At the professional level, hockey has been a disaster in Denver this season. At the college level, it could not be going any better. In the latest USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine College Hockey poll, which was released on Monday, the Denver Pioneers are still at the top. In the current NHL standings, the Colorado Avalanche are still at the bottom, and it isn’t even close.
Fast forward to April 6. The Pioneers will be playing Notre Dame in the Frozen Four (their second straight), with a trip to the NCAA Championship game on the line. The Avalanche will be playing the Minnesota Wild, playing for nothing more than pride.
The good news is there is still meaningful hockey being played by an area team. The bad news? It’s not by the once-mighty Avalanche. Now, time to look at what the Pioneers have that the Avalanche don’t.
The first thing is defense. Allowing just 1.83 goals per game, DU boasts the best defense in the NCAA. Allowing 3.37 goals per game, the Avalanche have the worst defense in the NHL. What’s the difference? All of the Pioneers are committed defensively. The forwards backcheck. Everyone of the defensemen are committed in their own end. Moreover, they don’t have the frequent costly lapses that have plagued the Avalanche all season.
The Pioneers blueline isn’t full of highly touted prospects. Only two players, Will Butcher and Blake Hillman, were selected in the NHL Draft, and they were picked in the fifth and sixth round, respectively.
Sure, Butcher has developed into a star, but until this season, the Pioneers captain didn’t even seem to fit into the team that drafted him’s future plans. Coincidentally, that team is the Colorado Avalanche. Now, after the season, it will be up to Butcher to decide if he even wants to be part of the organization. They have until August 15 to ink him to a contract, or else he is free to sign with anyone. Last offseason was different. Now, the Avalanche need Butcher more than he needs them.
I think the two sides will work something out. On the Avalanche, Butcher will have a clearer path to the NHL than he would with a different franchise. That’s neither here nor there however, let’s get back on track.
Butcher has developed into perhaps the best two-way defenseman in college hockey. He is “pioneering” the style of play that Denver is looking for; and the rest of the team is following their captain in kind.
The Avalanche look lost defensively. Some of that is personnel. Some if that is system. A lot of that is the inability for them to sustain the defensive effort for a full 60 minutes.
The second reason the Pioneers are successful and the Avalanche aren’t is depth. DU often rolls four lines, three of which can play with virtually anyone. The Avs have trouble icing two competitive lines each night. There is definitely some talent there, but the results are not. Their 147 goals scored are the lowest total in the NHL, and it isn’t close.
At least at the forward spot, there is some hope that the Avalanche will have that depth in the future. Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog are all capable forwards. Mikko Rantanen has shown brilliance in flashes. Matt Nieto and Sven Andrighetto have looked like decent additions. Tyson Jost, J.T. Compher and A.J. Greer are all solid prospects, that should be ready to make an big impact in the next year or two.
The Avalanche also will have the opportunity to add a solid prospect this June in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, but that is only part of the equation when it comes to turning the ship around. They will have money to spend in free agency, and need to spend it wisely. Not only that, they will need to convince people to come here, convince them in the future of the organization. Recruit them, if you will.
For the Avalanche to be successful going forward, they will need players willing to give the effort every night, they will need a team with depth, they will need a team committed defensively. This is something Jim Montgomery was able to build for the Pioneers after replacing a legend in George Gwozdecky.
Jared Bednar also replaced a legend in Patrick Roy. While it will be up to general manager Joe Sakic to supply him with the right players, it will be up to Bednar to coax a similar effort and commitment out of the Avalanche.
Magness Arena is only 6.2 miles away from the Pepsi Center. If the Avalanche need an example on how the game should be played, the needn’t look any further than that.