed is no stranger to the Avalanche franchise. Ever since the club moved to Colorado in 1995, it has had dynamic players that could fly up and down the ice and possessed the skill to create and score goals in bunches.

This year's team is no different, but the focus on playing with speed also includes thinking the game fast. The Avs want to make quick, smart decisions when the pressure is on and manage the game better in key situations.

"We know we can use our skill. We know there is a time and place to use that, but for us it is a matter of figuring out when to play a boring style of hockey as well--when you get a lead on the road going into the third, and things like that," says Landeskog. "It's part of the game that we have to grow into and learn and figure out, especially with a young group like this. I like what we're seeing from the young guys. Everybody is willing to learn. Everybody is willing to put the work in, which is key to growing as a group."

What team the Avs want to resemble shouldn't be a surprise. In a copycat league, Sakic has pointed out the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins as a club the Avalanche aims to be like.

The Penguins have been known the past two seasons as a hardworking club that may not have the most talent up and down its lineup, but one that competes and works as a group of five skaters to quickly transition the puck up the ice.

"They're not the biggest team, but they had four lines that could skate. They had a backend that could move the puck up. That's the type of team we want," Sakic said of Pittsburgh. "We know here in Denver it has always been a high-tempo team, and we want to keep that high tempo. Keep that same style so it's exciting and we want people to leave Pepsi Center excited with what they just saw. Depth wise and compete wise and where our skill level is, we really believe it is coming."

Success on the scoreboard begins in the defensive zone, according to Sakic. It starts with a formidable goaltender to deny shots and then having a strong defensive core around him to grab rebounds and force turnovers.

From there, it is about moving the puck up to the forwards, where their speed and skill will show as they take it into the opponent's end and deliver quality shots.

"It starts with your backend. We feel that we've added some speed to the backend," notes Sakic. "The quicker you get the puck and move it to your forwards, the faster your team is going to be."

Making the smart play when transitioning up the ice is also something that Bednar wants this year.

"We defended hard last season, but often times we get the puck back and then give it back to the opposing team too quickly," said the Avs coach. "Once we do all the work, we need to be able to move it and advance the puck up the ice more efficiently."

Having size and strength are still important aspects of today's game, but it is no longer a prerequisite to win. More and more smaller skaters, both forwards and defensemen, are having success, taking home awards and winning championships.

You don't need to be built like a linebacker in the NHL, but as long as a player is strong on pucks and skates well, the opportunity to play is there.

"The league was getting bigger, but it was still getting faster," said Sakic. "Right now, there are more and more skilled guys. It doesn't matter how big you are now. If you can play at a high tempo and compete, you're going to play. I think that is what is so exciting about the game right now. It is as fast as it's ever been, and there is so much skill out there."

For a player like Johnson, who stands at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he's focused his offseason training on just that.

"The emphasis isn't on getting bigger and stronger. It's about getting leaner and faster. It is such a skating game now," says Johnson. "If you're going to be keeping up with (Connor) McDavid and (Auston) Matthews and those guys, you got to be fast and you got to be quick. Those are my matchups during the year, so I got to be moving with those guys."

Johnson is now the senior member on the Avs defense at 29 years of age. He is one of four returning rear guards that played significant time last year, while the other blueliners began the season as prospects looking to break into the league full time.

That's a good thing according to the Bloomington, Minnesota, native. Johnson and the rest of the vets will be relied on more heavily against the other team's best, while the young players behind them will bring fresh competition that will force the experienced D-men to be better.

"Those (young) guys want jobs and want to come in and make the team," said Johnson. "It's going to make everyone push a little harder because you have guys coming up from the minors that are hungry to make the team, and it kind of brings everyone up a level."

That kind of competition is exactly what Bednar wanted to see with the injection of youth throughout the lineup.

"[The core is] going to lead the way in the right direction, and our young guys are real eager in trying to carve out roles with our team," Bednar said. "I think some of those guys are going to be impact players for us. We're going to be young, so our push will be to be energetic and fast. We'll make some mistakes, but I think we'll be an exciting team and a team that surprises some teams throughout the league if we can get consistent."

There are sure to be hiccups along the way, but this is all part of the Avalanche's master plan.

Sakic's objective hasn't changed in his five years at the helm of the team. It's about Stanley Cups and returning the franchise back to that level of excellence.

"With the young guys we have here and what we believe in the direction we're going, we don't want to compete in three or five years just for the playoffs. We want to be a team that is a threat for the Cup," says Sakic. "That's the ultimate goal. We want to bring a championship back here."

This year's Avs are hungry. Hungry for speed. Hungry to prove doubters wrong. Hungry for success.

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