Young No More: Age is no longer an excuse for the core of the Avalanche

This story originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

Erik Johnson knew what he had to do.

His phone was blowing up with calls and texts. His head coach the last three seasons had just quit out of nowhere.

It was a blistering August day and Patrick Roy was no longer leading the Colorado Avalanche. Johnson, part of the team’s core group of players, felt partially responsible.

The former No. 1 overall pick needed to get in front of this.

With a barrage of text messages still coming in, Johnson typed one of his own.

Meanwhile, inside the Altitude 950 studios high above Colorado Boulevard, Avalanche pregame and postgame host Kyle Keefe was scrambling. His radio show was starting soon and it would surely be three hours of Roy talk.

Just why did the coach quit and why was his timing so bizarre?

Adrian Dater does a brilliant job of answering those questions (see page XX); this piece is about who’s still here.

The Avalanche’s core remains intact, but this might be it. If for a third straight year the team doesn’t make the playoffs a roster makeover is almost surely in store. For now, these guys – Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Tyson Barrie and the aforementioned Johnson – will get another chance.

Johnson sent his text.

Keefe’s phone dinged.

The message asked if Keefe was still doing his show in a few minutes.

Of course he was, and it was a radio producer’s dream. A big-time guest on a crucial day had just booked himself. At 1:15 p.m. on August 11, Johnson hit the airwaves and set an important tone for the team moving forward.

“At the end of the day the players have to be pissed at themselves. I’m mad at myself and I’m sure there are a ton of guys mad at themselves, because if we played better and won this wouldn’t have happened,” Johnson told Keefe, along with co-hosts Vic Lombardi and Julie Browman.

“Obviously there were some disagreements that led to this, but if the players just went out and did their jobs and won hockey games and made the playoffs this would be a non-issue. We have to take a lot of responsibility.”

It was an unprecedented move on Johnson’s part, but an admirable one. Just about an hour after Roy resigned, one of the leaders of the core wanted to talk. He didn’t retreat and decline interview requests; he actively sought to be heard.

It’s a good sign for a group under a tremendous amount of pressure this upcoming season. Speaking about a month later, with time to let the news soak in, Keefe was careful to say this is the last chance, but expectations are high.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily the last opportunity – or at least you can’t think that way. But you do have to think this is the biggest year of their careers for this core. Those five have to be your best players.”

Keefe’s five are the same as everyone else’s. It’s three forwards and two defensemen. Duchene led the team with 59 points a season ago; Landeskog (53) and MacKinnon (52) weren’t far behind. Barrie had 49 points of his own and both he and Johnson were in the top three in ice time. Each averaged more than 23 minutes per game.

But the numbers don’t matter to Johnson; he made that clear. This team has no room to be selfish or care too much about stats. They need to work on adding another banner to the rafters at Pepsi Center.

“I think no matter what we knew we had to be better. The core of the team has to step up. Every core guy is locked in to a player-friendly [and] a team-friendly deal that’s good for both sides. The only thing we need to think about is winning. I mean who cares if you score 20 goals or 30 goals or 40 goals? I don’t think anyone would give a crap if they scored 10 goals and we won the [Stanley] Cup,” Johnson says.

Let’s hope this team likes apples, because you’re going to hear a lot about the core this season. It’s funny, too, how the word “young” used to be synonymous with “core” when talking about the Avalanche, but that label may have disappeared.

Sure, the guys are still young – as in they’re-likely-to-get-carded-at-a-bar – but they aren’t young when it comes to playing professional hockey. It might floor you to learn just how long some of them have been in the NHL.

This upcoming season will be Johnson’s 10th. He’s only 28, but if you play 10 years in many other leagues, the NFL for example, you’re considered indestructible. The guy has had a career professional athletes dream about in longevity alone.

The Avs’ other best defenseman, Barrie, just recently turned 25, is already heading into his sixth NHL season. He only played 10 games in 2011-12, but he too is now a seasoned veteran.

Landeskog (23) is entering his sixth year. MacKinnon (21) is gearing up for his fourth season. Maybe the craziest of them all, Duchene (25) is ready for his eighth professional campaign, all with the Avalanche. It feels like just yesterday the team was taking the baby-faced Duchene with the third overall pick of the 2009 draft.

So, who’s the biggest key to this? You can make a compelling case for any of the five. But Keefe, who’s as close to the team as anyone, has a gut feeling.

“It’s Tyson Barrie. Not only was he the fifth-leading scorer on the team last year, he’s the catalyst on the power play. He’s the guy setting up plays and creating offense from defense. Tyson very well could be the key to the core succeeding this year,” Keefe says.

In mid-September Barrie was back in Colorado, skating with his teammates, just days before training camp began. He had a self-described “shaky” summer, but wasn’t in the mood to talk about it.

Barrie was the only NHL player to go through arbitration last summer. Fortunately for both sides, the two struck a deal right before the arbitrator was to about to rule. Barrie was rewarded with a four-year, $22 million deal, perhaps moments before things got even shakier.

Barrie was in the mood to talk about the upcoming season; his most definitive answer was telling.

When Barrie picked up his phone it was clear he was out and about.

The Avalanche’s best “offensive” defenseman still managed to carve out a chunk of time to chat. Like Johnson, it’s important these guys get their message out, loud and clear. They’re not “young” anymore and the time for baby steps is in the past. The 2016-17 season has to end a certain way.

“I mean, we’ve got to make the playoffs,” Barrie says with conviction. “Two years ago, when we lost in the first round, this is that same crew. We want to get past that first round and kind of build on that. That’s the team we think we are. That’s what we need to do this year.”

Barrie is referencing the 2013-14 season, when in Roy’s first year as coach, the Avalanche shocked the hockey world and secured the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Those pesky (and dirty) Wild were their opponents. After the home team held serve in the first six games of the series, Colorado lost a heartbreaker at home in Game 7 to end the season in sudden and sobering fashion.

They haven’t skated in a playoff game since.

“For sure. I think that’s the way you have to look at it,” Barrie says when asked if this is a third and somewhat unexpected chance to get back to the postseason. “We all love each other in this dressing room and we’re the guys that have to step up – and we know that. We want to be together and we want to win together and [general manager] Joe [Sakic] has given us another opportunity to do that.”

Barrie’s assessment is spot-on, particularly the last part.

Without a doubt it was Sakic’s decision, and his alone, to give this group another shot. Some suggest Sakic’s belief in this core, and unwillingness to let Roy make key personnel decisions, is the reason the coach abruptly quit.

The truth may never be revealed, but like everyone else, Sakic knows it’s time his key players make a leap. Making the 2014 playoffs can’t be an aberration, it has to become the norm.

“It was in a tough place three years ago [when I got here]. Obviously we had a great run our first year. Maybe it gave us a false sense – the way that year went. We fell back a bit, but we feel we’ve got some really good pieces,” Sakic told me the day Roy quit.

And those really good pieces? They’re all part of the core.

“Our core guys are at that age where they need to make the next step and get better and they know that. At the end of the year when we talked they all knew it; they were all very disappointed. We’ve got to get them to learn how to close out games and get better with the lead and to win hockey games. I think the next step for our group is to learn how to win,” Sakic says.

Winning is what it’s all about for the Avalanche moving forward. That has been established. The last question to address was who was going to lead the core this season and beyond? It’s not easy replacing Patrick Roy, even if his coaching tenure ended in disappointing fashion, so going with someone relatively anonymous seemed like a good idea.

Just like the rest of us, Tyson Barrie didn’t even know who Jared Bednar was before Joe Sakic hired him.

The mystery man could be the key to unlocking the Avalanche’s potential.

Something didn’t jive between Patrick Roy and the Avs’ best players. That’s not to suggest it was personal, but is based purely on results. The team was way too talented on paper last year to finish 39-39-4, good for 82 points and the No. 9 spot in the Western Conference; once again on the outside looking in to the playoffs. Finishing 2-8 in the final 10 games and on a six-game losing streak was a microcosm of the last two seasons. It just didn’t make sense.

In retrospect, it’s easy to connect dots: A coach with a heart not really in it led the players to not really have their hearts in it either. It’s hard to place all the blame on the core.

With that in the past, the early reviews of new head coach Jared Bednar have been overwhelmingly positive. Even if, in a guy like Barrie’s case, they initially came second-hand.

“It’s a name I hadn’t heard until it was reported he was in the running. Once it got announced I asked around a little bit and a couple hockey guys I knew had nothing but good things to say about him and how smart he is and his approach to the game,” Barrie says.

Bednar has won everywhere he’s gone, so it’s no surprise people like him; people tend to like winners.

He boasts a career .603 winning percentage in six seasons as a head coach (two ECHL, four AHL) and has never finished under .500 in a season. Last year he guided the Cleveland Monsters to a 15-2 postseason record en route to the championship after sweeping both the Western Conference Finals and the Calder Cup Finals.

Point being: Give Bednar talent and he can make it work. The young coach is already licking his chops to coach, you guessed it, this Avalanche core.

“I’ve had a chance to watch them a little bit. There’s room to grow, but at the same time I think there’s a lot of exciting pieces and for me. The key will be getting them all in the same place where that young core can thrive and have an opportunity to play fast and be a dynamic group,” Bednar told Keefe and Lombardi the day he was hired.

Whether or not the core is still “young” is semantics at this point, but based on that answer you’d think Bednar had been studying the Avalanche for years. Just like the rest of us, he knows which group will determine their success.

The guys need to play fast, according to both Bednar and Sakic.

The Avalanche GM also hopped on the airwaves the day the Bednar hire was announced, and it’s clear what the two talked about behind closed doors. This group is too talented to dink around with the puck and try to get cute when attempting to score (something you could argue they did under Roy); it’s time to play fast.

“I like the way [Bednar] plays and with that structure. He loves to play north-south and I think especially with our forwards we’re going to have to move the puck up. It will be out of our zone quick and in the other team’s zone using our speed and I think that’s going to make us a damn dangerous team,” Sakic told Keefe and Lombardi.

The Avalanche should be dangerous in 2016-17.

They should make the playoffs.

They should be competitive in a series or two, or even beyond.

But it all comes back to the core. A group ready to take responsibility for the team’s fate.

That started the day Patrick Roy resigned, when Erik Johnson was proactive about getting the team’s message out there.

Now, it must translate to the ice.

The core may not survive otherwise.

Editor’s Note: In addition to his work for Mile High Sports Magazine and milehighsports.com, Will Petersen is the executive producer at Altitude 950.

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