Wiebe’s World: How Avalanche aim to avoid Stanley Cup hangover

Colorado Avalanche left wing Artturi Lehkonen (62) is congratulated for his goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, in Denver. (Jack Dempsey/AP)

DENVER – If only it were as easy as taking an Advil and chugging a big glass of water or two, maybe getting a little extra rest for good measure.

For many years, coaches, players and front office folks have been looking for the all-encompassing cure for the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover, with varying levels of success to show for it.

When a team plays deep into the spring and completes the arduous journey to reach the top of the proverbial mountain, it comes with a cost, both physical and emotional.

The long spring usually turns into a short summer and after reaching the pinnacle, gearing up for a new 82-game season can sometimes be a challenge.

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After overcoming their own playoff demons by defeating the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in six games last June, the Colorado Avalanche are looking to settle into their own title defence and they’ve charted a clear path as they work to incorporate some new pieces while also looking for internal and external players to fill the void after some key departures in free agency.

“Accountability,” said Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar. “Deep down, our guys that we have locked up, our core guys, they’re not going to rest on their success, nor am I. The success we had last year, we’re all hungry to go do it again. We have a different group here, a lot of new guys, so getting those guys – and getting ourselves back to the same standard we held ourselves to last year as quickly as possible is key.

“Pushing one another, reminding one another what it’s supposed to look like, what is acceptable behaviour, what’s unacceptable behaviour, what is acceptable behaviour, what’s not acceptable when it comes to the performance of our team without letting each other off the hook. That’s how teams get there and win.”

There have been a few hiccups for the Avalanche as they’ve gotten off to a 3-2-1 start, but their foundation for success has been built not just through the title run, but by learning from the disappointments along the way.

“One of the biggest steps our team took last year, as opposed to the previous seasons, is that the players were holding each other accountable more often, in a positive way. That constructive criticism was accepted by members of our team because they knew we wanted to win and that’s where we were going,” said Bednar. “It was going to have to get better and better and we kept trying to push that standard throughout the year and we’re going to try to do it again. It will be up to the players to kind of get into that same mode again, where we’re just pushing to get better and process over results and I believe we can do it with the leadership we have in our room.”

Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog is the driving force behind that leadership group, but he’s going to miss roughly 12 weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last week.

That’s a blow both on and off the ice, but it also provides an opportunity for others to step up, both in terms of on-ice performance and expanding their respective voices in the leadership department.

To enjoy sustained success, the Avalanche realize there are certain things required to maintain that gold standard they’ve worked so hard to establish.

“We just have to control what we can accomplish and that’s to keep the standard the way that it has been the last three or four years and make it even better and play better,” said Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon, who signed an eight-year extension during the off-season that makes him the highest paid player in the NHL next season. “Whether the other team plays great or bad, that’s up to them. We’re just trying to give our best. It’s a long season and the way that we built last year and fine tuned our game, we didn’t judge our game off wins or losses, it’s just (about) how we played. We had a really good resilience to our team last season and we’re going to have to have that again.

“We’re looking to get another one, obviously. But that group that we won with, you’re kind of linked forever now, which is a cool feeling. We’d love to get more though.”

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Veteran forward Andrew Cogliano is a veteran of more than 1,100 NHL games who was acquired prior the NHL trade deadline and it didn’t take him long to see something special was brewing.

“You know what, that’s the ultimate compliment and that’s what drives us. It’s an idea that we want to be the best team,” said Cogliano, asked about the aforementioned gold standard. “Obviously, we won last year and you want that confidence and you want that confidence to be the team that teams want to chase. It’s not about wondering or waiting around or getting caught up in that. When you feel that you’re wanting to feel like you are the best, that’s what should drive you as an athlete and a competitor.

“It’s a very high standard here, from the coaching staff and also from our top players. That’s one thing I’ve noticed coming here in a short amount of time. (Bednar) does an unbelievable job in terms of pushing us and making us the best possible team with the systems, with how we play, with his mindset and to be honest, that drives our players the same way. When you have guys like Nate (MacKinnon) and Cale (Makar) and some of these high-end players pushing that pace every day, it forces other guys to do the same.”

Accountability is a buzzword that gets thrown around often and it’s something all winning teams have in common, but finding a way to ensure those high standards don’t slip can occasionally be a challenge.

“That was something that when I came in last year, that was really evident to me. Winning was the only goal and if you weren’t coming in, you weren’t focusing and you weren’t doing what you needed to do, 100 per cent to win, guys would notice that and they would call you out or whatever it was,” said Avalanche defenceman Josh Manson, another trade-deadline acquisition that decided to stick around. “It created this culture where you didn’t want to slack off because you knew that other people were seeing it. That’s something that we need to maintain this year, being able to watch over guys and call them out if things aren’t going the right way to hold that culture because it’s hard to establish that culture and it’s then it’s even harder to hold that culture.”

Part of being the defending champion is needing to be ready to go every single night because they’ve become the team that all clubs want to see how they measure up against.

“I feel like for us, we know every single night we’re going to be the team to beat. And that’s what makes it more fun for us, in my opinion,” said Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar. “We get everybody’s best games, which in turn should make us a lot better. So it could take some time, but I like that mentality. You’ve got to be the hunter and not the hunted.”

MAKAR HAS COMPANY: Makar won the Norris Trophy last season in a tight vote over Roman Josi and is the favourite to win consecutive awards as the best D-man in the NHL.

But the Central Division has another strong candidate on the blue line with the Dallas Stars, Miro Heiskanen.

Incoming Stars head coach Peter DeBoer has been leaning on Heiskanen – who is averaging 24:25 of ice time per game (19 seconds above his career average) through five games – and given him the green light to push the pace offensively.

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DeBoer understood from afar that Heiskanen was a high-end player, but being around him on a daily basis since taking the job has given him a new appreciation of his dedication to his craft.

“He’s a man of few words. But he’s got a smile on his face. He loves the game, he loves to play the game and I can tell he loves to win,” said DeBoer. “That’s more important than individual accolades or anything else or ice time, which is critical for a star player if you’re going to win as a team. They can’t be about individual stats and it’s really clear with him that he just wants to win.”

Another one of the qualities DeBoer has come to appreciate has nothing to do with Heiskanen’s play away from the puck.

“He’s an elite defender. He’s not the biggest guy or the most physical guy. He defends with his feet and his stick and his head,” said DeBoer. “I knew he was a good two-way defenceman. You can see the offensive pop that he has when he takes the puck and goes, but he’s an elite defender, which is something in a No. 1 defenceman that you really want.”

Over in the Eastern Conference, Buffalo Sabres blue-liner Rasmus Dahlin is also turning heads with an outstanding start that includes scoring a goal in five consecutive games while leading his team with eight points.

Of course, the Norris isn’t simply an award handed out to the top scoring blue-line, but putting up points is a consideration and the first overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft is doing that while continuing to improve his all-around game in his fifth NHL season.

COMRIE SHINES: The Sabres rolled through Alberta and recorded a clean sweep, thanks in part to the outstanding play of goalie Eric Comrie.

Comrie, who signed a two-year deal with the Sabres that carries an AAV of $1.8 million, turned aside 86 of 91 shots he faced in wins against the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames.

After a magical mystery tour that included multiple waiver claims over a two-year period and a trade from the Arizona Coyotes to the Detroit Red Wings, Comrie made it back to the organization that drafted him (the Winnipeg Jets) and established himself as a solid backup last season, as he went 10-5-1 with a 2.58 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 16 starts.

With Connor Hellebuyck firmly established as the No. 1 goalie with the Jets and a workhorse who is tracking to once again play 60-plus games, Comrie was looking for a situation that resembled more of a job share and he’s found that with the Sabres, who also have veteran Craig Anderson in the fold.

A second-round pick in 2015, Comrie is a popular teammate who battled his way through the minors and simply would not be denied.

“You guys all know him as probably the best guy in the entire world,” Jets centre Mark Scheifele said going into the season. “He’s got a great opportunity in Buffalo, they’ve got a great up-and-coming team there, a lot of good prospects, a lot of good players, and an opportunity for him to play a lot of games. I know the motivation he has for the upcoming year.”

The Sabres are one of the early-season surprises, jumping out to a 4-1 record after a victory over the Vancouver Canucks in the penultimate game of their western swing.

BLAST FROM THE PAST: Lots of ink has been spilled this week after the NHL rolled out the latest batch of reverse retro jerseys, but this note isn’t about which ones caught my attention and which ones didn’t measure up.

This is about the accessories only, not the logos, colours or designs.

The Philadelphia Flyers earn a decisive stick tap for the inclusion of the 1980s Cooperalls that will be worn with their reverse retros.

If you’re a hockey player of a certain vintage, you’ve probably worn a pair of two of these during your career, so they’re sure to conjure up a variety of memories.

And if you’re a fan of the Flyers or Hartford Whalers, the sight of those vintage Cooperalls is sure to make you think of one of your favourite players or a magical moment one of those guys produced, perhaps a hockey card you pulled out of an old O-Pee-Chee package or got in a trade with one of your friends that’s stuffed away in a shoe box somewhere.

Here’s a quick suggestion, how about having the road team also rock the Cooperalls in those games where the Flyers are wearing the reverse retros?

If you’ve got an idea for a future column idea or a suggestion about something you’d like to see, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at wiebesworld9@gmail.com.

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