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March 25, 2009.
Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke watched as his team lost 7-2 to the Anaheim Ducks at home, officially eliminating them from playoff contention. It was only the Avs’ second elimination since their move to Denver, but the reality of the situation was beginning to set in.
The club ranked dead last in goals scored, fifth worst in goals against, and featured the seventh oldest roster in the league. To make matters worse, the Avs’ heart and soul, Captain Joe Sakic, had been out since November 28 with a herniated disk in his back that was later compounded by a snowblower injury. They didn’t know it then, but he’d already played his last NHL game.
“I think we have some rebuilding to do,” Kroenke said after the game. “We’ve been good for so long, I don’t think we’ve been able to do that. But every now and then you’ve got to take a deep breath and rebuild. It may be time.”
Ten years have passed since that comment. Ten years of rebuilding have come and gone, and arguably, the Avs are on their third attempt to get it right. 2018-19 will mark only their fourth playoff appearance since 2009, which will finally tie the number of top 4 picks they’ve earned during that stretch.
To say it’s been a rough road would be an understatement. There have been momentary, fleeting highs followed by prolonged, suffocating lows. Too often, it’s felt like the team was mired so deeply in a losing culture that they’d never pull themselves out. There have been talented players on the team since the beginning, but their talent alone has never been enough. And even during the rare season when they did have help, questions about how well they fared in big moments and under pressure have consistently plagued them.
During the good years – 2009-10, 2013-14, and even last season – the club didn’t face much in the way of true adversity. In all three seasons, the team was rolling off a bottom three finish from the year before. No one expected them to climb out of the basement, let alone make the playoffs. There were no expectations. Once that was mixed with injury luck, above average shooting and save percentages, strong seasons from rookies, and no extended losing streaks, those rosters were able to punch their tickets to the postseason.
Even during the average years of 2011-12, 2014-15, and 2015-16, the longest losing streak was six, which finished out the 2016 season. The Avs hit a five-game January lull in 2012, but nothing longer. There were some injury woes during these years – 2014-15, in particular, ranked high – but not even these teams suffered truly significant setbacks.
Then there were the lost seasons. 2010-11 had two 10-game losing streaks. 2013 managed a five-game one despite a 48-game slate. But 2016-17 was the daddy of them all, featuring three separate five-game losing streaks, not to mention additional runs of six, seven, and nine.
Up until this point, each season following a good one has either ended up mediocre or downright disastrous. Any bump in the road – be it heightened expectations, injuries, or an extended losing streak – caused the season to completely derail. Much like their namesake, once the Avalanche started sliding, nothing could stop them.
That is, until this year.
This roster hit a number of roadblocks. For one, they racked up three separate long losing streaks: a five-game one in November, a six-game one around Christmas, and a whopping eight-game one in late January/early February. From December 8 until February 16, the team posted a 6-17-6 record in 29 games, which equates to a 51-point pace over the course of a full season. During that stretch, they received .873 goaltending and tumbled from fifth in the league to a lowly 24th..
Even though the goaltending eventually corrected, the team’s shooting percentage still finished a little on the low side. In the end, the team ended up with a dead even 100 PDO. Unlike in the other playoff years, there was no heightened “luck” fueling the record this season.
They also didn’t have a fresh set of rookies to bolster them. In fact, the rookies from last year – Sam Girard, JT Compher, Alex Kerfoot, Tyson Jost, and Vladislav Kamenev – all suffered some production or injury setbacks this year. None took the “big step” most were expecting, and the Avs struggled to get consistent scoring past their top line as a result.
To complicate matters, the team also lost two-thirds of their top line in Gabe Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen down the stretch. The Avs clocked in around average in man-games lost to injury this year, but when the games mattered most, they were asked to get by without the majority of their top scoring threats.
But perhaps most importantly, they faced lingering questions about whether or not they were the same ol’ Avs. The team’s original rebuild started in 2009-10 with a surprising playoff berth, but it quickly stagnated over the next few seasons before collapsing in 2013. The team’s second attempt began in 2013-14 with a surprising playoff berth, but it quickly stagnated over the next few seasons before collapsing in 2017.
2017-18 fit the script exactly. There was a clear pressure from the start to make sure 2018-19 would not. No one expected playoffs last year, but anything less this season would have raised questions about whether this team – from the core group of players to the coaches, to the front office executives – were the right ones for the job.
And yet… despite the losing streaks and the goaltending questions and the young players struggling and the injuries and the heightened expectations… here we are.
The Avalanche made the playoffs.
Not only that, the Avalanche made the playoffs in back-to-back years. This is the first time since 2003-04 and 2005-06 where that was true, and if you negate the lockout, been 15 years since they accomplished that feat in truly consecutive seasons.
So what changed?
Rewind a bit to 2016-17. The Avs finished the season with 48 points, a record low in the cap era. Head coach Patrick Roy had quit on the team weeks before camp, and core player Matt Duchene asked for a trade around Christmas. No one, save Nathan MacKinnon and then rookie Mikko Rantanen, was immune from trade speculation, although certain players (including Captain Gabe Landeskog) made it very clear they were committed to sticking around.
The Duchene trade didn’t occur in until early in the next season, on November 5. The return was monumental – Girard, Kamenev, prospect Shane Bowers, goalie Andrew Hammond, and fourth overall in 2019, a second in 2018, and a third in 2019. The only thing more monumental was the shade thrown after Duchene’s exit.
Gabe Landeskog: “Our No. 1 focus is on the guys that are here and that want to be here.”
Tyson Barrie: “Obviously, it’s no secret that (a trade) was something he wanted. So, I think it’s probably good to put that behind us. We’re moving on.”
Erik Johnson: “We all want to win play for this team and win in Denver, and he wanted to go somewhere else. That’s his right, but now we have the group in the room that we’re all going to be pulling on the same rope, in the same direction, and hopefully that’s a lot more wins and the playoffs in the future.”
Since those comments, the Avs have not missed the postseason.
The turnaround started last year. The Avs nearly doubled their point total, finishing with 95 points. They clinched a playoff berth in a very memorable “win and you’re in” situation in Game 82, rising to the occasion and finding a way to get it done. It was a huge step forward and a feel-good story for a franchise… and a core group of players who needed one.
This year started hot, but that’s far from a rarity during this rebuild. 2010-11 was a good example; that roster also found itself tied for fifth in the league as late as December 19, but the bottom fell out in January and the team never recovered. They ended up with only 68 points and drafted Gabe Landeskog second overall.
The ’18-19 Avs hit a similar bump, but after dropping three games in a row in overtime on an eastern road trip in early February, they somehow managed to rattle off an 8-6-1 stretch to somewhat re-enter the playoff conversation.
Unfortunately, a loss to Anaheim on March 15 left them six points out of a playoff spot with under a month to play. It seemed hopeless… until the Avs racked up 18 of a possible 20 points in their next 10 games.
They punched their ticket in Game 81 – one fewer game than they required last year.
“We had a choice to make,” MacKinnon said after the win against the Coyotes on March 29, “If we wanted to roll over and feel sorry for ourselves, losing a lead like that, or keep pushing.”
Even though the star center was talking about a specific game in this instance, this approach summed up the entire team’s attitude after the Anaheim disappointment.
That’s not to say that the team’s play was impeccable. It was a mixed bag; they had their up and downs, some terrible periods and some good ones. In the end, much of their unexpected run was capitalizing on some fortunate bounces, a goalie who got hot at the right time, and a true sense of procrastinator’s desperation.
But they found a way to make it happen. They pulled it off, despite the odds, despite the hardships… and that’s what matters.
So as we head into the postseason, let’s give some credit where it’s due.
Credit to the goalies, Grubauer and Varlamov, who – despite terrible stretches – turned it around at the right time.
Credit to the top line who put up numbers not seen since the glory years of Avalanche hockey and added more than a few standings points to the board with their amazing play.
Credit to the defense and depth scoring – especially Barrie and Kerfoot – who stepped up at the right time and pitched in during the stretch.
Credit to the team defense that greatly improved their shots against totals and now ranks ever so slightly on the high side of average at 5v5 for the first time this decade.
Credit to a power play that has looked ugly at times, but ranked between seventh and eighth for the second year in a row.
Credit to Bednar, whose systems played into all of the above and whose unflappable nature has clearly had a strong influence on this team.
Credit to a core group of players who wanted to be here and are the bedrock on which everything else is built.
Credit to Sakic whose vision of a younger, faster, competitive team is finally starting to pay off.
But more than anything, credit to a team that found a way. That’s what really sets this year apart: resiliency. This team was tested. They bent, certainly, but unlike in past years, they did not break. They overcame. It’s a subtle distinction – one you won’t see by glancing at point totals – but for a rebuilding club, it’s an important spark.
That’s the spark from which competitive teams grow.
So, no matter what happens in the playoffs – be it their hot streak running out, the injury bug finally catching up to them, or a surprising run that puts the rest of the league on notice – this season has already cemented its status as a success. There’s still room to improve – as there always is – but the Avs have shown they don’t need a perfect season anymore in which to find success.
And maybe, just maybe, we’re finally seeing the light at the end of the rebuilding tunnel.