From worst to first, Avalanche has made remarkable strides in four years – The Denver Post
It was April 8, 2017, and Colorado’s most exciting hockey team captured the NCAA championship in Chicago.
Sophomore forward Jarid Lukosevicius had all three goals in the University of Denver’s 3-2 victory against Minnesota-Duluth at the United Center.
I was there. It was a fun game to cover — far better than the alternative.
I also covered the Avalanche at that time. But the Avs were the laughingstock of the NHL, and I certainly preferred to be in Chicago on April 8 than in Dallas, where the Avs lost in a shootout in their second-to-last game of that dreadful season. Colorado went on to lose the next night in St. Louis, finishing with a league-low and club-record-worst 22 wins in the 82-game season.
DU returned to Denver for a parade. The Avs returned to town as an embarrassment.
The Avs failed to win in regulation in their last 13 games. They had just one 20-goal scorer in rookie winger Mikko Rantanen, who reached 20 in the season finale, and forward Matt Duchene and defenseman Tyson Barrie both finished with a team-worst minus-34 rating.
Forwards Gabe Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon, both top-two selections in their draft classes, were nothing special.
A full-scale rebuild was on, but that’s a difficult challenge when you’re that bad. The Avs failed to sign 2013 draft pick Will Butcher, the DU defenseman who won the Hobey Baker Award two days before the national championship game. Butcher wanted to play for a respectable NHL team and had the free-agent loophole to do so. He signed with New Jersey.
That was four years ago. Just four years go. The Avalanche’s turnaround from the league’s worst regular-season team to its best borders on incredible. The Avs on Thursday won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s regular-season champions for the first time in 20 years — since 2001 when they went on to hoist the Stanley Cup.
Credit Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic and his staff, as well as head coach Jared Bednar and his assistants. Sakic hired Bednar a month before that miserable 2016-17 season and he stuck with him.
Credit the current Avs who played for Bednar in his first season as an NHL head coach. MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen are the only full-time remaining players to have stuck with the club since the start of that season.
“I’m proud of our guys for the work that they’ve put in,” Bednar said Saturday, two days before the West Division top-seeded Avs host No. 4 St. Louis in Game 1 of a first-round playoff series. “Change doesn’t happen overnight. Obviously, there is a lot of new personnel but a significant number of guys that we’ve had with us for the last few years that have been trying to grow as a team together.
“One of our goals over the last few years has been to try to get home ice (advantage) in the playoffs and finish first and have that type of regular season that we can be proud of. I think with all the adversity and just the way this year has gone with injuries and COVID breaks and whatnot, it’s a nice feather in our cap to be able to get the Presidents’ Trophy and set ourselves up with home ice for the playoffs.”
Sakic, the Hall of Famer, was a two-time Stanley Cup-winning captain for the Avs. Bednar coached two minor-league teams to championships. They are leaders. And they believe they have three excellent on-ice leaders in Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen.
“There’s a lot of guys that we’ve seen a lot of individual growth from them and our team as well in those four years. It starts with our leaders in Landy, Mac, Mikko and (others) that have come in and stuck with it and kept working to get better every day. It looks good on those guys.”
It looks good on everybody who played a role in the last four years.