Jared Bednar comes in with an eye towards faster, north-south hockey. Can it get the Avs back into the playoffs? That's the big challenge in the Central.
The Colorado Avalanche have a tough task ahead of them. After two straight years out of the playoffs, the squad is itching to get back into contention, but a reset was obviously needed. That meant Patrick Roy quitting as coach, with AHL champion Jared Bednar coming in to replace him from the Blue Jackets organization.
With so much talent up front, the Avs seem like they should have been better in recent years, but the hope is that Bednar can unlock the magic by pushing the pace, much like Mike Sullivan did with the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins.
“You look at the teams that win these days,” said center Nathan MacKinnon, “Pittsburgh, or Canada internationally – it’s fast hockey with quick puck movement.”
Possessing the puck was a problem under Roy, though the Avs weren’t always ready to admit that. It seems, however, that the problem has now been acknowledged.
“When you’re just chasing it around all game, like we have been the past couple years, you definitely feel that way,” said center Matt Duchene. “Stats aside, it’s tough to stand in the defensive zone – I played wing a lot of the year – and watch it just get buzzed around down low. You (finally) get it out and you get off…that’s tough. That’s not winning hockey.”
Duchene didn’t blame anyone in particular for this deficiency, but this season should provide a pretty good A/B test now that Bednar’s behind the bench. The Avs didn’t make any big moves in the summer, so style and player progression will likely dictate any change in fortune. MacKinnon was awesome at the World Cup for Team North America, while Duchene won gold with Canada twice – once at the World Cup and earlier at the World Championship, where he really got a chance to shine.
“I loved the role I was cast in,” Duchene said. “I got a chance to be an alternate captain, I played penalty-kill, I played power play, I was out there at the end of games – that’s something I’ve wanted to show for a long time and haven’t had the chance. I was very grateful and humbled by the opportunity.”
How Bednar deploys his troops will also be interesting to watch. But it’s also worth remembering that Colorado plays in the deadliest division in the league right now. Every team in the Central has the talent to make the post-season this year, while four teams (Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville) could finish first and not shock anyone. Which is to say that Roy’s time behind the bench can’t be viewed completely as a failure. He did get that one Central banner in his first year, while leaving a lasting impression on his charges.
“When Colorado hired him, it was a big deal for me,” said goalie Semyon Varlamov. “You cannot play bad in front of Patrick. I mean, you can’t play bad in front of any coach, but he sees every mistake and knows if you are ready to play or not. But it was fun. He really helped me improve myself. It was like having two goalie coaches in him and Francois Allaire. I was really lucky.”
Nevertheless, it’s onward and upward now for the Avs. Bednar comes in fresh off a title, helming a Lake Erie Monsters squad that blitzed the competition en route to the Calder Cup. He’s got some great talent to work with in Colorado and the group couldn’t sound hungrier heading into 2016-17.
“With this group, we have to be in a playoff spot for sure,” Varlamov said. “We have a fast, talented team. We have older guys with experience who have won the Stanley Cup, so it was really frustrating that we haven’t made the playoffs the past two years. Hopefully with the new coach and system we’re going to do better as a team, make the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup.”
The oddsmakers may not be on board, but the Avs have surprised in the past and the Central is a saloon fight – so who knows?