Playoffs or not, Avalanche still have a long way to go

Mikkel Boedker scored the shootout winner as the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Calgary Flames.

The Colorado Avalanche have always been a puzzling project. As in, when does success finally take in Denver, where the Avs are just another cautionary tale on how it is so easy to say, “We’re going to rebuild!”

Yet, the day when you are able to declare, “The rebuild is done!” is a distant, infinite date that sometimes never arrives. (See Edmonton, Toronto, Buffalo, Columbus.)

In 2011, the Avalanche drafted Gabriel Landeskog with the No. 2 pick overall. (They also picked defenceman Duncan Siemens at No. 11.) Two years later, Colorado was at the podium selecting Nathan MacKinnon with the first overall selection.

Last spring they were picking 10th overall again, after missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. There is talent here, and a management team of general manager Joe Sakic and head coach Patrick Roy that is neither experienced nor interesting in being an also-ran.

And, at the moment, the Avalanche are looking ready to reward their fans with a wildcard spot out west. Sure, it will come with a first round matchup against the regular season conference champ, but that’s better than packing up your gear for another long summer, right?

“You can’t just keep missing the playoffs. You’re just taking steps backwards,” centre Matt Duchene told Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla this week.

Duchene, who is out with a knee injury, gets it. He’s seen teams get mired in perpetual rebuilds that start again with a new GM, then regroup when a new coach comes in… Ostensibly, a train that never finds the station.

The Avalanche have evolved much like the Edmonton Oilers, successfully loading up on some skilled forwards but mostly missing on the back end. In his third year pro, Siemens has one NHL game so far. Meanwhile, since 2010, Colorado hasn’t helped itself much with its drafting below the first round.

Toss in the fact that they now reside in hockey’s toughest division after moving over to the Central from the old Northwest Division, and the Avalanche are looking to find some permanent traction with a post-season berth this spring.

“We have to make it this year. And whether we win (the Stanley Cup) this year or not, it’s going to push us forward going forward,” Duchene said. “If we don’t make it, it’s a step backwards. There’s that old saying: You either getting better or you’re getting worse. (But) you’re never staying the same. And that’s so true in hockey.”

The Avalanche will play the ol’ NHL injury game with Duchene down the stretch, calling him “day-to-day” since hurting his knee in Vancouver on Wednesday. He didn’t play Friday in Calgary and isn’t expected to go tonight in Edmonton, where backup Calvin Pickard was scheduled to start in goal.

But the Avs are on a nice little run here, at the perfect time to make some separation between themselves and Minnesota. The Wild are the only other team with a playoff shot out west where only nine of 16 teams still hold realistic post-season expectations. Colorado won 3-1 at Vancouver Wednesday, took a shootout win 4-3 at Calgary Friday, and roll into Edmonton for a Sunday nighter having won four of their last five to build a three-point cushion on Minnesota heading into the Wild’s game against Carolina Saturday. (The Wild won in a shootout to stay in the playoff hunt.)

“I know how it feels when you’re chasing other teams and you have to watch,” Avs veteran Jarome Iginla told the Calgary media Friday. “You’ll notice the three-point games and the overtime losses, but it’s nice to just focus on ourselves and just have to win our share.”

Whether or not the Avalanche get a foothold this spring, there’s still a ton of work left before anyone looks at Roy’s team as a Cup contender. The Avs are not what you’d call a big group, and if you don’t have size in the west, you’d better have the pedigree that Chicago has — which the Avalanche do not.

Tyson Barrie has evolved into a very productive power-play quarterback and offensive leader, honing in on his second consecutive 50-point season. But Roy has an almost 36-year-old Francois Beauchemin playing more than 25 minutes per night this season — that's tops on the Avalanche and a sign that Roy doesn’t trust the rest of his D-corps to get the job done.

In goal, Colorado is married to Semyon Varlamov, with three years left on his contract at $5.9 million per. Is he good enough?

Until the defence in front of Varlamov gets stronger, the jury will remain out on whether the big Russian is enough goaltender to bet this project to its planned destination.