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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

Zac Rinaldo is about to be handed another multi-game suspension

NHL.com
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At some point later this week it will be time to reset your “Days Since Zac Rinaldo’s Been Suspended” boards after the Arizona Coyotes forward was offered an in-person hearing for his actions during Saturday night’s loss to the Colorado Avalanche.

Midway through the second period, Rinaldo laid a hit on Nathan MacKinnon in the neutral zone, which left the Avs forward stunned. Defenseman Samuel Girard responded by confronting Rinaldo, who then proceeded to drop the unsuspecting rookie with a punch. It was chaos after that.

“[Girard] is not going over there to try and fight him. He’s just going over there to give him a bump and he suckered him. I’m sure that’s something the league will look at,” said Avs defenseman Erik Johnson via Arizona Sports.

The Department of Player Safety did take a look at it and is ready to hand Rinaldo another multi-game ban. No longer considered a repeat offender, he’s been suspended four times since his rookie season of 2011-12 for a total of 19 games. He was even talented enough in 2016 earn a five-game suspension in the AHL days after being suspended for five games in the NHL.

The league is no fan of sucker punches, and considering the history of the player handing out said sucker punch and the offer of an in-person hearing, Rinaldo could be looking at a suspension close to at least half a dozen games, if not more.

UPDATE:

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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.

Erik Johnson to sit two games for Avalanche after suspension

NHL
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It was pretty clear that after receving a slashing minor, boarding major and game misconduct all in the span of about three seconds, Erik Johnson of the Colorado Avalanche still had some punishment coming to him.

And so on Sunday night the NHL’s Department of Player Safety announced a two-game ban for the veteran defenseman after he boarded Vladislav Namestnikov Saturday night in Colorado.

As detailed in the video, Johnson knows that Namestnikov has already fired his shot on goal and the Tampa Bay Lightning forward isn’t expecting to be shoved like that after his scoring attempt. That, and how far he was from the boards make it all especially dangerous. Fortunately, Namestnikov was able to remain in the game.

“Dangerous play. You just hold your breath on those. Got a little fortunate with Vladdy, obviously didn’t get as fortunate with Callahan,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, referring to Ryan Callahan‘s injury after an awkward collision with Oliver Ekman-Larsson last week.

Johnson will lose out on $64,516.12, which goes to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund.

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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.

Colorado Avalanche ’15-16 Outlook

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The Colorado Avalanche can be a tough nut to crack.

If you bounce around “Hockey Twitter” at all, the team very much stands as a guinea pig in the “stats vs. tradition” debate (or whatever you’d like to call it). That debate often gets a little weird and then overshadows the team itself.

When you look at the Avalanche, it’s an odd mix of old and new.

You have old ideas and old faces in management with Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic running the ship. They seemingly lean toward signing old veterans from Jarome Iginla to Francois Beauchemin.

The fresh faces make this squad awfully interesting, however. Gabriel Landeskog is still one of the NHL’s youngest captains at 22. With all the pressure on Nathan MacKinnon to make the next step, one might forget that he’s just 19. Matt Duchene and Tyson Barrie remain in the meat of their primes at 24.

What if all four of those promising young players make significant strides that often come at such ages, particularly MacKinnon, who may just be scratching the surface of his skill set as people move onto to the next big thing in Connor McDavid? Could the Avalanche see earlier-than-expected results from still-blooming prospects like Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko?

Ryan O’Reilly is a tough player to let go – and he’s also just 24 – but when you look at that group, it’s quite a bit easier to stomach, isn’t it?

Yes, that defense looks pretty shaky beyond a handful of solid players such as Barrie and Erik Johnson, meaning the Avalanche will again lean heavily on Semyon Varlamov.

Still, with the abundance of talent at the forward position in particular, even the most ardent number-crunchers would shudder to dismiss the Avalanche outright.

Avs without Erik Johnson for up to eight weeks

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Erik Johnson was a late omission from the All-Star Game because of what was initially described as a lower-body injury. The Colorado Avalanche revealed more about his condition on Monday and the news wasn’t good.

The 26-year-old defenseman needed to have his knee scoped and will miss the next three-to-eight weeks as a result. This comes at a time when Colorado is just three points shy of the second Wild Card spot.

Filling the void left by Johnson will be a substantial challenge for the Avalanche. He’s by far their leader in playing time, averaging 24:25 minutes per contest and he’s recorded 23 points, 93 hits, and a team-leading 107 blocks in 47 games.

On top of all that, the team tends to play significantly better from a Corsi/Fenwick perspective when he’s on the ice, which is important to note given that Colorado continues to struggle in that regard. The Avalanche have a 44.1% Corsi For and 44.3% Fenwick For respectively, per the War on Ice.

Colorado will resume the regular season with back-to-back games against Nashville on Tuesday and Friday.