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Culture Change: How an attitude adjustment has slowly begun to turn the Colorado Avalanche around

WINNIPEG — Gabriel Landeskog knew. 

A change in the cultural fabric in Colorado is something the Avalanche had talked about for a couple seasons, and something that hadn’t happened.

The warning signs for the 25-year-old captain of the Avs were abundant, including a treasure trove of terrible that attached itself to a historically brutal season in 2016-17.

Like the natural phenomena they’re named after, those problems finally broke free early last season for the Avs. Unable to be controlled, they tore down the Colorado Avalanche, only coming to a halt at the end of the season at rock bottom. 

“You take it pretty personal,” Landeskog said on Saturday in Winnipeg, hours before his team would lose 3-0 to the Winnipeg Jets, a fourth loss in their past five games since winning 10 straight.

It was a far cry from the days of Forsberg, Sakic and Roy, when the team was dominating the Western Conference, not wallowing as the team others trampled over at will.

That winning culture was gone, replaced with mediocrity in recent years and then utter failure after last season.

Nothing looked quite like last year.  

Colorado’s 48 points was a franchise worst. They lost 56 games. They were last or close to last in numerous statistical categories.

“You’re not supposed to take it home with you, but I would,” Landeskog said. “This is our job, this is what we do. It’s something that is hard to put behind you, going home and trying not to think about the fact that you just lost six in a row.”

The Avs needed a core leadership group to emerge to start those changes. Landeskog said himself, Tyson Barrie, Erik Johnson, Nathan MacKinnon and Blake Comeau came together to figure out how to begin to mend their ailing team. 

“It was really embarrassing for us,” Barrie said of the 2016-17 campaign. 

Barrie, along with the now-departed Matt Duchene, led the team with a minus-34. It’s a flawed statistic, sure, but one indicative one what was happening on the ice. Only four players that played some sort of role for the Avalanche were zero or better in that category. 

“It was a bad season and we knew we didn’t want to be back there. It was a long summer for us,” Barrie said.

With a core trying to steer this ship and a coaching staff in the same boat, Barrie said training camp prior to this season was the hardest and toughest he’s taken part in.

“Physical, testing, everything like that,” he said.

Landeskog said the leadership group assembled wasn’t a dictatorship, noting that every team has its core and it was a potential solution to the massive problem. 

“It’s easier said than done,” Landeskog said of changing the team’s attitude. “There were a lot of Xs and Os. We had a young team that maybe didn’t have to be accountable where they came from before. Maybe there was a different attitude. We had to establish one attitude here, and it started with the veteran guys.” 

Both Landeskog and Barrie agreed that there wasn’t a particular switch that was flipped this season. Hard work from training camp didn’t immediately translate as the Avs flirted with .500 in October.

But Landeskog pointed to the trip they took to Sweden as a possible turning point.

The Avs lost both games to the Ottawa Senators — close affairs — and were dealing with the departure of Matt Duchene, who had been traded days before they embarked to Landeskog’s homeland.

“You talk about team building and stuff like that. Some people might not believe in it, but I’m a strong believer in it,” Landeskog said. “That trip brought us a lot closer.”

The on-ice product started to follow suit. The work they had put in since the beginning of the season began to pay off and the Avs rattled off 10 straight wins to climb back into the playoff picture.

“We’re a different team this year,” Barrie said. “I think having some fresh, new faces in here, some guys who were really excited to be in the NHL and be a part of a team like the Avalanche, gave us some energy.”

MacKinnon has put himself in the Hart Trophy conversation with what many believe is his breakout season. A 2-to-4 week suspected shoulder injury has derailed that a little bit, but MacKinnon’s stellar play leading by example has helped the Avs to where they are, just outside the playoff line — something unimaginable at this point last season.

Mikko Rantanen has taken a step forward in his sophomore year and rookie Alexander Kerfoot has been a godsend down the middle, especially now that he’s tasked to help stem the bleeding in MacKinnon’s absence.

“There’s been a lot of turnover,” Barrie said. “You look at guys like (MacKinnon) taking the next step. And we’ve had guys just elevate their play and these young guys come in (who are) so excited to play. They’ve been a big part of our team… it’s really exciting for the future.”

It’s a start, Landeskog said.

“We’re growing together.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Daniel Briere on starting up an ECHL franchise, his future in management (PHT Q&A)

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It didn’t take long for Danny Briere to get back into hockey following his August 2015 retirement. Two months later, he was working for the Philadelphia Flyers learning the ropes of management under the guidance of Paul Holmgren.

That experience prepped him for the next step in his post-playing career: management.

This past summer, Comcast Spectacor, parent company of the Flyers, bought the ECHL’s Alaska Aces, who were ceasing operations, and moved them to Portland and renamed them the Maine Mariners. Briere was named vice president of hockey operations and has been helping the franchise get prepared for its start for the 2018-19 season.

Portland had AHL hockey as recently as two years ago, but the Pirates were sold and moved to Springfield, Mass., which caught many in the community by surprise. Briere and his staff have been working to re-connect with the fanbase. They also now have a head coach after hiring Riley Armstrong. And while the franchise is owned by Comcast Spectacor, the Mariners are not affiliated with the Flyers or any NHL team at the moment.

We recently spoke to Briere about his move into management, what a day in his life looks like now and his future working in hockey.

Enjoy.

Q. How did this opportunity with Mariners come about?

BRIERE: “I always had a good relationship with Paul Holmgren. He’s the one who signed me with the Flyers when I was a free agent back in 2007. After I retired he approached me and gave me the opportunity to get involved on the business side with the Flyers, kind of learning a different facet of the organization that I didn’t know much or anything about. It’s been amazing. It’s really gotten me out of my comfort zone. At first, I was completely clueless to what was going on around me, but they have amazing people in the office that have helped me learn the business side and feeling more and more comfortable every day. It’s been a fun challenge; very uncomfortable at times, but that all started with Paul Holmgren bringing me aboard and giving me the chance to learn first-hand how it works behind closed doors.”

What are your duties now and will they change once the franchise is up and running next fall?

“I followed Paul around for a couple of years, along with [Flyers Chief Operating Officer, Alternate Governor] Shawn Tilger, they’ve been great at integrating me on the business side. When this opportunity came and Comcast Spectacor, who owns the Flyers, bought this ECHL franchise, Paul and Shawn approached me about running the business side of the hockey department for that franchise. I thought it was a great opportunity for me to get my toes wet a little bit, to learn first-hand and really move forward to make my own decisions a little bit. It’s not just about following and seeing how things work, but now I have a little bit more of a say and I have to make decisions. It’s been great. I don’t know moving forward what the deal will be. I’m just kind of running with this at this point and trying to make the best of it and trying to enjoy it as much as I can.”

Run me through a typical day for you as you’re getting things up and running?

“It’s checking in with the people up in Maine at this point. Because we don’t have a hockey team going, it’s mostly building the front office, checking in with [vice president of business development] Adam Goldberg up there, making sure everything is working right, that he has all the tools to function. It’s trying to get our name out in the community in Portland, letting people know that we have the team coming back, trying to get people back on board. And also some stuff on the hockey department, especially here in the second half looking at hockey games, trying to find players that might be enticing to add to our group and to bring to Portland for next year.

“I think it’s a job that evolved because we’re starting from scratch. You’re building a front office, now we’re going to start building the hockey side and then we have to put the team together before we start playing. There’s different stages and we’re moving towards every stage so far without too many problems. It’s been good. It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s a role that evolves as we moved forward.”

Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do after playing?

“No, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’ve always liked the finance field. It’s something that I was always drawn into from an early age. But I also had no clue how much involvement it entailed [working in an] organization, how much work needed to be done on the business side. When I played I was worried about meetings on the teams I was going to face, on the power play we were going to bring up that night, the goalies I was going to face, the defensemen. So I had no idea how many people it needed, how much work needed to be done to get a game ready, to get people in the stands, to get advertising for a franchise to function. It’s been really cool to see a different side of hockey that I didn’t know much about.”

Do you see this as a first step into NHL management someday?

“Honestly, I hope so, but at this point I’m not looking too much forward. I want to enjoy what’s going on now. I’m having a blast, I’m having fun with this. I’m trying to soak it all in as much as I can to get some experience. It’s not very often that you have the chance to start an organization from scratch. We saw Vegas do it last year and they’ve been extremely successful, so they’re a good example as well. But it doesn’t happen very often. I’m trying to gather as much experience and information as I can as I’m going through it. I believe that moving forward it’s probably going to benefit me. It’s probably going to help me moving forward. That’s the way I see it, but I don’t have any long-term goals that I’m trying to get to or achieve. I’m just trying to enjoy this as much as I can and make this team and this franchise as successful as we can.”

What’s the response been like from the Portland community about the franchise coming back?

“It’s been good. I feel like the people in Portland have been burned a few years ago with what happened and the team leaving at the last second. We’re trying to make them believe in us, make them believe that we’re there for the long haul, it’s not a one-and-done. Because it’s such a big organization that Comcast Spectacor is, we’re serious about putting a good, solid organization there. But I have the feeling that they’ve been without hockey for a couple of seasons now and I feel like they are excited about this team coming back in their community and I’m hoping that people reach out and really decide to support it. We want that as well. We want to include the fans as much as possible. We want it to be their team and be there for the long haul, kind of like the old Maine Mariners, the reputation that they built over the year, we’re hoping it goes back to that and they can look at their team and be proud of the Maine Mariners, just like they were of the old Maine Mariners. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Trade: Capitals acquire defenseman Michal Kempny from Blackhawks

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The trade deadline is one week from today so buckle up for a busy week of transactions. It started on Monday with a deal involving the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals.

The Deal: The Blackhawks send defenseman Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals in exchange for a conditional third-round draft pick.

The condition on the pick is that the Blackhawks will acquire the higher of Washington’s two third-round picks. The Capitals own their own pick, as well as the third-round pick that originally belonged to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Capitals acquired that pick (via New Jersey) in the Marcus Johannson trade over the summer.

Why the Capitals are making this trade: They get a cheap, left-handed shot to add some depth to their blue line. Kempny isn’t going to steal trade deadline headlines the way the Kevin Shattenkirk deal did for the Capitals a year ago, but he definitely adds some depth to the blue line.

Along with the usual suspects on Washington’s blue line (John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, Brooks Orpik) the Capitals have also been using some younger players like Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, as well as veteran Taylor Chorney to fill out their D pairings.

In 31 games this season Kempny has one goal and six assists while logging more than 15 minutes of ice-time per game.

Why the Blackhawks are making this trade: It is pretty simple, really. The Blackhawks are pretty much out of the playoff race at this point and this could be the start of them selling off some pieces over the next week. Kempny is an unrestricted free agent after this season and given the Blackhawks’ salary cap situation he may not be someone that figures into their long-term plans.

They are also short on draft picks this summer and do not currently own a second-or fourth-round pick.

They were able to get back a pick in this trade giving them two picks in the third-round (to go with two in the fifth-round and one each in the first, sixth, and seventh).

The other bonus for the Blackhawks: The draft pick carries no salary cap hit next season. Kind of a big deal for them.

Who won the trade: At the moment probably an edge to the Capitals because, well, they’re getting an NHL player to help for a playoff push and the Blackhawks are getting to what amounts to a scratch off lottery ticket. That third-round pick is almost certain to be in the bottom half of the third-round which means it probably only has a 10-20 percent chance of turning into a player that ever plays a single game in the NHL, let alone becomes any sort of an impact player.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Slumping Blue Jackets lose Nick Foligno for 1-2 weeks

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Times are tough for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

After losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday evening the Blue Jackets are now just 4-9-2 in their past 15 games and have fallen out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, sitting one point back of the New York Islanders entering play on Monday.

Now the team has announced that captain Nick Foligno will be sidelined for the next one-two weeks due to a lower body injury that he suffered in Sunday’s 5-2 loss to the Penguins.

Foligno, 30, is having a down year with just 13 goals and 13 assists in 59 games but he is still one of the Blue Jackets’ top forwards, and for a team that is struggling to score goals they really can not afford to lose anybody. Especially given the schedule they have coming up.

Over the next two weeks the Blue Jackets have games against the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks.

That is a tough stretch that could end up making or breaking their season.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Fantasy Adds & Drops: Time to lose Lucic

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This weekly column will aim to help you navigate through the rough waters of your fantasy league’s waiver wire. We’ll recommend players you should think of adding that are owned in 50 percent of Yahoo leagues and we’ll also make recommendations on players you should think of dropping. 

Here we go:

Adds:

Clayton Keller– C/LW/RW- Arizona Coyotes (44 percent)

After a terrific start to his rookie season, Keller’s play dropped off. He wasn’t putting up as many points and he wasn’t making as many headlines as he was in October and November. But it looks like now might be the right time to pick up in your fantasy leagues. He has eight points in his last six games, including a four-point night against Montreal last week.

Anthony Mantha– LW/RW- Detroit Red Wings (39 percent)

Mantha was owned in a lot more leagues earlier this season, but his production dropped off quite a bit. He appears to be back on now, as he’s picked up six points in his last six games. He’s versatile enough because he’s eligible to play both wing positions in Yahoo leagues. The Red Wings forward should be added in deeper leagues.

Nico Hischier– C- New Jersey Devils (30 percent)

Hischier and Taylor Hall have formed a remarkable duo over the last little while. After hitting a bit of a wall near the midway point of the season, the first overall pick from last June’s draft has managed to pick up the offensive part of his game. He’s now found the back of the net in four straight games and he’s riding a five-game point streak.

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Derick Brassard– C- Ottawa Senators (25 percent)

It sure seems like trade winds have given Brassard an added boost of motivation. The Sens forward has racked up six points in his last four games and he’s coming off a three-point performance against the Rangers on Saturday afternoon.

Ondrej Kase– LW/RW- Anaheim Ducks (11 percent)

Kase isn’t a big name, but he’s been lighting it up for Anaheim lately. The 22-year-old has nine points in his last seven games. He’s on pace to hit the 25-goal mark in 2017-18. He could be an intriguing add in deeper fantasy leagues.

Drops:

Milan Lucic– LW- Edmonton Oilers (59 percent)

If your league doesn’t award points for penalty minutes, there’s absolutely no reason for Lucic to be on your roster. He hasn’t picked up a point in any of his last 11 games and he hasn’t scored in 22. And in his last 12 contests, he’s also managed to accumulate just four penalty minutes. Lucic needs to be dropped ASAP.

[More Fantasy: Check out the Rotoworld Hockey Podcast]

Ryan Kesler– C- Anaheim Ducks (47 percent)

The 2017-18 season hasn’t been kind to Kesler. He missed over two months of action because of a hip injury and he just hasn’t looked like himself since returning. The Ducks forward missed the last game because of a lower-body issue. It’s time to cut ties with him and add one of the other players mentioned above.

Robin Lehner– G- Buffalo Sabres (51 percent)

Not only are the Sabres struggling, but Lehner is now day-to-day with an injury. Don’t expect Buffalo to win many games down the stretch, so picking up someone like Petr Mrazek, who might get traded before the deadline, could be a worthwhile gamble.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.