“Sure, there’s always next year. It’s all we talk about, I feel like.”
A defeated—and deflated—Nathan MacKinnon, slumping behind the microphone, took to the podium following the Avs Game 6, series-losing loss to the Vegas Golden Knights.
“I’m going into my ninth year and I haven’t won shit,” he said, clearly exasperated and exhausted—more so emotionally than physically.
It’s been nine years for MacKinnon. It’s been 20 years for the city.
But this year was supposed to be different, though. Colorado had been the Stanley Cup favorites for the better part of the last six months. This was supposed to be the best roster the Avalanche has had since ‘01. This was supposed to be the year. They proved it in the regular season. They faltered when it mattered most.
“I thought we fought real hard and battled and played our asses off,” Avs captain Gabe Landeskog said, as the sounds of the Vegas Golden Knights locker room celebration echoed through the halls of T-Mobile Arena and through the speakers of the post-game Zoom conference.
“I’m real proud of that group in there. I’m proud of the season we had. You’re never gonna be satisfied until you win that final game of the season. It sucks.”
Indeed it does, and for the third straight year, there won’t be a party at Civic Center Park. Instead, the Avs find themselves hitting the links and checking into their summer homes earlier than they’d like. Sans Stanley Cup.
We can try and look at all of the positives all we want. Sure, there’s been steady progress since that atrocious 2016-17 season. The following year, the Avs shocked the world and snuck into the postseason. That was a big moral victory. It was a turning of the tide.
In ‘18-’19, they fought to the second round, improving over their past season.
Last year, in the Edmonton bubble, they fought back from a 3-1 deficit against Dallas and were minutes away from punching their ticket to the Western Conference Final, despite playing two-thirds of a healthy roster and relying on a third-string goalie. We can cut ‘em some slack on that, though it was disappointing nonetheless.
This year, well, there really are no excuses.
The fact is, the Avalanche failed. They still haven’t made it out of the second round since 2002.
What more can the Avs do?
That’s a question that’s pretty hard to answer, whether you’re MacKinnon or Landeskog, or fifth-year head coach Jared Bednar, or general manager Joe Sakic.
Still, it’s a question that needs to be answered, and it needs to be answered quickly.
The window’s been wide open for the past three seasons. It still could be open for another year or two. Maybe more. But with so many large contracts expected to get doled out between captain Gabe Landeskog, your Calder Trophy-winner and Norris finalist Cale Makar, and your Vezina Finalist Philipp Grubauer, Sakic will likely be hamstrung by cap space moving forward.
The Avs will have to get younger and play their entry-level, cheap-contract guys next season, while parting ways with some veteran leadership, like Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Matt Calvert, and potentially Erik Johnson and Brandon Saad. Indeed, the Avs will be young next season. And with youth comes inexperience, and inexperience is what has been the insurmountable hump in the postseason for Colorado.
Do you point at leadership as the issue? Can Jared Bednar lead this Avalanche team to Cup glory? “I’m confident I can guide this team. I’m dedicated to this team,” he said after the Game-6 loss. Others, however, are not so sure he’s the man for the job.
The easy way out is to blame the coach and the staff, and, hey, maybe that is the problem. But blame almost never rests squarely on the shoulders of one member of the team, whether it’s the coach or the captain or the general manager. That’s not what the definition of a team is.
This is an organizational issue. We can point fingers at the coach and his inability to make the proper adjustments. We can question Joe Sakic on his trade-deadline minimalistic moves, both of which severely underperformed in the postseason. We can blame the team’s stars and leadership, like Nathan MacKinnon, who couldn’t seem to breakthrough against Vegas.
You can’t fire the whole team. So, do you can fire the coach, who has one year remaining on his contract? You can shake things up in any number of ways. In what ways is that? I don’t know, and I’m glad I’m not the one calling those shots.
I can tell you, from my perspective, there’s an issue with toughness, both mental and physical. The Avs aren’t built like a playoff team, and they don’t have the confidence to be a playoff team that makes it the distance. When the going gets tough, they can’t rise to the occasion. Vegas, on the other hand, got molly-wopped in Game 1 and got a game stolen from them in Game 2 to go down in an 0-2 hole, and ufabet had the series over. But they made the mental adjustments necessary to rise to the occasion, though.
The Avs don’t quite have that. At least not yet.
Maybe coach Bednar has taken this team as far as he can. The Avs stoic bench boss forged an identity and a culture that has irrefutably worked on his players…to a certain degree. But maybe that culture and way of thinking just isn’t ideal for playoff hockey. Maybe a new head coach, someone like Gerard Gallant or a John Tortorella or a Bruce Boudreau, could instill some toughness and grittiness on the soft-around-the-edges Avalanche team. I don’t know.
I would be willing to give Jared Bednar the final season of his contract, banking on him coaching the hell out of his team while he’s in a contract year. But I’m also willing to hear out arguments that he’s taken this team as far as he can. It’s a fair point. Will Joe Sakic be having a serious conversation with coach Bednar in the coming days? Absolutely.
The whole team will be having some serious conversations. Start with the man in the mirror.
Go back to the drawing board.
It’s all you can do now.
And, remember, there’s always next year.