We’re still nine months away from crowning the winners of the annual “Mile High Sports Awards,” but I can tell you now that it will be hard for anyone to knock Jared Bednar from his current spot atop the figurative leaderboard for Professional Coach of the Year.
Here in Denver, where the playoffs are the expectation and fans speak with their pocketbook, Bednar has turned up the heat on his head-coaching peers.
Bednar, in just his second year as head coach of the Colorado Avalanche and second as an NHL head coach, engineered one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in NHL history. Nearly doubling their point total with 95 this year, Bednar’s bunch tied for the fourth-highest year-to-year improvement in league history and the second-highest turnaround in franchise history. (The 1992-93 Nordiques, captained for the first time by a then-23-year-old Joe Sakic, were 52 points better than the ’91-92 squad.)
It’s fitting that Sakic, perhaps the most important single figure in Nordiques/Avalanche history, played a central role in this latest turnaround. The club’s all-time leading scorer turned general manager worked wonders with the roster and has positioned himself, like Bednar, for postseason hardware (both from MHS and other outlets). But it is Bednar, the man who was on the ice, in the locker room and on the bench — logging the long, hard hours with his club — who deserves the highest praise.
Just one year ago, fans in Denver were calling for his head. Headlines on Avalanche blog sites said things like, “He is making a shaky team worse,” as the team skated to a shootout-era record low 48 points in 2016-17. One week from Monday, the Avalanche (after two games in Nashville) will skate in a playoff hockey game at Pepsi Center for the first time since 2014 and only the second time since 2010.
Regardless of what the Avs do against the No. 1 seed Predators, Bednar will be hard to knock off the perch as the MHS Professional Coach of the Year because of that turnaround.
Aaron Schneekloth would have a great chance of unseating Bednar if he delivered a second consecutive Kelly Cup as head coach of the Colorado Eagles in their farewell ECHL season. However, winning back-to-back hockey titles is tough at any level. Ask DU’s Jim Montgomery.
Bud Black, Colorado Rockies Manager and last year’s winner, will have to significantly one-up himself after leading the Rockies to a Wild Card berth in 2017. Another trip to the playoffs would no doubt push perhaps the most jovial head coach in Colorado pro sports back into the conversation, but Black might need a run to the World Series to trump Bednar’s remarkable “worst-to-playoffs” turnaround.
Michael Malone, Bednar’s neighbor at Pepsi Center, has to be sweating a bit now that the the Avs are in the playoffs. With just two games remaining entering Monday, Malone’s Nuggets still controlled their own playoff destiny. But were are on the outside looking in. And they needed to beat a Portland team that has been a cause of their undoing in recent years. They did. Now they need a win in Minnesota Wednesday in a game that will decide the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
After narrowly missing the playoffs last season, fans this year expected a playoff appearance in the Nuggets’ 50th anniversary season. Yes, the team has suffered untimely injuries to starters Paul Millsap and Gary Harris. However, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic were expected to take big steps forward under Malone and help deliver a postseason berth no matter the circumstances.
Denver was maddeningly inconsistent at times, losing important games down the stretch to cellar dwellers Dallas and Memphis that could come back to haunt them. At this point, Malone’s chances of being out as head coach seem about even with his odds of taking our top honor. Bednar’s stunning effort with the Avs will shine an even brighter spotlight on Malone if the Nuggets miss the playoffs.
Of course, no light in Denver sports is brighter than the one shining on the Denver Broncos. And at times last season it appeared that first-year head coach Vance Joseph was a deer in headlights.
After jumping out to a 3-1 record through the first quarter of the season, Joseph’s Broncos stumbled to a 5-11 finish, good for last place in the AFC West and the No. 5 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
While other managers are under increased pressure now more than ever because of Bednar’s performance this year, Joseph’s is now the highest hands-down.
The NFL is a league designed to facilitate one-year turnarounds. The draft, free agency, the schedule and the salary cap are all painstakingly engineered to push parity on the league. Take the Los Angeles Rams, who finished 4-12 in 2016 under Jeff Fisher and John Fassel, then went on to win the NFC West under Sean McVay last season. After finishing 4-12 in Josh McDaniels’ final year, the Broncos won the AFC West (albeit at 8-8). Rebounding in what could be a down year for the division is very possible.
The AFC West is a division in flux, and a winnable one at that. Oakland has a new head coach and has jettisoned several notable players. Kansas City, division champs the past two years, has a new starting quarterback (one with only a single NFL game under his belt). The Chargers, although much improved last year, are still trying to convince people they play football in Los Angeles. The Broncos have upgraded at the most important position, meanwhile.
The talent is there for Joseph. Gone are Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler. Denver landed Case Keenum, who led the Vikings to an NFC North title and the NFC Championship Game in 2017, will be under center. He’ll have Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas to throw to behind an offensive line that General Manager John Elway isn’t done upgrading. He has a 1,000-yard rusher and Pro Bowler in C.J. Anderson. Despite the loss of cornerback Aqib Talib, Denver’s defense still boasts some of the top playmakers at their position. Von Miller and Chris Harris are both All-Pros; Darian Stewart is a Pro Bowler; Derek Wolfe has the potential to be one. Heck, Elway just signed a punter with Pro Bowl potential that’s how much he’s working to upgrade the roster for Joseph.
The history is there, too. The Broncos are just two years removed from being crowned Super Bowl champs. Denver won five consecutive division titles from 2011 to 2015. Entering last season, the Broncos were the second-winningest franchise since 1984 in all American sports behind the San Antonio Spurs, and tops in the NFL. Winning is the way of doing business for the Denver Broncos.
The support is there, and always will be. Denver boasts the longest current home sellout streak in the NFL. Even when times are tough, Broncos fans hang tough with their team. (The same can’t truly be said for the Bednar’s Avs or Malone’s Nuggets, who ranked 25th and 30th last season when their teams weren’t winning.) Joseph can count on 76,125 orange-and-blue-clad crazies to give his team a high-altitude advantage in half their home games.
Jared Bednar took his team (the worst team in his sport’s current points format, in fact) from the bottom of the standings to the playoffs in just one year.
That has him in prime spot to earn our Pro Coach of the Year award. It also has upped the pressure on the other head coaches in Denver to step up and match his effort.
2018 is less than four months old, and there is still plenty of time for someone to dethrone Bednar. Can anyone rise to the challenge?