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The Colorado Avalanche Aren’t Afraid of Expectations

Colorado comes into the 2021 NHL season as one of the league’s Stanley Cup favorites. But while that pressure might get to some, Nathan MacKinnon and Co. seem ready to face the challenge—and enjoy it along the way.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon has the kind of physique that looks less like it was carved out of granite, and more like it was built out of Lego. His large and blocky body cuts angles against the ice that seem biomechanically engineered to create both stability and speed. You can’t knock the guy off the puck because his center of gravity is so low and so wide, but also because while you were momentarily contemplating that visceral math, he just blew past you without visibly moving his stick or his skates.

As a kid growing up in Nova Scotia, MacKinnon “was the same player that he is now—he dominated,” said his Colorado teammate Ryan Graves, who crossed paths with MacKinnon on the youth hockey circuit, in a Zoom press conference. “He was the best player for his age, and even for the age above him,” and was constantly compared to another sturdy star player from Halifax: Sidney Crosby.

Now, at 25 years old, MacKinnon is still probably the best player for his age and the age above him. He has scored at least 93 points in each of his past three seasons, including last year when he recorded 35 goals and 58 assists in 69 games. He’s also been the perfect cornerstone for this franchise to build around: He has three years left on a supremely cap-friendly $6.3 million annual deal. (In comparison, his electric linemate Mikko Rantanen, who inked a six-year deal with Colorado before last season, has a yearly cap hit of $9.25 million.) Jared Bednar, MacKinnon’s coach, seemed almost amused during training camp when he told the media that, on top of all of this, MacKinnon is one hell of a defensive player, too. (And he logs more ice time than most Colorado defensemen.)

Over the years, MacKinnon—who was drafted first overall by the Avalanche in 2013—has gotten a few nods for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league’s most valuable player. But if you ask his teammate and Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog, a few nods aren’t nearly enough. “Nate’s the MVP in my mind,” Landeskog said, speaking with reporters via Zoom last week following a skate. “And he has been for the last three years, and that’s all I’ve got to say.”

The respect is mutual: A few days earlier, in a media appearance of his own, MacKinnon sang Landeskog’s praises, too, calling the 28-year-old winger “the perfect captain.” Together, Landeskog—who was just 19 when he was named captain of what was then a rudderless, overlooked Avalanche franchise—and MacKinnon are two of the longest-tenured Avs. (Only the currently-injured defenseman Erik Johnson, who was traded to Colorado in 2011, has clocked more time.) They are also each a big part of why this year’s squad is widely considered to be one of the top Cup contenders in the league.

Coming off an injury-ridden seven-game second-round loss to the Dallas Stars in last year’s quarantined playoff bubble, the Avalanche have scores to settle and progress to make. “Our expectation is to win a Cup,” MacKinnon told the media last week, superstitions be damned. “Not just to claw and scrape our way into the playoffs.” Even if he doesn’t put it this way, MacKinnon is essentially expecting his team to achieve its grandest, coolest goals—but also to keep the same brio he’s always had when he scores ’em.

On Tuesday, one day before Colorado was scheduled to open its season against the St. Louis Blues, Avalanche GM Joe Sakic spoke with the media about a topic that’s been on everyone’s minds: high expectations. “Well, expectations kept growing and growing over the last couple of years,” Sakic said. “We are at the point where I like hearing from our players and our coaching staff: We expect to compete for the Stanley Cup at the end of the year. We want to hoist that over our heads.”

Sakic was 23 when he was named captain of the 1992-93 Quebec Nordiques and 25 when the franchise relocated to Colorado. By age 32, he had led the Avalanche to two Stanley Cups—the second of which he immediately and iconically handed to the people’s champ, Ray Bourque—and won Olympic gold with Canada. Devon Toews, an underrated 26-year-old defenseman who was acquired by Colorado in the offseason and will likely be paired with reigning NHL rookie of the year Cale Makar, would drive through Sakic’s hometown as a kid and recalled, with a big smile, how everyone there referred to the legend as “Burnaby Joe.” Sakic was 40 when the Avs retired his jersey, and 42 when he made the Hall of Fame (in the first year he was eligible). Now, at age 51, he’s been the Avalanche’s general manager for eight seasons and has assembled a team that is bold and balanced and deep—and also $1.8 million under the salary cap.

Boosting (and being boosted by) the likes of MacKinnon and Landeskog are players like Rantanen and Andre Burakovsky, a speedy winger who won a Stanley Cup with the Capitals before being traded to the Avalanche prior to last season. Nazem Kadri came to Colorado in 2019 and excelled in his first year away from his old Toronto Maple Leafs. And this offseason, the team also picked up Brandon Saad, a hardscrabble but skilled pest with two Stanley Cups to his name, to provide further veteran offensive depth.

On the blue line, the Avalanche have a sophomore dazzler in Makar who finished with 50 points last season, and a depth chart that includes guys ranging from 22-year-old Sam Girard to 31-year-old Ian Cole. (The team is also pleased with the development of 19-year-old Bowen Byram.) Ill-timed injuries to the team’s pair of goalies—Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz—helped torpedo the Avalanche’s playoff hopes last fall, but both netminders are expected to be ready for a geographically and temporally condensed schedule that will make having a good goalie tandem even more important than it had already become.

Sakic was asked by a reporter on Tuesday how he had responded during his days as a player to the added pressure of being on a team that he knew was brimming with league-best talent. “I think it’s exciting pressure,” Sakic said. “That’s what you want as a player. You want to know you have the ability to try and win the Cup. That’s every player’s ultimate dream.”

The opening months of this NHL season will feel a little bit like the playoffs, with teams sorted into four (corporately-sponsored) geographic-ish divisions that they will exclusively play in during the regular season. This will occasionally involve playing a whole bunch of games in a row against the same team, a new wrinkle for Bednar and the coaching staff to roll with.

Bednar is a former minor league hockey player who mainly spent time with the South Carolina Stingrays in the ’90s; when I asked him what his inner coach would have thought about himself as a player, he responded: “I’d probably be frustrated with my skill level, to be honest with you.” Bednar was a widely respected minor league coach before getting hired by the Avalanche in 2016, and so far his tenure as an NHL head coach has been promising, if not always smooth.

In his first season after being hired to replace a volatile Patrick Roy behind the bench, Bednar didn’t even have enough time to put together his own staff of assistants. His second year was marred early on by a distracting trade request from key player Matt Duchene. Then, after signing a two-year contract extension in the summer of 2019, Bednar faced a pandemic-shortened season, an injury-ridden playoff bubble, and now another unusual year that will include schedule quirks like a showcase outdoor game adjacent to—though, sadly for Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, not on—Lake Tahoe, and an extended series against the Minnesota Wild between January 30 and February 4.

This sort of arrangement represents an opportunity for Bednar and his team to hone their scouting apparatus and their in-game tactics, though of course the flip side is that all their West division opponents—the toughest probably being the Vegas Golden Knights and the St. Louis Blues—will also get repeated cracks at, and insights about, the Avalanche.

But the nice thing about being led by a player like MacKinnon is that all the opposing game plans in the world don’t particularly matter when he’s got the puck on his stick and a skip in his step. The nice thing about having former Cup winners like Burakovsky and Cole is that they’re well aware of the grueling rhythms required for victory. The nice thing about having a captain like Landeskog is that, while he may still be in his 20s, he’s also been in the league long enough to have glimpsed and absorbed a whole lot. “You always expect you’re going to be [in the playoffs] and get a kick at the can every time,” he told ESPN in 2019, “but you realize pretty fast that it’s not like that, that it’s pretty hard making it. It’s not a guarantee. You gotta earn it.” The nice thing about coaching the Colorado Avalanche is that you can have enough faith in your players to say, as Bednar did during training camp: “We want the pressure. We want to be considered one of the favorites.”

But overall, the best thing about the Colorado Avalanche is just being here on earth to get to watch them, whether you’re a casual fan or Burnaby Joe. “It’s great to be on my side,” Sakic told reporters, “and watch these young skill players play at another level. They play at a higher level than we ever did.” Imagine the view from the top.