At the NHL’s Christmas break, or six games short of the 2017-18 season’s halfway point for Colorado, I’m ready to say the Avalanche is for real.
A lot of it is that since about the first of November, Nathan MacKinnon has been electric, at least temporarily eliminating the need to make the excuse for him that he never was billed as a “generational” No. 1 overall choice in the NHL draft. And as he centers Gabe Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, he’s playing as if he deservedly was touted that way.
Erik Johnson has been terrific on defense and Tyson Barrie, quickly rebounding from what seemed to be his lessened prominence in the wake of Samuel Girard’s acquisition in the Matt Duchene trade, lit it up on the blue line before suffering a hand injury at Glendale against the Arizona Coyotes Saturday night. (Update: After the morning skate Wednesday morning, in advance of the post-break Colorado-Arizona rematch at the Pepsi Center, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said Barrie will undergo a “procedure” Thursday and be out four to six weeks.)
That the Avalanche is “real” might have seemed evident to many earlier, but I was a holdout who remembered that decent 9-9 start a year ago before a 0-4-1 homestand set the tone for the rest of the season.
So I was among those wincing during the recent 1-4 homestand.
With only minimal hesitancy, I’ll go along now, with the Avalanche sitting at 17-15-3, or barely short of winning half its games. This is hope-tinged mediocrity, and that’s quite an improvement.
We pause while Gary Bettman tries to sell the idea that the Avalanche is “two games above .500,” but it shouted down by anyone savvy enough in the era of three-point games to refuse to fall for a standings system that makes everyone look better than they are.
The Avs are real, as in really no longer embarrassing.
Real, as in entertaining.
Real, as in delivering promise for the near future.
Real, as in validating that Joe Sakic had a plan other than desperation — and patiently stuck to it without panicking or scapegoating first-year head coach Jared Bednar for the horrific 48-point 2016-17 record.
Sakic also did it amid intrigue around him, with Josh Kroenke and the ownership exploring the possibility of bringing in a young, up-and-coming executive who would be given power while holdovers’ titles, including Sakic’s, were tweaked.
Yet this shows how low last season set the bar.
During training camp, in fact, the dressing-room narrative mostly was that expectations weren’t a problem for the Avalanche — because there weren’t any. That type of athlete posturing often is of the straw-man variety, citing the unspecified “people” and “they” and “everybody” (the dumbest folks on the planet) as “disrespecting” a team, but this is the rare instance where it rang true.
All the Avalanche needed to do was show progress, to demonstrate that the reboot could work, to erase the stench of last season, when it seemed at times that the entire team had summoned the bellman, gone down to the front desk and checked out early.
Yes, we in the Denver media should be embarrassed for not sufficiently uncovering and documenting Duchene’s trade request, plus his discontent that went beyond his unhappiness at being shopped earlier. It’s clear now that team was more of a mess than we portrayed.
Despite what generally are good vibes around the franchise, despite the improvement, the Avalanche is in last place in the Central Division and three points out of what would be the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Even that initially seems a bit weird, most notably because that means the Avalanche is in seventh place in the division and 12th in the conference, yet within spitting distance of eighth in the West.
But nothing qualifies as weird in a league that can have an expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, sitting at 23-9-2. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning has more points than the Knights. Or to put it another way, at the Christmas break, the Knights already have matched the Avalanche’s point total for all of last season.
Carrot Top has to be proud.
The good news is that one major run — say, a 7-2-1 stretch — amid its entertaining mediocrity can put the Avalanche into what would be a playoff spot. The most likely way that would happen is if Semyon Varlamov, who is at the bottom of the league in goals-against average (2.93) and save percentage (.910), becomes more larcenous.
This team still could hit a wall. No question. Yet unless the magnitude of the impact is stunning and deafening, that won’t necessarily wipe out the merits of this season as a turnaround and confirmation that, yes, Sakic knows what he’s doing.
Realistically? Success on the ice would be remaining a playoff bubble team until the final week or two of the season. Couple that with all the other promising signs and steps forward, it would be a remarkable year of recovery.
In some ways, it already is.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week 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.
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