Is this just the start of an Avalanche dynasty?


Cale Makar can occasionally make your jaw drop off the ice, too.

The Colorado Avalanche defenseman attended the Stanley Cup Final media day recently when he was asked about the matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team seeking a three-peat.

“Obviously, they’re a team that’s looking to become a dynasty, and we’re a team that’s looking to start a legacy,” Makar said. “You want to beat the best to be the best.”

I mean, that’s perfect.

“You couldn’t write it up any better, honestly,” Makar said.

Have the Avalanche, with this Stanley Cup championship, started their legacy?

“We certainly hope so,” general manager Joe Sakic told me on the ice in Tampa after Game 6, as his players snapped photos with their loved ones and Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Burnaby Joe’s optimism is not misplaced. Colorado’s legacy has begun with this Cup, and there are plenty of reasons why the Avalanche are just getting started — despite some immediate challenges.

“Right now we’re going to enjoy this and then we’ve got some work to do,” Sakic said. “But we have some tremendous players. We’re hoping we can start something the way Tampa did. That’s who we want to become. Trying to sustain what they just did.”

Sakic repeated this thought a few times: When it comes to legacy building, there’s something intrinsic about having beaten a dynastic team in the hopes of starting one themselves.

“Tampa is who we’re trying to be,” he said. “To have the opportunity to play them in the finals and knock off the champ made this even more special to this group.”

The last team to three-peat was the 1983 New York Islanders. The team they defeated that year was the team that would unseat them in 1984: the Edmonton Oilers. When Makar speaks about the Avalanche becoming the best by beating the best, there are echoes of Wayne Gretzky’s words after the Oilers dethroned the Islanders, and the emulation that occurred for Edmonton’s players.

“We walked by their locker room in the corridor and saw after they won they were too beat up to really enjoy it and savor the victory at that moment,” Gretzky said, via the Islanders’ website. “We were able to walk out of there pretty much scot-free. We learned immediately you have to take it to another level in order to win a Stanley Cup. And that’s what we did. We learned from it, and often credit the Islanders players for teaching us exactly how hard it is to win.”

It’s not hard to see the lessons the Avalanche have pulled from the Lightning:

  • Playing through injuries, both by those who managed to stay in the lineup and in offsetting those missing in action. Missing Sam Girard or Andre Burakovsky wasn’t like Tampa missing Brayden Point, but it was still impressive how the Avs compensated.

  • Aggressively improving their roster at the trade deadline.

  • Resisting the urge to overreact to playoff failure by demolishing their cores. Sakic cited Tampa Bay’s patience as an inspiration for his own even-tempered approach.

  • Learning to win offensive fire-wagon games as well as “boring and gross” defensive battles on the road; feeling comfortable when they couldn’t dictate the pace.

  • Relying on star players being stars at the right time — see Nathan MacKinnon in Game 6 in the Final — and role players making a difference when it’s vital — see Darren Helm‘s Game 6 series-clinching goal against the St. Louis Blues.

Also like Tampa Bay, Colorado learned from transformative moments along the way.

The Lightning have made their 2019 first-round sweep loss to the Blue Jackets part of their original story, as the playoff nadir they needed to figure out how to win. The Avalanche have treated their 2021 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round in much the same way.

“They took away some of our confidence as a team,” MacKinnon said. “We didn’t want to make mistakes — versus the opposite, just trying to make good plays, being aggressive, being assertive, things like that.”

Sakic saw that growth, too.

“You saw the emotion from Nathan after we lost to Vegas,” the GM said. “You could tell they weren’t happy. They learned a lot last year. Our game, especially in third periods and things like that, we played the right way. We learned to play with a lead and manage the puck. That was the difference.”

Game 6 against St. Louis in this second round was another transformative moment. They blew a chance to clinch the series in Game 5 at home, and needed Helm’s goal seconds before overtime in St. Louis to advance to the Western Conference finals. That experience didn’t prevent the Avalanche from losing Game 5 at home to the Lightning, but it gave them a foundation to build on for their eventual Cup-raising win in Game 6.

“I feel like the whole St. Louis trip was a turning point for our team,” Makar said. “The mentality flipped right after that game. I feel like, from then on, guys were so driven and we just had that same mentality of regardless of where we were playing, guys were going to do their jobs and that’s it.”

It all starts to add up. The confidence-building through adversity. The lessons learned on “how to win.” The dethroning of a champion so the Avalanche could wear the crown.

This is how legacies start, but not how they’re sustained. They’re sustained, foremost, through smart management.

The Avalanche have a good starting point with MacKinnon (26), Makar (23), Mikko Rantanen (25), Gabriel Landeskog (29), Devon Toews (28), Girard (24), Alex Newhook (21) and Bowen Byram (21). They built that core through years of struggles in the standings — all but Toews and Girard where drafted by the Avalanche. That .293 points percentage season in in 2016-17 was the lowest point in franchise history. But the plummet netted the club Makar as the No. 4 overall pick.

“Obviously, you get a Makar. You get a Byram. Obviously, you have a MacKinnon,” Sakic said. “As hard as it is to go through those things, that’s how you get those players. You always try to win, but sometimes you go through tough times to get those kinds of players.”

Now comes the challenge: Who plays with that core?

“You’re going to make me think about that now?” Sakic said, laughing. “We’re going to enjoy this, but we have things we have to start focusing on.”

The Avalanche have 10 unrestricted free agents. They include difference-makers on their team: center Nazem Kadri, winger Valeri Nichushkin, goalie Darcy Kuemper, winger Burakovsky and defenseman Josh Manson. Artturi Lehkonen, so great in their Cup run, is a restricted free agent. In total, the Stanley Cup champions have 14 players under contract next season.

“It’s going to be a lot more difficult [to win again] obviously,” the GM said. “We have a lot of unrestricted free agents here and the cap’s not going up really. We have decisions to make. But with a core this young, I think we’re always going to be in a good place.”

How good of a place depends on how they manage their cap space. MacKinnon is up for a new contract next summer. There has always been this thought that one of the most underpaid players in the league ($6.3 million average annual value) is going to cash in big on his next deal. But the guy is a Sidney Crosby acolyte who covets the Lightning’s sustained success. He knows a Cup contender that’s top-heavy has trouble remaining one.

The front office will figure it out. Sakic has proven to be a brilliant general manager. Assistant GM Chris MacFarland is essentially the Julien BriseBois to his Steve Yzerman, to continue the Lightning comparison: He’s an assistant GM who could get a GM job pretty much anywhere he wants at this point. Also, like Tampa, the Avalanche have a robust and effective analytics facet to their front office, led by the excellent Arik Parnass; and an absolutely tremendous coach in Jared Bednar, who has now won championships at every level at which he’s coached.

I have full faith that they’re going to find ways to color around that core and find players who will work. It wouldn’t shock me to see them retain Nichushkin and Manson, although there will be other teams interested in both. Kadri’s next deal might be too expensive for them to match (especially given his age at 31). Kuemper will probably find a team willing to pay big money for his services, which means the crease could be turned over to Pavel Francouz next season.

The roster will change. The key is finding players who fit the system and the culture, and that the culture maintains a standard of excellence.

Which brings us to Nathan MacKinnon.

I wrote about MacKinnon after the Avalanche won the Cup. It stirred a lot of discussion about his occasionally harsh leadership style, and the reputation that it has earned. But I believe people missed something that Bednar said about Nate.

“I feel like he’s let himself relax a little bit more,” the coach said. “There’s a little bit more inner confidence in what he can accomplish over the years and what our team can accomplish if he plays his role to the best of his ability. It doesn’t have to be the perfect game every night.”

The Cup win could relax him even more as a leader. Does it change anything for him as a competitor?

“Nothing. It is too ingrained in him,” said former teammate Ian Cole, now with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Cole remembered watching those post-series news conferences when the Avalanche would fall short of their goal and MacKinnon would look distraught.

“It’s life or death for him,” Cole said. “To be successful in the playoffs, that’s really how you have to view it. Having a flippant attitude where it’s like, ‘Yeah, you know, I want to win, but I don’t know. Hopefully the other team plays like crap.’ Like, that’s not going to happen. You need to go out and sacrifice because quite frankly the other team’s doing that. That’s where I think he has that mentality that you’re going to do whatever it takes.”

Thus, he doesn’t believe MacKinnon will stop at one ring.

“There are people that when they win it, they put their hands behind their head and they say, ‘My career is done, I won the Stanley Cup,'” he said. “But there are guys like Tom Brady who win a championship and decide that’s what they want to do every time they touch the field or the ice. I think that will very much be Nate.”

That’s how legacies begin. That’s how dynasties are built. The Avalanche beat the best. Now, they are the best. And there’s no telling how long they can remain the best.

Jersey Foul of the week

From the Canadian Football League:

That’s Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli rocking a Daniel Alfredsson football jersey in an effort to create good vibes for the latter’s Hall of Fame prospects. And it worked! Based on those mystical powers, we’d be inclined to give this a pass.

Luckily, there’s also already a rule on the books that approves of this: The Cross-Sport Infiltration Exemption, in which hockey fans can put the names and numbers of NHL players on other sports’ jerseys, for the purposes of stealth marketing. We’ll allow this under that bylaw.

Video of the week

The last time the media were allowed on the ice with the Stanley Cup champions was June 12, 2019, when the St. Louis Blues celebrated in Boston. If any of us ever took that access for granted, I don’t believe we will again.

This clip of Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson properly summarizes what makes witnessing these celebrations so special. There’s his raw emotion in discussing how he almost retired last summer but returned to finally win the Stanley Cup. His stunned disbelief of having won. But more than anything, there’s that moment when his parents bombarded him with hugs during the interview.

I was standing next to Johnson during this. His father started apologizing to us for butting in. I shook his hand, congratulated him and said he had absolutely nothing to be sorry about. It’s their moment, too.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Dynasties

There’s a strong argument that Tampa Bay is a dynasty, even though Colorado raised the Cup on Lightning ice after Game 6. In the past eight years, the Lightning have been to six conference finals along with their four appearances in the Stanley Cup Final. That might be the best eight-year run for any team in the salary-cap era.

Chicago won three Cups and made the conference finals five times in eight seasons, though they never made the Stanley Cup Final in three straight seasons like the Lightning. The Pittsburgh Penguins needed 10 years to win three Cups and make five conference finals. The Lightning didn’t earn that third Cup like the Blackhawks and the Penguins, so there’s your counterargument to the dynasty talk — for now.

“The playoff [series] streak ended. But it’s not the end of our run,” coach Jon Cooper said.

Loser: Game 7

We were so close! Game 7, winner take all in Denver, the three-peat vs. the new legacy. Granted, if it goes seven games, the Lightning are totally winning, given their efficiency in elimination games. The 2022 playoffs were brilliant in many ways, but their Game 7s were a little front-loaded, with five in the first round and just one (Hurricanes vs. Rangers in Round 2) after that.

Winner: Los Angeles Kings

They earned the right to make the Kevin Fiala trade. They amassed a prospect pool so deep that they could afford to trade the 19th overall pick and young defenseman Brock Faber, dealing from a position of strength to get the kind of talented offensive player they need to hang in the West. The Kings were going to eventually get to their “leverage futures for proven players” stage. They’re ahead of schedule.

Loser: Winnipeg Jets

Barry Trotz would rather not coach in 2022-23 than coach the Jets. Center Pierre-Luc Dubois signaled to the team that he intends to test unrestricted free agency in 2024 when he hits UFA status, which is one of those “tell me you want to be traded without telling me you want to be traded” moves. Not the greatest start to the offseason for a team that needs a good one.

Winner: Luke Richardson

Richardson has been coaching since 2009, mostly as an NHL assistant with a brief cameo as Montreal Canadiens head coach in the 2021 playoffs. He was the head coach of the AHL’s Binghamton Senators for four seasons as well. He’s a well-liked guy who has paid his dues, including as a player for 21 seasons in the NHL. So it wasn’t shocking to see him land the head-coaching gig with the Blackhawks.

Coaching the Blackhawks, at this time, isn’t exactly a plum gig — “I like a challenge,” Richardson said in an understatement. But there’re only 32 of these jobs in the league. He’s got one of them. Congrats to a hockey lifer.

Loser: Alex Mogilny

I truly can’t fathom how this man remains outside the Hockey Hall of Fame. He has the numbers. He has the legacy. He has the “Fame,” as one of the NHL’s most exciting players for a decade. Some people have speculated that he’ll be inducted next year in a thin new class with only one sure thing in Henrik Lundqvist. But it’s beyond time for Mogilny to be in the Hall.

Winner: Twins

You could argue there’s a Hall of Fame case for Henrik Sedin to get in on his own. He had more points (1,070) although he and Daniel had the same career points-per-game average (0.80). He was the better defensive player of the two. Critically, he won the 2009-10 Hart Trophy as league MVP.

But it would have been rotten to give Daniel a guest ticket to the induction ceremony, even if his Hall of Fame case is flimsier. The Sedins are the Sedins. There was nothing like them, and probably will be nothing like them again. But please put them on the same plaque, where they belong.

Loser: Women’s hockey

Caroline Ouellette, Julie Chu, Jennifer Botterill, Meghan Duggan, Kim Martin, Florence Schelling, Natalie Darwitz. So many women’s hockey players eligible for the Hockey Hall of Fame now, and so many more in the coming years. Yet the Hockey Hall of Fame committee has elected the maximum two women in the same class only once, in 2010. Since then, it has inducted either one woman or, four times, no women.

This is absolutely unacceptable and frankly indefensible when they’ve maxed out their four male players seven times in that span.

Puck headlines

From your friends at ESPN

If you’ve not seen “Unrivaled,” the incredible E60 piece on the Detroit Red Wings vs. Colorado Avalanche feud, it’s here on ESPN+ and very much worth your time. Also worth your time is this written feature from David Fleming on “Fight Night at the Joe.”

Articles You May Like

NASCAR’s Ky. Busch, family escape mall shooting
Ex-featherweight champion Famechon dies at 77
Citing mindset, Hooper withdrawn from tour
Rugby Championship R1 wrap: Horrific Barrett fall could have been avoided
‘I’m back’: Conlan bounces back, beats Marriaga

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.