When I asked Colorado Hockey Now colleague Terry Frei today what I should write my column about, he immediately responded that it should be a comparison between this year’s club and the 2000-01 Stanley Cup champion iteration of the Colorado Avalanche.
Whether facetious or not, Frei’s response came with fortuitous timing because earlier during Friday’s practice, some media members were lucky enough to experience a visit from Eric Lacroix—owner of Lacroix Hockey and partner in Drill House Sports Center, both of which are located in Family Sports Center where the Avs practice (sparsely these days).
I was among them.
Now although Eric, son of revered former player agent turned general manager Pierre, missed out on playing on both of the Avalanche’s Cup-clinching squads, he does have the insight of seven years as a player in the NHL, countless others as a scout for clubs including the Calgary Flames, and as a studio analyst for Vegas Golden Knights broadcasts.
Lacroix happened to mention just how special this team is, but he also said the 00-01 Avs were expected to win, which means there was a certain amount of pressure exerted on the club from outside of the dressing room. You could say the same about the 01-02 version, although they fell disappointingly short.
At the very least, when in comparison with the last Cup-winning roster, this season’s Avalanche have more of an internal expectation of winning than an external one. Sure, the betting world had them pegged as a contender from Day 1—and yes, the fans have that fervor as well—but everything is seemingly different otherwise.
Lest we make a Royal Gorge-sized leap, Erik Johnson’s 13 seasons without winning the greatest chalice in all of sports IS NOT akin to the ‘win for Ray Bourque’ Mission 16W campaign that concluded the latter’s 22-year drought without a title when he was acquired by the burgundy and blue the year before.
However, the emergence of Cale Makar and his humble beginnings as perhaps one of the best defensemen that will have ever played the sport of hockey is a game changer, not unlike the way Bourque improved an almost-there lineup. And maybe the trade deadline-addition of fellow rear guard Josh Manson will prove to be like when the elder Lacroix brought in future Hockey Hall of Famer Rob Blake.
But there’s still plenty of hockey yet to be played, including a series against the St. Louis Blues—JUST LIKE IN 2001!—that is, if head coach Jared Bednar knows what he’s talking about, expected to be much more of a challenge than the first-round no-show Nashville Predators (A FIRST-ROUND SWEEP ALSO LIKE 2001!).
“Tough test,” Bednar said of the matchup. “They’re extremely deep. Numbers show it. One-hundred and nine points. Finished the year 14-2-1, I think. Eight 20 goal guys. Top special teams in the league. All of it. Everything makes it a tough test.”
“They’re tough to play against. They take away all your time and space, and then if you make mistakes and try to push the limits with your puck play and you don’t manage the puck properly, they’ll make you pay. Like I said, eight 20 goal guys, and they’re deep. Top 3 lines scoring every night.”
To be honest, I’m not sure many of the current players even care about the comparisons with past squads. They’re their own men, and they’re capable of accomplishing all or naught without the ghosts of history hanging about.
They’re only focused on what they can control, which is their own game, against a Blues team just three years removed from winning the Stanley Cup—one with Conn Smythe Trophy-winner Ryan O’Reilly still leading the charge.
“You’ve just kind of got to be ready for everything. I mean, obviously, this is going to be a little bit of a different style team,” Manson said. “A little deeper attack upfront, I think, with this skill set. So every ‘D’ pairing is probably going to see every line. I don’t know if there’ll be a hard matchup or what it will be for the top line, but you’re going to have to be ready for all three lines for every ‘D’ pairing.”
Added Bednar: “It’s gonna be a tougher task. Guys are going to have to play. We don’t have any time for guys not to be sharp and be on their game. If they aren’t, we’ll put somebody else in. It’ll change that way because offensively, Nashville had one line. These guys got three minimum. Lots of help from their D-core too.”
Luckily the Avs have more depth than they ever have under Bednar, so replacements are lying in wait for a chance to pounce, should they be needed. In fact, save for a third goalie in Hunter Miska, Colorado hasn’t even really needed anyone to serve in the black aces reserves.
“It’s really good. It’s the deepest we’ve been,” Bednar said. “Most guys we have on the blue line for sure. We got two really good forward sitting out every night up front. So in years past, we were probably thinner and going to guys from the AHL right away, and now we’ve got guys here. So we got some good options.”
With every win, this year’s Avs will cement their place among yesteryear’s Avs, but we won’t know how they truly stack up until the final whistle blows.