It seems like just yester-month that the Colorado Avalanche’s woebegone penalty kill was the team’s lone Achilles heel.
Well, that and a surfeit of too-many-men penalties.
But here we are. The team appears to have truly turned the corner on the throes of the man disadvantage, and it comes just in time as the playoffs are nearing closer every day.
Despite losing to the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday, the Avalanche managed to keep the puck out of the net while shorthanded yet again. Which means the Avs have now locked down 19 consecutive penalty kill scenarios spanning the previous six contests—a feat that’s both impressive given how this season started and simultaneously unsurprising given the unprecedented way this team is playing.
The stretch is sure to come to an end now that those words have been written and your attention has been piqued… but Colorado’s PK success is due to the systematic change that Jared Bednar somewhat recently made, one not easily adopted initially by Colorado’s newest players.
“The systems that they run here are a lot different than what we were running in Anaheim, and it’s tough. I was explaining today, it’s tough because you have these kinds of habits, right?” Josh Manson said following his first full practice in Colorado. “If you get tired or anything happens, your mind just takes you on the ice and you just end up being in the position because you know the system so well.”
“So as I’m learning everything, I got to think through everything. And it’s just taken me a half step or whatever it is to catch up. So I’m going to keep working on it every day and trying to figure it out, but just getting comfortable knowing where your support is, knowing where your automatics are [is important].”
Manson’s comments were echoed by fellow addition Nico Sturm, as well.
“The PK is very different, for example, than how we played in Minny, but everybody’s been extremely helpful—coaches, teammates,” Sturm said prior to facing the Edmonton Oilers. “I think other than PK, it was pretty similar. A lot of systems were pretty similar, and I like the pace of the game a lot.”
Although both players have at times succeeded and struggled in their limited debuts with the Avalanche, their challenges with complete synergy are not a surprise to Bednar. He expected as much knowing full well how different his systems can be.
“They played in the system exactly like we were playing for the last four and a half years, you know,” Bednar said. “A heavy push down and flush, and now we’re in a diamond. So yeah, it’s different.”
So how unorthodox of a penalty kill scheme could the Avalanche be implementing? I’m glad you asked, because I went to the source to find the answer. Turns out, it’s vastly different than the usual turnkey, plug-and-play box that most teams use.
“It took us a while, even with our group,” said Bednar. “You don’t want to sit in there for an hour showing video. You give them a 15-minute version of it and turn them loose, and then things [change]. Teams do things differently that you haven’t seen before to try and break your diamond, [things] that you wouldn’t have seen against the flush.”
“I liked it right away, and then teams started to find ways to sort of pick it apart, and we had to make some adjustments, and it’s worked for us, how we handle this situation or that situation. So now those [new] guys have to get into that mode, as well.”
The fact that it wasn’t easy for the rest of the team to figure out makes sense, as that particular special teams group continued to leak goals after Bednar revealed the change. And after playing a traditional four-man box for who knows how much of their lives, Manson, Sturm, Andrew Cogliano, and perhaps even Artturi Lehkonen are going to have similar growing pains before the plan becomes automatic, second-nature type stuff for them.
“Somewhere around that 10-game mark, I feel like it all started to come together for us. We started to sort of move it in the right direction as a whole,” Bednar said. “I would say I was feeling real comfortable with it early. Then teams started breaking it down. We went through a little bit of a dip, and now we’ve kind of cured some of those issues that we were having and found ways to defend them and work through them.”
“They’ve been good defenders where they’ve been. They’ve been committed guys, and they take a lot of pride in that side. That’s why we got them, right? To help shore up our defending and make us tougher to play against and sort of eliminate or minimize the chances that we’re giving up.”
For the most part, the Mansons and Sturms and Coglianos have played well for Colorado since their additions. We’ve yet to see Lehkonen, but he looks to feature both on the power play and on the penalty kill, as needed.
However, there’s always a question about whether this sort of intermediate roster reconstruction will do more good than harm for a team that seemingly had few deficiencies prior to the moves. Certainly, the immediate point was depth needs, and that’s already paying off with the injury to defenseman Ryan Murray and the question mark that’s Bo Byram’s status.
“He just needs to chip it out, up and out of the zone. He’s getting closed off on the wall. I think he tries to slip it into the middle of the ice,” Bednar said of the play. “But he’s coming onto a puck under pressure on the half wall. That could be something that’s new to him, but for us we’re getting ready to leave the zone, and it’s his job to get it up and out of the zone outside the blue line and we can skate onto it.”
It seems more likely that Manson will quickly figure it out than be a liability moving forward, and if he and the others can figure things out by April 29th’s season finale, this squad could be poised to storm through the postseason.
“I feel like the bottom six and our depth is much more improved, and to go through a two-month playoff run you need depth. And we feel like we’ve addressed what we needed to address,” general manager Joe Sakic said following the trade deadline. “We wanted to get tougher to play against. After that series [last year against Vegas], that was one thing that we felt we could do a better job of, and hopefully we addressed that this year.”
Time will tell if that’s the case.