In a different setting, many of the Colorado Avalanche players might be sharing a house near a college campus. Eight players are age 25 or younger, and their Vezina Trophy finalist goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, just celebrated his 26th birthday.
This is not the veteran Avs squad like the one that skated the Stanley Cup around Pepsi Center 13 years ago. But this young team captured everyone’s attention during the NHL postseason despite 12 players making their playoff debut during the first-round series with the Minnesota Wild.
And although the Avalanche ultimately fell to Minnesota, 5-4 in overtime of Game 7, it did not diminish what became the feel-good story of the NHL this year. The sting the players felt the moments after the loss showed maturity. There wasn’t the attitude of, “Hey, we tried our best—it just didn’t work out.” No, it was pure disappointment borne of a commitment to never give up.
“It was a pretty good year,” says defenseman Tyson Barrie, who suffered a sprained MCL in Game 3 and missed the rest of the season. “I thought we had something special in here, and we had a chance to do some damage.”
In theory the Avalanche should have made baby steps this season after winning just 16 games in a 48-game season a year ago. Instead, the team burst back into the conversation by tying a franchise record with 52 victories to win the Central Division title.
A turnaround that significant normally occurs with a big turnover of the roster. Colorado’s main addition in the summer? Taking then-17-year-old Nathan MacKinnon with the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft in June. Otherwise, mostly the same players who suffered through last season have enjoyed the success of this year.
“We’ve just gone along doing our business,” captain Gabriel Landeskog says. “Sometimes I think that’s good.”
It was good, and it earned Colorado its first postseason trip in four years. But anyone who thought the youthful Avalanche would wither in the white-hot heat of the Stanley Cup playoffs found out early this is a team to watch—this year and for years to come.
Why? Because of players like centers Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly, both 23; defenseman Erik Johnson (26) and Barrie (22); forwards Landeskog (21) and MacKinnon, who played like a seasoned veteran yet turned 18 on September 1.
“Obviously he’s an early bloomer, a few steps ahead of everyone,” center Paul Stastny says of MacKinnon. “He goes first overall and jumps into the league and hasn’t skipped a day. Every day you’ve seen him progress as a player. For us we’ve seen him mature as a player.”
His maturity was in full view after the Game 7 loss. His hurt was palpable but MacKinnon, a finalist for the NHL's Calder Memorial Trophy, awarded to the top rookie, was gracious in defeat.
“I thought we deserved to win this series,” MacKinnon says. “We have to give [Minnesota] a lot of credit. They played a solid seven-game series. Overall, we had to be better.”
The man put in charge of developing this young talent is first-year head coach Patrick Roy, who is a big reason for the team’s quick turnaround. When Roy took over last summer he instilled a new attitude, and the players quickly bought into his style. Roy never used his team’s youth as an excuse this sesaon, but he fiercely backed his players and was quick to praise what they accomplished this season, which included a 12-1 start and an 8-1-2 finish that gave them their first division title since 2003.
Along the way the players developed the motto, ‘Why Not Us?’ Not exactly how greenhorns are supposed to act, and it carried over into the postseason.
It was obvious in the series against Minnesota that the Avalanche wasn't satisfied with just being there. This team aimed to win all season, just like in the regular season when it raced past Chicago and St. Louis in the Central Division.
“When we started strong, we could have settled. When we clinched a playoff, we could have settled,” Roy says. “When we passed Chicago, we could have settled. When we caught St. Louis, we could have settled. They always wanted more.”
That was evident from Game 1 of the series with Minnesota.
Trailing 4-2 entering the third period, 25-year-old Jamie McGinn scored midway through the period to get the Avalanche close, and a gutsy strategy of pulling Varlamov paid off when Stastny, a graybeard on this team at just 28, tied it with 13.4 seconds left and then won it in overtime.
The tone was set from the get-go. This team was a force despite their playoff inexperience.
“Hockey is hockey,” rookie MacKinnon said at the time.
MacKinnon proved that much when he generated two goals and eight assists through the first six games of the series to lead all players in NHL scoring to that point. MacKinnon’s first two playoff goals were highlight-reel worthy, including an overtime winner in Game 5. He became the second youngest player to score an overtime goal in the playoffs, and he did it on a pass from Landeskog, who just happens to be the youngest player to be named captain in league history.
Combined, MacKinnon and Landeskog are five years younger than Anaheim star Teemu Selanne.
After Game 7 Roy was focused on the positives more than the reasons for the loss. Sure, Colorado made mistakes, but in the coach’s view mistakes are just another step in becoming great.
“It’s a learning process, and I think next year in the playoffs our guys might be a little more calm in those situations and react differently,” he said.
Being young never dampened expectations for this team, which is one reason why it was so successful from the start of the season.
“This is a team that expects a lot from themselves,” says Joe Sakic, the Avalanche’s executive vice president of hockey operations and alternate governor. “We have some guys who are [learning] on the fly when it comes to first-time playoff experience, but I’m a big believer that if you play the right way and don’t cheat out there, then you can have success. You can get that experience while winning. That’s the best way to get that experience.”
Sakic knows something about that, having won two Stanley Cups as the Avalanche captain during his Hall of Fame career.
So does Roy, who as a rookie in 1986 backstopped the Montreal Canadiens to the first of his four Stanley Cups. Roy didn’t flinch under the pressure while playing in arguably the most avid hockey city in the world, and he exuded calm and poise in leading many of his Colorado players through their first playoff experience this season.
He didn't put too much pressure on them and was honest about the grind of the NHL playoffs. He told them it was a difficult road to the top, especially for a team that finished last in the Western Conference a season ago.
“It would be too easy to go from 29th to win the Stanley Cup,” Roy says. “Unfortunately, it’s a process, and we’re going to follow the process. Can we skip some level of it? I hope so.
"Seeing our fans be excited about the team makes me so happy, and to see our fans coming back to the building—it was electric out there. It was fun to be part of it, and I didn’t want to see it ending—that’s how fun it was. I had goose bumps when I saw them at the start of the game, at the start of overtime, start of the third period. I just want to say thanks to them, thanks for making it fun—they’re a big part of it, and so are the players."
Time and again this season the Avalanche played beyond their years, rallying late to tie or win games when Roy would pull his goalie with several minutes left. More often than not, the strategy paid off as it did against Minnesota.
“I believe if you’ve been doing things well all year there’s no reason to change,” Roy says. “This is who you are.”
The hockey world better get to know this group. The Colorado Avalanche figure to make springtime hockey a habit again.