Now that the Avalanche has made it through the (dreaded) second round, finishing off the Blues in Game 6 Friday night at St. Louis, we also can put to rest the storyline that Jared Bednar’s job is on the line.
Perhaps it never really was, not even in the early stages of the postseason, given Joe Sakic’s track record of patience and support for the coach he hired after Patrick Roy’s shocking bailout in 2016.
But there’s absolutely no question about it now.
The Avalanche rebounded in Game 6 after blowing the 3-0 lead in the potentially closeout Game 5 and losing 5-4 in overtime.
Affixing blame for that one is unimportant now as long as the Avalanche demonstrate moving forward that they won’t let it happen again, whether against Edmonton in the Western Conference Finals or beyond.
But I’ll say this: While the coaching staff should have forcefully acted to get the Avalanche out of downshifting into a lower gear in Game 5, this team scored 5 or more goals in nearly a third of its regular season games. Is that an indication that the Avs habitually went into that “prevent” mode?
“Game 5, we were having a great game,” Bednar said after the win in St. Louis. “We kind of stopped playing to our identity in the last 12 or 13 minutes. It cost us. That one stung because I know how bad our guys want it. That was frustrating. It was depressing. You have 48 hours to get ready to go again. That’s why we had that meeting and made sure that our guys were in the right head space. We’re an attacking team. We have to stay on the attack. As soon as we start sitting back and playing safe, for us safe is death.
“I thought from the drop of the puck tonight, we were ready to go.”
Bednar’s reaction to unlikely hero Darren Helm’s game-winning goal with only 5.6 seconds remaining?
“I’m watching it happen,” he said. “I want us to keep playing. I don’t even know exactly where the clock is at. I have a good feeling. The time’s ticking down. When I saw that puck pop out to that side of the ice. I looked over and saw ‘Helms’ coming downhill on it. I was just saying to myself, ‘Just shoot it, shoot it.’
“I didn’t even know how much time was left and after I saw the net bulge I looked up and saw the time. Our bench is already celebrating, so I was kind of last to the party there.”
Cake and ice cream for all.
Sakic signed Bednar to a two-year extension in November, and that takes him through 2023-24. Yet as I’ve noted many times over the years that I’ve covered the NHL, contractual commitments don’t prevent teams from treating coaches like cheap disposable razors. Coaching veterans generally are tossed into the recycling bin, of course, but they’re rarely secure.
Now, after six years on the job, the Avalanche coach is third in NHL head-coaching tenure, behind only Jon Cooper of two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay — the Lightning will face the Hurricanes or Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals — and Mike Sullivan of Pittsburgh.
Bednar’s unlikely underdog story likely will be discovered and retold as the Final 4 continues — when we’re not asking about the second assist on the second goal. I’ve told it as far back as when he was entering his first training camp as Roy’s successor. He has climbed through the ranks as a hard-nosed, have-teammates’-backs defenseman, mostly in the ECHL; to assistant and then head coach in the ECHL; to AHL assistant and AHL head coach; and then to Colorado. He never played or coached in the NHL before Sakic took a shot on him. (The shot was not a wicked wrister.)
Bednar has been a finalist for the Jack Adams Award once — in 2018, when Gerard Gallant, then with the Golden Knights, was the deserving winner in Vegas’ inaugural season.
The award is designated to go to the NHL coach “adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.” And a point of order: While the Professional Hockey Writers Association votes on most of the awards, the voters for the Jack Adams Award are the members of the NHL Broadcasters Association.
In other words, don’t blame us.
This season’s three finalists — the top three vote-getters — are Gallant, now with the Rangers; Andrew Brunette, the ex-Avalanche forward who became the Panthers’ interim coach when Joel Quenneville resigned and was effectively suspended when Florida was 7-0 early in the season; and the sage Darryl Sutter of the Flames.
Nope, no Bednar. He should have been there.
The Avs had 119 points, barely avoiding the kiss-of-death Presidents’ Trophy (I’m kidding … kind of.) It’s as if the perception was anyone from the recycling bin could have this team where it was, at least in the regular season.
Votes on all the awards must be in before the starting time for the first playoff game. The Jack Adams winner will be announced Thursday. That’s the day of Game 2 in the Western Conference finals.
That day, Bednar will have more important concerns than the Adams snub.
After the win in St. Louis, he was asked about his own emotions. He mostly redirected the question.
“Honestly, I don’t really think about it, for my career,” he said. “I know how much our players want it. I can tell. I’ve been with a lot of these guys for six years and some of them were here before me. I’ve had discussions with them, even the new guys we brought in, trying to win. It’s hard. It’s really hard. We’re down in the final 8, now final 4 teams, and everyone just thinks like, ‘Colorado’s got a good team, they should win the Cup.’
“Well, there’s a lot of good teams in the league and every team presents a different challenge. I still look at it like, I’m really happy … the guys take a breath, and we get even better. We’ll have to. We’re only halfway to our goal. That’s the way I look at it. There’s only one winner. We want it to be us. . . I’m happy, I’m proud of our guys, I’m proud of our season to this point, but we’re just starting the work.”
If the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup, Bednar might bank reputational points for future Adams voting — and in general, when the challenge is to list the NHL’s top coaches.
In closing: This is an intriguing coaching matchup. Oilers’ head coach Jay Woodcroft also never played in the NHL. His pro playing career was at the second-tier minor-league level, in the ECHL, UHL and WCHL. The difference is that he was a long-time NHL assistant before returning to the AHL as coach of the Oilers’ affiliate, the Bakersfield Condors.
Both coaches in this upcoming series paid their dues.
Terry Frei (email@example.com, @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sportswriter 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 website is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here