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A fixture in Denver, Stastny indispensable to Avs

by Brian Hunter
Paul Stastny and the Colorado Avalanche have been through this before.

As they prepare to wrap a five-game road trip with a three-games-in-four-nights stretch against the Devils, Rangers and Islanders, it's hard not to flash back to last October and a seven-game trek that changed the entire outlook of their season. The Avalanche, coming off a last-place finish in the Western Conference, went 4-1-2 and kept on winning games all the way into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"No one really likes these road trips, but any time you get a 10-day road trip you like to do it early in the season," Stastny told during a tour he and a few of his teammates made through the League's Manhattan offices Wednesday. "I think everyone's fresh and mentally everyone's ready, and at the same time it's a good bonding experience for the team and the players."

Shrewd drafting and a key free-agent signing went a long way in resurrecting the Avalanche from the doldrums they fell into during the 2008-09 season and made them into a postseason team less than 12 months later.

But let's not overlook the impact of Stastny, who was part of the scene in Colorado long before Craig Anderson brought his pads and catching glove over from Florida and young talent like Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly burst onto the scene fresh off signing their first NHL contracts.

By the time the Avalanche selected him in the second round of the 2005 Entry Draft, Stastny had completed the first of two very successful seasons at the University of Denver, where he won the WCHA Rookie of the Year award and led the Pioneers to the national championship.

"I was a late-bloomer, so college was a no-brainer for me," said Stastny, who played two seasons for the River City Lancers of the USHL (now the Omaha Lancers) before heading to Denver. "Education was always big, something that my parents harped on. You never know how long you're going to take your NHL career, so you need to get an education under your belt in case something does happen.

"The University of Denver I didn't know too much. I narrowed it down to about four or five colleges and I actually played with (Flyers defenseman) Matt Carle in Omaha before I went to University of Denver, and he played a year at Denver. Whether it was the smaller campus, the nice scenery, and it was a hockey school, I think it fit perfectly and it turned out perfect in the end."

Including when Stastny had his name called in the draft by the Avalanche, a franchise his father, Peter, carved out a Hall of Fame career with back when they were the Quebec Nordiques. Paul was born in Quebec City, although he plays internationally for the U.S.

"I've always been an Avs fan," he said. "I'm a big fan of hockey and a big fan of sports in general, but I've always been an Avs fan. Just the players they had in (Joe) Sakic and (Peter) Forsberg, two guys I looked up to. When I was in school I still followed the Avs, and when I got drafted it was a thrill."

Stastny would become Sakic's teammate -- and later Forsberg's, for a brief time -- after making the Avalanche out of training camp in 2006, and he didn't disappoint. He scored a career-high 28 goals in his first season and set a Colorado rookie record with 78 points. He finished second to Evgeni Malkin in voting for the Calder Trophy.

He enters his fifth season in the League having watched the Avalanche undergo a significant transformation over the past few seasons. Sakic, who played with Peter Stastny when he began his career in Quebec, retired after missing most of the 2008-09 season due to injury and Forsberg last played in the League when he returned to Colorado for a cup of coffee at the end of the 2007-08 campaign.

While the Avalanche still have holdovers from their past Cup teams, including Milan Hejduk and current captain Adam Foote, it's safe to call Stastny a veteran in his own right when the roster is littered with players like Duchene, O'Reilly, Chris Stewart, T.J. Galiardi and Brandon Yip, who broke in over the last couple seasons and helped engineer the franchise's resurgence.

"I think it's great for the future of the organization," Stastny said. "No one expected -- not even myself -- such a quick turnaround. ... The bond we have on this team is unbelievable and our captain, Footie, always harps on how important it is to build a friendship and a chemistry within the locker room. Half of your success is having fun with the guys around you because you're going to be with them 6-7 months out of the year. That's something that, from Day 1, we've had such a great bond and we've had so much fun, and that kind of shows why we've been successful on the ice."

Getting a chance to play with Sakic and Forsberg early in his career also was a boost in teaching Stastny what it meant to be a professional hockey player.

"I think it's great for the future of the organization. No one expected -- not even myself -- such a quick turnaround. ... The bond we have on this team is unbelievable and our captain, Footie, always harps on how important it is to build a friendship and a chemistry within the locker room. Half of your success is having fun with the guys around you because you're going to be with them 6-7 months out of the year."
-- Paul Stastny

"Any time you watch two guys your whole life, idolizing, and you get a chance to play with them and just see what kind of people they are on and off the ice, the respect factor really grew in my eyes," he said. "I mean, I always respected the things they did on the ice, but the way they carried themselves away from the ice was something I'll never forget."

In addition, Stastny credited former teammates like Andrew Brunette, Ian Laperriere and Ken Klee, as well as current ones in Foote and Hejduk, in helping him develop the type of leadership skills where he can give advice to his younger teammates today.

"It's not something where I try to get out of my comfort zone and try to be a different person. I try to be the same person I am," he said. "I try to lead on the ice more by example and try to be the way Joey did; the way he led this group, he was a quiet leader, but it showed through his actions."

With Foote now 39 and in his 19th season in the League, it's understood the Avalanche will be looking for a new captain at some point. Stastny was asked if it was the kind of role he would relish taking on.

"Absolutely," he said. "You never know what's going to happen, you kind of just take it as it is, but if that ever did come I think I'd love to accept that challenge with open arms. I think it'd be a tremendous honor and kind of help you grow as a player."

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