If it weren’t for Gerard Gallant and the incredible story his Vegas Golden Knights are writing, you might be hearing more about Jared Bednar in mid-season Jack Adams Award discussions.
The Colorado Avalanche coach has been leading his team back from the abyss, having finished with a league-worst 48 points in 2016-17 – the lowest of any team since the expansion Atlanta Thrashers. After Colorado returns from its bye week, the first point it gets will equal its total from all of last season.
“The biggest thing without a doubt is our players’ attitudes and their drive and the leadership they’ve brought this year,” Bednar said on Hockey Central at Noon Tuesday. “There’s a real desire to turn this thing around. I think the hunger all our guys came back with this year, with that something-to-prove attitude has been great. They’ve been consistent with it over the course of the first half of the season … last year stunk for us and I think the players have really taken it to heart.”
Don’t look now, but the Avs head into their league-mandated break with a hold on the second wild-card spot in the West and games in hand of most of the teams around them. A lot has changed within this team since we wrote about “the disaster in Colorado” almost exactly a year ago to the day.
The biggest difference has to be the top line of Nathan MacKinnon with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, which is blowing up and announcing itself as one of the top trios in the league. Since Nov. 1, MacKinnon leads all NHL scorers and, overall, he sits second, just seven points behind Nikita Kucherov for the league lead.
“There’s a slight changing of the guard,” Bednar noted. “MacKinnon is an up-and-comer and has been here for a little while. Sort of a passing of the torch now to Mac, he’s known as the offensive leader on our team. His power-play unit starts every time, it’s his line that’s expected to go out and be difference makers in most offensive situations. They’ve really embraced that and the team has really embraced it.
“We lean on those guys heavily in those situations. We have other guys stepping up in defensive roles and providing secondary scoring. The overall chemistry of our group certainly improved.”
The second-biggest change? What was the ninth-oldest team in the NHL last season with players such as Jarome Iginla, Francois Beauchemin and Rene Bourque driving up the average age while driving down quality of play, has become the second-youngest. Alexander Kerfoot has 10 goals and is tied for sixth in the rookie-scoring race. Tyson Jost, the 10th-overall pick in 2016, has added speed and power-play capability. Samuel Girard, 19, was acquired in the Duchene trade and though he was still eligible to play for Canada at the world juniors, he instead is averaging 17:14 a night and playing a huge role on the Avs.
There is more on the way, too, and in their biggest position of need: defence. Cale Makar and Conor Timmins were two of the best blueliners for Canada at the WJC, plus the Avs hold Ottawa’s first-rounder this season. And though it is top-10 protected for 2018, Colorado will acquire it no matter where Ottawa finishes if it gets pushed to 2019.
The unheralded star of this turnaround is what’s become Colorado’s checking line: Carl Soderberg with Blake Comeau and Matt Nieto. The trio are excelling on the penalty kill and are the biggest reason why the Avs have gone from the second-worst PK in 2016-17, to third-best this season.
“They’ve been together from Day 1 (of) training camp, didn’t have great years for us last year as veteran guys and they’ve really stepped up,” Bednar said. “Huge part of our penalty killing, lots of D-zone starts, they usually have a tough matchup every night against other teams’ top players. Sometimes that gives the MacKinnon line breathing room.
“In the defensive roles they’re in they’ve really helped us give our less-experienced guys some beneficial matchups and put them in areas to succeed.”
The Avs have been hot of late, but that has come with a very team-friendly nine home games in their past 11. With a 7-9-2 record away from Pepsi Center this season, it’s a long road between the Avs of today and a playoff spot in April, but to this point in the season they’re going strong.
If not for Vegas, the Avalanche would be the best NHL story at the halfway mark.