We've all pondered, wondered, lamented, and proposed what the Colorado Avalanche's focus is to "make the team better". Here's today's submission: the Avs want to be a hard team to play against. The End.
Here's my reasoning:
The Avalanche haven't employed an enforcer since David Koci and his punching bag brand of fisticuffs left after the 2010-2011 season. Since then, and even during Koci's tenure,the Avs weren't exactly a big or tough team with the exceptions of guys like Ian Laperriere and the Cody Macs. But even those heart and soul guys were limited in their offensive and defensive production. Galiardi had a playoff series of uber-grit, but it seems to have been flash in the pan style tenacity. Simply put, the Avalanche have been a mediocre to under-performing (and occasionally over-performing) team since the lock out. They haven't been especially talented nor difficult to play against. And in recent years, the team has struggled to find an identity - ANY identity.
All of that is about to change.
Every team says they want to be "a tough team to play against", but the Avs are actually building that type of squad right in front of us. Gone are the inconsistent players who's commitment level to the team, or their own desire, or personal fitness, has been questioned: Wojtek Wolski, Chris Stewart, Peter Mueller, Kyle Quincey, Joaquim Lindstrom, TJ Galiardi, Ryan Stoa. In are players with well rounded games, solid if not spectacular in both ends, and who play with an edge of grit and sandpaper: Jamie McGinn, Steve Downie, John Mitchell, Greg Zanon.
Some people have lamented the loss on Silent Jay McClement, scratching their heads as why he wasn't retained. There are no doubt a myriad of reasons, but my personal view is that the Avs want to be tougher to play against, and while McClement was steady and did all the little things well, his replacement John Mitchell is an immediate upgrade in the tough department. Nobody got to the rink and thought, "oh shit, I better watch my back, Jay McClement is on the ice!" But John Mitchell will encourage the opposition to keep their heads up. Mitchell averaged 1.4 hits p/g last season with the Rangers, while McClement averaged .9 hits p/g. Over a full season, that's 41 more hits. 41 more times the opposition will feel the pain of playing against the Avs.
Look beyond the trades and signings and you'll find the players drafted in the early rounds are almost all potential future captains, character guys committed to the game and bettering themselves. No one exemplifies this better than rink rat Ryan O`Reilly. Gabriel Landeskog, a close second, led his team in hits by 39 as a 19 year-old rookie. Oh, and those two guys went 1-3 in scoring for their team as well. But that's just the tip of the ice berg with these guys. Nobody wants to play against Ryan O`Reilly. One reason being that he will take the puck from you, as he did a league best 101 times last season. And who would want to play against Landeskog? He'll either drop you, drop points, drop his gloves, or drop to his knees Landeskoging his team to victory.
Then there's the shift on defense. It seemed for awhile the Avs were collecting smallish puck moving defensmen. Then, in less time than it takes to renew your license at the DMV, the Avs brought in: Erik Johnson, Jan Hejda, Ryan O`Byrne and Shane O'Brien. Average height and weight = 6'4" inches, 233 lbs. And all of a sudden Varlamov's crease was clear.
Now maybe I'm focusing too much on hits when talking about grit and the Avs becoming tougher to play against, but the Avs were 22nd in the league in 2010-2011 in hits with 1,726. Last season they leapt to 13th in the league with 1,889. Full seasons from McGinn and Downie will improve that number yet again. Add that to the fact that 2 of the top 3 hitters from last year's squad were new combers Landeskog (219) and McGinn (159), and the Avs are going to make teams miserable this season (screw you lockout).
Yes there are still hold overs (Matt Hunwick, David Jones, Cody McLeod, Mark Olver, Chuck Kobasew, Ryan Wilson) and skill guys (Matt Duchene, PA Parenteau, Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk), but each of those guys brings something of that "strong character" the Avs are accumulating (as mentioned above). Cases in point: Hunwick is a coach's dream: plays hard every practice, is the consummate professional, reliable when in the line-up, and doesn't gripe when he has to eat nachos. Jones is a poor man's power forward, but he isn't afraid to use his body or scoring to inflict damage on opponents. McLeod is the ideal of a 4th liner: he fights and hits, he's reliable, he'll add some depth scoring, and can play in all situations. Olver is the ultimate pest. What Kobasew lacks in ability he makes up for in effort. Ryan Wilson is another company man that can do everything at both ends of the ice - and OOOH those hits!! Duchene is the most talented player on the team and despite injuries and growing pains, he is always going 100%. Parenteau is a lesser known, but his 89 PIMs last season shows he has a nasty side (if not a little out of control). Stastny has endured painful inconsistency, but remains a legit contender for Captain with his calm demeanor coupled with his skill, dedication, and hockey smarts. Hejduk is a fading star, but his leadership and legendary commitment on and off the ice is worth its weight in gold - especially with so many impressionable young guns blazing in the wings.
While none of these acquisitions may grab headlines or scream of an obviously improved team, as a group they make the Avalanche a vastly better team that is going to cause fits for opposing coaches as they try to match up their lines with any 4 of Colorado's relentless, always on the attack, hard-working lines (think Coyotes or Predators but a mile high version). The Colorado Avalanche look to be forming a team, in the truest sense of the word.
Lastly, throw in a demanding coach like Joe Sacco who coaches how he played - with everything he had, every shift, and always with accountability - and you have a team from top to bottom that is going to give the other 29 teams in the league pains of a new kind of hurt, both physical and mental.
Hockey is a tough sport. It takes tough individuals to be successful. The Avalanche are assembling a hard-nosed group of sandpaper, grit, and skill players that may not lead the league in scoring or wow the naysayers in the media or larger markets, but who will make the rest of the players in the league hate the days they face off against the new rough and tumble Burgundy and Blue. Go Avs.