With Avalanche off to another 3-1 start, leadership is a ‘core’ issue

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Matt Duchene celebrates his first-period goal in the season-opening win against the Rangers in Madison Square Garden last week. (Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie and Semyon Varlamov still are the Avalanche’s six-man “core,” all at various points in recent years signed to long-term extensions.

They’ll remain that core unless, or perhaps until, Duchene answers his cell phone and gets the news that he’s headed for … the airport and beyond.

Or perhaps until the core, however it is defined, grows.

Combined, the six salary cap hits for 2017-18 are $35.27 million, or nearly half of the NHL’s $75-million per-team maximum.

That’s commitment, faith, and on the part of general manager Joe Sakic and management, considerable risk.

Now, in the wake of a horrific 2016-17 season — when the six massively underachieved, even taking into account injuries to Johnson (broken leg) and Varlamov (groin muscle issues) — the challenge isn’t simply to nudge their games up to elite levels.

Given the makeover that began down the stretch last season and continued through the off-season, and left the Avalanche both younger and faster, the additional obligation is to lead. And lead in ways that go beyond numbers and letters — a “C” or an “A” — on jerseys. They need to do it on the ice, in the dressing room, on the bus and plane … you name where, they need to do it.

In Varlamov’s case, of course, given his position, that leadership is more about performance than it is for the skaters. Yet there can be a contagious attitude there, too, as evidenced in the days when a swaggering, prideful, often angry No. 33 manned the Colorado crease.

And, yes, that leadership obligation includes Duchene, now skating on a line with Avalanche newcomers Nail Yakupov and Alexander Kerfoot. The line has been electric so far. As the Avalanche beat the Boston Bruins 6-3 Wednesday at the Pepsi Center, Yakupov — seeking to change his image as a washout NHL No. 1 overall pick — had his third goal of the young season.

Duchene scored his second goal, and Kerfoot, the rookie from Harvard, got his career first.

So despite the perception that he came to training camp an unhappy man, especially given his bizarre 14-second statement on reporting day, and his reluctance since to discuss his situation, Duchene has two goals and three assists through four games for a team that for the second straight season is off to a 3-1 start.

“Winning’s fun,” he said Wednesday night. “Perception’s whatever. I’m going to keep playing the best I can play and working as hard as I can. . . It’s fun to win and hopefully it keeps going.”

When I asked if he wanted to stay, he said, “I’m not talking about that. I’ve never said anything publicly. I’ve come here. I’ve done my job and I’m going to continue to do that and be part of this team.”

Earlier Wednesday, after the morning skate, I had asked Duchene if he still could be one of the Avalanche’s leaders under the strange circumstances.

“I’m not going to change who I am or what I am in my approach,” he said. “I’m playing with two young players on my line and I’m talking to them a lot, and we’re working together on the bench, in the intermission . . .

“I’m just who I am. I don’t really change around different people or in different circumstances. Whatever comes with that, comes with that. There’s no difference for me in how I’m operating in the locker room than last year, that’s for sure.”

The problem with that, of course, is that citing last season as setting a bar, or as anything to emulate, is shaky.

Duchene is a highly paid pro in the early stages of his ninth season, one who hit the 30-goal benchmark two seasons ago, but has regressed since.

This has always been true, but it was apparent than ever last season: His game can be contaminated by a strange combination of: a) getting down on himself, and b) it’s-just-bad-luck denial.

Then there is the apparent refusal to accept what all highly paid pros should know, that every general manager in the game has an obligation to make his team better. A GM exploring or listening, or both, should be an accepted given. In all sports. In every dressing room.

At any time possible.

I’m convinced that at this point, given the drop in his value in the past year, the only way he will be traded in the near future is if the Avalanche — just as if former teammates Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg had discussed it — wants to remove him as a possible distraction and takes the best deal offered. A month after training camp opened, though, the chances of that happening seem to be lessening. They all might make it through this.

“I haven’t thought about Matt’s situation, his circumstances, whatever you want to call it since we were in training camp, to be honest with you,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said when I asked him about Duchene after the home opener. “He’s anchoring that line with Kerfoot and Yakupov … and if they stay competitive and keep working like that, that’s all I care about.”

If he stays, to completely redeem his image, he must not simply continue to play well, he must accept the mantle of heightened leadership.

The others have.

“It’s changed and you can feel the shift in our leadership and the guys who are taking it over,” Bednar said. “It think it’s something our core is embracing. I think they’re enjoying it. I think we’ve got a bunch of real character kids following them now. There’s no doubt who our leadership is coming from now. It’s all the guys who have been here the longest and they’re our top players.”

Johnson, 29, missed nearly 12 weeks of last season after suffering a broken leg in early December.

“There were guys in our locker room before like Iggy (Jarome Iginla) and ‘Beauch’ (Francois Beauchemin) who we had so much respect for,” he said. “I think sometimes as players, you get a little uncertain talking in front of guys like that because they held so much respect. Sometimes you might worry about what you say, you don’t want to disagree with them. We learned a lot from those guys in their time here, and they helped us a lot. But now it’s an infusion of talent and youth, and it’s truly our team from the standpoint we feel comfortable saying whatever we need to say in the locker room and making the decisions on what needs to be done on a daily basis.

“Not that those guys hindered us in the past. It was just that vets like that had a big say in what went on day to day in the locker room. They’ve passed the torch to us. It’s been our team in the sense that we’ve been the core for a little while now, but in the leadership sense, I think it’s truly our team and we need to get to write our own legacy.”

MacKinnon hasn’t yet scored a goal, but he has four assists through four games.

“I’m an assistant captain, so I’ve taken on the responsibility of being a leader and I’m trying to help out everybody new,” he said. “I’m not going to be their dad or anything, I’m just trying to be the best guy I can be to everybody.”

Said Barrie: “We feel like we have a way different team this year. It’s a much different feeling in here. The core of this team we’ve been talking about, we’re obviously put in leadership roles now. It feels like a little more responsibility, but it feels good. We’re all embracing it. We know if this team is going to do well, it’s going to be in large part on us. If it doesn’t do well, it’s going to be to a large part on us, too.”

Landeskog still is only 24, but this is his sixth season as captain.

“I think the dynamic of the group has changed a little bit,” he said. “What’s so great about this group is that we’re so excited to play. For me, I don’t think anything really changes.”

AVALANCHE CORE

Cap hits this season

C Nathan MacKinnon       $6.3 million

D Erik Johnson               $6.0 million

C Matt Duchene              $6.0 million

G Semyon Varlamov        $5.9 million

D Tyson Barrie                $5.5 million

LW Gabriel Landeskog     $5.57 million

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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

 

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