A second round pick (33rd overall) just last summer, Ryan O'Reilly has five goals and 18 points in 49 games for the Avs in his rookie season. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/NHLI via Getty Images)
Before the season started, I interviewed Colorado Avalanche star Paul Stastny for this very same column. Coming off an injury-riddled 2008-09, which not coincidentally was also the worst campaign in Avs history, Stastny was nonetheless upbeat about his team’s chances this year.
“I think we have the potential to surprise teams,” Stastny told me back in mid-September. “We have a nothing-to-lose attitude.”
I’m not going to say I didn’t believe him, but I certainly didn’t share his optimism.
Well, that’s why Stastny makes a lot more money than I do.
As we all know, the Avs are one of the best teams in the Western Conference right now and certainly the biggest surprise of the season. Trotting out a lineup filled with green youngsters such as Matt Duchene, T.J. Galiardi, Brandon Yip and Matt Hendricks, the Avs are rolling thanks to a system employed by rookie coach Joe Sacco that results in constant pressure and speed.
And while we all knew about third overall selection Duchene, Colorado mined prospect gold in the second round of the 2009 draft as well when they tabbed Erie Otters center Ryan O’Reilly (not to be confused with one of the best Oz characters ever) with the 33rd pick.
A two-way center who dazzled with his board work early on in the season, O’Reilly has been an important factor in the team’s rise, something the teenager doesn’t take for granted.
“Every chance I get, I’m giving it everything I have,” O’Reilly said. “We have a really good system that we’re all buying into. Guys are winning battles for each other, backchecking for each other.”
It’s something very apparent when you watch the Avs play. In its destruction of the Edmonton Oilers earlier this week, Colorado seemed to get to every puck first and had the Oilers on their heels pretty much from the get-go. Even though this team was expected to fall off after a scintillating start, the Avs are still tops in the Northwest Division through 49 games.
“It’s built from the net out,” O’Reilly noted, pointing to the stellar play of goalies Craig Anderson and Peter Budaj. “We have a really good experienced defense with a lot of leadership back there and up front with guys like Darcy Tucker, Milan Hejduk and Paul Stastny – it’s so much easier to learn that way.”
The conventional wisdom would posit that a team so young – Colorado currently has 10 players with two years experience or less in the NHL on its roster – couldn’t possibly maintain its play, but the Avs even do it without their vets. Against Edmonton, they played without Hejduk, Adam Foote and Marek Svatos and still walked away with a 6-0 victory.
Certainly some credit also has to go to first-year GM Greg Sherman, who signed netminder Anderson, drafted Duchene and O’Reilly (though Duchene was a no-brainer behind John Tavares and Victor Hedman) and traded veteran left winger Ryan Smyth to Los Angeles for defensemen Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing. When Preissing wasn’t working out, he was shipped to the American League. Both Quincey and Smyth have been great for their respective new teams, so it turned out to be mutually beneficial.
Though they’ve sometimes struggled against more experienced teams such as Vancouver, the Avs have already beaten Detroit twice and knocked off Buffalo, New Jersey and San Jose. O’Reilly once again attributes the success to a positive team attitude.
“No matter who we’re playing,” he said, “we think, ‘we can beat these guys.’ ”
And while Stastny said before the season his team had nothing to lose, Colorado now has a playoff spot to hold onto in the last 33 games. O’Reilly is happy to have that task in front of him and his mates.
“It’s about staying in the moment,” he said. “You want to win every shift.”
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.