I’ve never had a problem admitting one of my pre-season predictions was wrong. And man alive, was I ever wrong about the Colorado Avalanche this year. Like anyone else with functioning retinas, I could see the Avs had an astonishingly talented collection of forwards, but their defense concerned me enough to peg them as a non-playoff team.
Well, the regular season is more than 80 percent complete and all doubt about Colorado has had a flamethrower taken to it. The Avalanche not only are bound for the post-season, they’re also tied with the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference standings, a single point behind the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks and just two wins and five points behind the league-leading Blues. And although stars such as Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O’Reilly have been instrumental in that success, I’m here today to pay respect to the man I believe is the key force behind Colorado’s stunning turnaround from the worst team in its conference in 2013-14 to one of the league’s most dangerous.
That would be head coach Patrick Roy, who is the clear frontrunner to win the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best bench boss. You can make an argument that any one of Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper, Anaheim’s Bruce Boudreau and St. Louis’ Ken Hitchcock are deserving of recognition, but Roy still stands out as the cream of the crop.
The Hockey Hall-of-Famer has been better in his rookie NHL coaching season than anyone could have imagined. His legendary competitive fire hasn’t singed or stunted the growth of any of the Avalanche’s young players. In a league where special teams can make or break a franchise’s ability to win, Roy has found a way to scratch and claw out victories despite not having a power play or penalty kill ranked in the top 10. He’s made them into as solid a road team (20-9-2) as they are in Denver (22-9-3). And after they stumbled through a tough December in which they went just 5-5-4, the Avs have lost two straight games only once.
You don’t see that type of win/loss about-face just because your youngsters are maturing. You get that with structure, adaptation and confidence. That comes from the coaching staff. In this case, that comes from Roy.
It’s tough to overstate how remarkable Roy has been this year. Icons like him don’t normally make this smooth a transition to the coaching side of the game. Neither do former goaltenders: if he does win the Jack Adams, Roy will be the first ex-NHL netminder to do so. (Jacques Martin was a goalie, but never in hockey’s top league.) And he’ll have done it working with the NHL’s third-lowest payroll.
The Avalanche are to some degree still learning who they are, but under Roy, they’re no longer questioning what they are: a slick, smart squad that can run up the score on an opponent as easily as it can play (and win at) a low-scoring game. Roy has done in six months what his predecessor Joe Sacco couldn’t do in four years. Any way you slice it, that’s impressive.
Roy’s cockiness has and always will rub some people the wrong way. However, it’s rubbed off on the Avs, who are much better for it. And that’s why, if he doesn’t hear his name announced as this year’s Adams Award winner, it will be as big a robbery as the kind he’d routinely make when he was stopping pucks for a living.