Avs Training Camp
Frei column: A line this good? Coach Bednar, don’t mess with it
A NOTE FROM ADRIAN DATER: Welcome, kids, to the first story for this site by Terry Frei. Who is Terry Frei? He’s a guy who started covering sports for a real newspaper when he was still in high school. He was the catcher for Dave Logan on a Wheat Ridge baseball team. He covered the Colorado Rockies, beginning with their second season in Denver. No, not the baseball Rockies, in 1993. The Hockey Rockies, starting in 1977. Terry covered the Rockies when they were coached by…wait for it….Don Cherry.
You can look it up if you don’t believe me.
Terry and I started working together in 1995, at the first Colorado Avalanche game ever played, Oct. 6, 1995, at McNichols Sports Arena. He was working for the Sporting News, and I was a cub reporter at the Denver Post. We became working colleagues about a month later.
So, please welcome my old friend Terry here to the site. We may be old, but we have more insurance than you (that’s a movie reference, a free subscription to the first person who gives the correct answer here in the comments).
I don’t want to revel in nostalgia, though. Terry and I want to have the best possible story on the Avalanche that you can read. That is true in 2021 as much as it was in 1995. So, yeah, get on board here. We may be old, but we can still kick some ass.
And you can put that as a favorite for this season, or whatever.
By Terry Frei
Sitting at a table together and facing the media for the first time since early 2020, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog Thursday spoke on the first day of Avalanche training camp about their line. . . and more.
I asked them about the continuing-to-develop karma with each other and winger Mikko Rantanen. In the next breath through my mandatory mask, I wondered out loud if anyone is ever going to come up with a catchy name for the trio.
(More on that in a minute…and it has to do with 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.)
“Yeah, we’ve been together for four or five years now,” MacKinnon said. “Even today, the first day back, there’s no rust. The chemistry’s there. It’s easy reading off each other. It’s a lot of fun. We’re lucky that we have that. A lot of players on teams kind of have to go through that process. It’s easy for us.”
Landeskog seconded that.
“Picking back up with what Nate said, obviously we know each other really well now,” Landeskog said. “We continue to build off each other on the ice and we’re all kind of similar in age and we complement each other. We’re three guys who play a little bit different, all three of us.”
That chemistry is so proven and productive, one of coach Jared Bednar’s major challenges is to avoid messing with it — as he has been prone to do just enough in recent seasons to be aggravating.
When all three are healthy, put Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen together from the first puck drop … and leave them together.
For the sake of “balance” or even when he believed the line’s work ethic has fallen off on a given night, Bednar most has often has slid Landeskog down a line for a change or pace.
If the Avalanche is going to break through after three consecutive second-round playoff eliminations, it’s to a major extent going to be riding the Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen line.
Challenge them to more often be called the best line in the game.
Hope that they draw comparisons to great and complementary linemates of dynastic teams of yore — whether the Islanders’ Clark Gillies-Bryan Trottier-Mike Bossy or the Oilers’ Jari Kurri-Wayne Gretzky-Dave Semenko … or more.
Demand and expect greatness from them.
Resist the urge to tinker.
This franchise has a glorious past, yet is at times haunted by the perception — within and outside the organization — that it should have won the Stanley Cup more than twice from 1996-2002. Joe Sakic himself last year told me, “It’s like we left a couple on the table.”
The difference now is that the Avs have not advanced to the conference or Stanley Cup Finals in this era, so it’s not been as tantalizing or frustrating. But there’s also no denying that this so often seemed to be a shrewdly constructed Cup contender on the verge of a breakthrough — and another parade or two in downtown Denver.
I’ll not go along with the idea that the window of opportunity is closing — not yet — but the pre-eminent strength of this team is the top line. So don’t dilute that strength by separating it, even temporarily.
On Thursday, I asked Bednar ro what degree the top line has to carry this team and whether he was counting on that more and more this season.
“No, I wouldn’t say more and more,” Bednar said. “With opportunity comes responsibility. The more you play, the more situations you play in, the more you’re counted on. We’ve relied on those guys for years now, even as we added depth scoring last couple of years and we’ve had other guys step up and do their thing. I don’t think it changes.”
I asked if breaking up the top line still is an option. Or is he going to ride with it?
“I like to do both, to be honest with you,” he said. “I really like what Landy provides to that line, but I also like what he is able to give ‘Naz’ (Nazem Kadri), for instance, in support. I think it helps Naz and one other linemate a lot there.”
Avoid that temptation.
Now for a name for the top line.
That’s been batted around for the past few seasons, and nothing has stuck. But with veteran defenseman Erik Johnson in the process of trying to come back from the injury that limited him to four games last season, he provides the answer as a horseman, not a hockey player.
MacKinnon and Landeskog?
They weren’t just linemates opening training camp at Family Sports Thursday. They also were thoroughbred racehorses co-owned by Johnson’s ERJ Racing.
Mackinnon (no capital K), a 2-year-old son of American Pharoah, recently won the Del Mar Juvenile Turf Stakes and has two firsts, a second and $117,860 in earnings in only four career starts.
Landeskog is a 5-year-old gelding that had three firsts, two seconds and $216,340 in earnings in his eight starts before he was retired in May. (Now there’s a clickbait headline we resisted: “LANDESKOG RETIRES.”)
Call MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen “The Thoroughbred Line.”
FRIDAY UPDATE: Erik Johnson met with the media after Friday morning’s training camp session at Family Sports, and I was able to ask him about Mackinnon and Landeskog — the horses, not his teammates. I brought up that after his eye-popping 2-year-old campaign, Mackinnon seems a legit threat in next year’s Triple Crown races.
“I have a couple here and there over the last few years,” Johnson said. “I kind of have fun with the guys. It’s just kind of fun to get them involved. I don’t know about Triple Crown for Mackinnon, but he’s a pretty good one.”
I’ve written about Johnson and his horse-racing interests several times over the years, but not since he became a partner in the ownership of the son of American Pharoah.
Bloodstock agent Dennis O’Neill, the brother of renowned trainer Doug O’Neill, is involved in picking out horses for Johnson and other partners. Doug O’Neill is Mackinnon’s trainer of record, and Dave Kenney is the other co-owner, joining ERJ Racing.
“There’s a lot of different things that behind the scenes that the average person doesn’t know,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of different auctions, and I acquired him at an auction with some friends. They come unnamed and then you name them and the rest is history.”
Terry Frei (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html