The Colorado Avalanche are headed back to the postseason, a welcome reward for everything that the fans - and the players, in fairness - went through last season.
Just one year removed from a 48-point season (with insult added to injury when Colorado lost all three lottery spots at the draft, dropping all the way to fourth overall), the team are the underdogs of the year. They had only hoped to shake off last year’s results, with the playoffs nothing but icing - and yet, here they are.
The team will kick off game one against the Nashville Predators on Thursday evening, so Mile High Hockey sat down on the phone with former Avs legend Alex Tanguay, now an analyst with NHL Network. We talked the way the team’s season went, the expectations he had for them, and what to look for as the postseason goes on.
I first talked to Alex Tanguay his final year in the NHL, catching him after practice one day when he was with the Arizona Coyotes.
As an older player, I fully expected him not to want to talk analytics, and I ended up being very correct - but he surprised me, getting the gist of shot differential numbers without ever referencing the actual stats. He talked about how important it is to be involved in the important plays, even if you personally don’t take the shots - contributing through passes up the ice that translate into offensive chances, cutting away space for the opposition on scoring chances even if you don’t explicitly block their shots.
It was one of the most insightful conversations I’ve had with a player I wasn’t already on familiar terms with, and he didn’t disappoint with our follow-up chat on Wednesday.
ON THE AVALANCHE SEASON
Every team goes through slumps.
Sometimes, it’s an individual slump. A player will go weeks without scoring, or a goaltender will go games without a quality performance.
Other times, it’s the offense stagnating, or the defense scattering. Sometimes it’s part of a season, sometimes it’s longer - and for the Avalanche last year, it was all of the above.
Tanguay explained that it really couldn’t have gotten any worse, so this year was already expected to be an improvement.
“You were at this point where, last year in December, they were already out of the playoffs.”
This year, though, everything fell together nicely.
I asked whether he thought it was player revitalization, coaching changes, or a little bit of both. I had been in the Arizona Coyotes locker cleanout day press conferences two days prior, and listening to the player evaluations of their first half of this year - so very similar to Colorado’s season in its entirety in 2016-17 - raised a lot of questions about how many strides forward each area needed to take to improve like Colorado did this year.
Tanguay, who has been watching his old team through their struggles and rebirth, gave a lot of insight into how everyone had needed to improve this year.
“You obviously needed your guys like MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog to have the kinds of seasons they did this year,” he told me.
“Getting Erik Johnson back for the season - he’s a guy who’s going to play 26, 27 minutes a night against your top lines... getting Semyon Varlamov back, [and] also adding Jonathan Bernier.”
“They made some subtle moves, that helped the core pieces.”
After a mercurial career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Bernier arguably fell from grace when he found himself a backup first with the Anaheim Ducks, then with Colorado. But as an eye in the sky now, Tanguay - an analyst with a storied history as one of the league’s better former two-way players - had little doubt that bringing him on was a key part of the team’s growth this year overall.
He also attributed some of it to the message Sakic sent when he pulled off the coup of the year on the Matt Duchene deal.
“They made some subtle moves, that helped the core pieces. And not that Duchene was getting rid of a bad player... but the fact that they were able to acquire so many assets, that sent a signal, a positive vibe that this team was going to move forward.”
But a lot of it, especially in terms of defensive structure, was on the growth of Jared Bednar as an NHL coach as well, he explained.
“Last year was a tough situation for coach Bednar,” he started off, “because he came in late in the summer time, so there wasn’t much time to prepare. And I don’t think... you know, it was his first coaching experience in the NHL. And I don’t know that he knew what he was getting himself into.”
“But this year, he seems to be a lot more comfortable. He seems to be... you know, the reality of today’s NHL is that you have to not adjust the players to your system, but adjust your system to the players that you have. And I think that he’s made some adjustments to his system that has allowed some of his players to feel a little bit more comfortable, to perform a little better, and that... that was a huge part.”
Part of it was the improved goaltending; Tanguay explained that in order for the team to take a step forward, the Goals-Against Average was going to have to come down.
But a lot of that, too, was the defensive structure. Allowing some of the young defensemen to make mistakes, helping them figure out their games, played a key role in where they are right now - and that’s promising, both heading into the playoffs and into future seasons.
ON THE PREDATORS
When I asked Tanguay for someone or something to look out for on the Predators side of the ice during the series, I was expecting him to give me a name. Maybe one of the defenders not named Roman Josi or PK Subban, or a depth forward he thought could be a game-changer.
Instead, he surprised me by talking about line matchups.
“For me,” he said, “I’m curious whether we see strength vs. strength.”
On the Avalanche side, he explained, so much of their offensive punch comes from Nathan MacKinnon and his line. How head coach Peter Laviolette addressed that with his own line deployment was something that Tanguay thinks could be a difference-maker in the series.
“I mean... is it going to be [Filip] Forsberg and [Ryan] Johansen with Viktor Arvidsson? If they’re going to be going strength-for-strength, you know, seeing who’s going to be coming out on top... that’s a matchup that I’m really looking forward to.”
“Both of these lines,” he explained, referring to the MacKinnon trio and Filip Forsberg’s line, “are amazing. Both of these lines are capable of carrying a team through a playoff run... so I’m curious to see them on the ice vs. one another.”
“Forsberg is... he’s a human highlight reel. Some of the stuff that he will do, if you keep your eyes on him... one time or another, each game, you’re gonna be out of your chair going ‘wow’. And on the other side, 29 has the ability to do something big.”
On defense, he rightly pointed out that Nashville has little need to line-match. With four top-two defensemen - Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, PK Subban, and Mattias Ekholm - they can, essentially, go head-to-head with anyone that Colorado deploys on the back end. They have no real concept of matching MacKinnon’s strength on the back end, because every pairing they put out will be matching him.
On their forward corps, though, checking to see who they pit against Colorado’s biggest star will be a huge angle to follow.
THE BIGGEST SURPRISES
I had to ask: we know MacKinnon is likely to be huge, but who else did Tanguay think the Avalanche could see come up big in the first round?
At the start of the interview, he had mentioned how guys like Alex Kerfoot were quietly strong adds for the lineup, helping with their improvement this year. So it was no surprise when his was the first name mentioned, suggesting that the second line - Tyson Jost, Kerfoot, and Sven Andrighetto - could be a huge asset as the Avalanche look to pull an upset.
“That’s a line that doesn’t have a lot of playoff experience yet,” he warned, but they did have a lot of growth shown throughout the year. Jost came back from an early-season injury to rapidly improve down the back half of the season, and the other two were showing strong potential to be at least part of the desperately needed offensive depth against a well-rounded team like Nashville.
Another name was Blake Comeau - which makes sense, given the need for some two-way presence against a team like Nashville.
“For each player that grabbed my attention... I think Blake Comeau, he’s one of those big-bodied, highly physical guys. They’re going to need that grit.”
The biggest name, though? Colin Wilson.
The 2008 seventh overall pick for Nashville, Wilson never quite lived up to expectations during the regular season; he’s never surpassed 42 points, and his one 20-goal campaign is starting to look like an anomaly.
In the postseason, though, he’s managed to rack up 13 goals and 27 points in 47 games, including 13 points in 14 appearances three seasons ago.
That postseason ‘clutch’ power, combined with a potential need to show Nashville just what they gave up on, could be huge.
“How can you not want to play against your former team? It’s going to be highly emotional for him.”
“This is a guy who, for some reason, has always been able to raise his level of play in the playoffs, and I think that the Colorado Avalanche sort of brought him on for that leadership, and some of those attributes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Colin Wilson, like he has done, help them significantly in the playoffs.”
You can watch NHL Network’s Alex Tanguay on “NHL Tonight” throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.