All right, can I see the hands of all those who have this Avalanche team figured out?
In the wake of a horrendous 2016-17 season, the Avalanche has broken out of the gate with a 6-5 record and looked alternately inept (as in, “Here we go again”) and surprisingly competent (as in, “Playoffs? Playoffs? Well, why not?).
There probably hasn’t been a bigger two-day swing in NHL history than the Avalanche managing to embarrassingly get blown out 7-0 by an expansion team (albeit one off to an amazing start) one night, then coming back and knocking off one of the league powers (albeit one not playing well at this stage of the season) 6-3 the next night.
That’s what happened to the Avalanche against the Vegas Golden Knights at at T-Mobile Arena Friday, and against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center-West Saturday.
Colorado’s Thursday home game against Carolina and Erie High graduate Jaccob Slavin, one of the top young defensemen in the league, will be the Avalanche’s final appearance at the Pepsi Center for two weeks.
Then it’s road games at Brooklyn against the Islanders and at Philadelphia against the Flyers before the back-to-back matchups on neutral ice in Stockholm against Ottawa. Hanging over all of this is the fact that the Avalanche got off to a misleading 9-9 start last season … before falling apart.
We’ll know more in two weeks, both about this team in general and about the younger/faster remake.
I asked Colorado coach Jared Bednar after practice Monday about the Avalanche taking halting steps toward developing an early season identity.
“I think we’re on our way to understanding what our identity has to be and what it should look like and the things we have to on a nightly basis to be successful,” Bednar said.
“After the 11 games, when we break it down, the games that we’ve won, we’ve played the way we wanted to play and played to our identity. We’re 6-5 and we deserve to be 6-5 or 5-6 at worst. We got some help in Game 1 from (Semyon Varlamov) against the Rangers. The other games, we deserved to win. The games we lost, we didn’t deserve to win them.”
Nikita Zadorov’s bizarre up-and-down status — in a few days, he went from playing in the top defensive pairing with Erik Johnson to being a healthy scratch in consecutive games — is the most extreme example, but perhaps appropriate for a team trying to find its way.
I asked if there was a middle ground for Zadorov, perhaps keeping him in the lineup — but just not in the first pair.
“Sure, absolutely,” Bednar said. “That’s part of the reason we have (Anton Lindholm) playing in the first pair right now. Some of the things you think about when it comes to that, he’s a guy who should have potential to play in the first pair, which is why we used him there a little bit. We also like what we see from some other guys in the bottom pairs. I’ll give you an example. A guy like Mark Barberio has maybe had an off game or so, but the rest of the time he’s been really consistent.”
After 11 games, Matt Duchene’s apparent discontent — substantive off-ice issues still are in no-comment, please-don’t-ask territory in any conversation with him — hasn’t completely paralyzed his play. He has three goals and five assists, and his eight points are tied with Nathan MacKinnon and Sven Andrighetto for third on the team behind Mikko Rantanen (10) and Tyson Barrie (9).
“I think we’ve shown what we can be when we’re at the top of our game and I also think we’ve shown what can happen when we don’t show up as a group and don’t play together,” Duchene told me Monday. “Everybody’s got to be pulling their weight. We need everybody going every night to win games. When we’ve won, for the most part it’s been that way. Consistency is the biggest thing we need to find right now.
“You can’t be complacent with a game over .500. You just can’t be. It’s too good of a league.”
Duchene doesn’t have a point on the power play — and he’ll be the first to point it out.
“I like my game,” he said. “Numbers-wise, the direction’s been pretty good, especially without being on the board on the power play yet. Everything’s been even strength, so obviously it would be nice to start contributing on the power a bit more. But I feel like our unit’s been moving around well and getting a lot of chances. It just hasn’t gone in yet. No, I’m happy where I’m at and I feel as good as ever. I’m really happy with what’s gone on so far, but not satisfied at all.”
It might be tempting for Gabe Landeskog to be looking ahead to the two games against the Senators in Stockholm — the matchup includes Swedes Landeskog and Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson wearing the captains’ C’s — but for now, he is focusing on the present.
“Consistency is something that we have to find,” Landeskog told me. “At our lowest level as a team, we have to raise that bar. We have to raise our lowest level of play. When you raise that, all of a sudden you’re going to be more consistent on a nightly basis.
“I think identity is something that takes a little bit to build and to create. I think we’re getting there. We’re working every day to build, to create an identity. At times, we’re looking real good, but I think our identity is something that you do on a daily basis. It might not take days, it might not takes weeks or months. It might take years to do that. Then identity is going to turn into culture. It’s a work in progress, but I like where we’re headed, I like our group. Everybody’s eager to learn and everybody’s eager as a group to find ways to get better and we’re having fun.”
It’s still a team finding its way. The issue about the Avs is, where will it take them?
* * *
Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes commentaries about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.