Avalanche off to fast start in post-Roy era

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PITTSBURGH — One month before training camps were set to open for the 2016-17 season, the Colorado Avalanche were dealt a sudden curve ball when coach Patrick Roy decided to step away from the team.

For as difficult of a position as that was for the front office that close to the start of a new season, it was a chance for a much-needed new beginning in Colorado. It was a beginning that didn’t seem like it was going to happen anytime soon unless Roy took himself out of the equation.

Once that happened, it opened the door for Jared Bednar, fresh off of a Calder Cup championship with the Lake Erie Monsters in the AHL, to come in and implement a faster, more aggressive style of play. The defense is still probably going to be a question mark in the short-term just based on the current construction of the roster, but two games into the 2016-17 the early returns era are promising thanks to consecutive come-from-behind wins against two of the top teams in the NHL, the Dallas Stars and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

The biggest thing that has stood out so far is how rejuvenated some of their young core looks, and how the Avalanche style of play seems tailored to their skill.

It showed on Monday night in Pittsburgh against one of the fastest teams in the league when they not only matched them in the speed (and shot) department, but where some of their young stars were also able to shine. Captain Gabriel Landeskog scored a pair of goals (one to tie it late in the third period and then the winner in overtime) while Nathan MacKinnon, the top pick in the 2014 draft, received huge praise from his coach who called him a “horse all night” for the way he helped carried his line and make plays.

In the two years since their surprising Central Division crown, the Avalanche became a team that had grown stale.

Their talented young core was at times under fire for not doing enough to lift the team (whether it was their fault or not), they were consistently among the worst defensive teams in the league, and in a league that was increasingly becoming faster, they seemed to be constantly slowing down. There was rarely any urgency when it came to moving the puck up the ice and getting it into the hands of their forwards, instead focussing on a more methodical breakout that relied on defensemen holding on to the puck and passing it amongst themselves.

For a team whose biggest weakness was on the blue line, and whose biggest strength was young forwards that could skate and play with skill, it seemed to run counter to what they should have been doing with the roster.

Last week defenseman Tyson Barrie, probably the team’s best puck-moving defenseman, spoke about that change and how the Avalanche are working to eliminate “the useless, kind-of-slow-the-game-down D to D, back to D, look, back to D” passes. That style of play had become a staple of the team over the past couple of years, and it’s just not something that works in today’s NHL where teams like Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Chicago have risen to the top by playing fast and getting the puck to their forwards.

Nothing against players Erik Johnson and Francois Beauchemin, but you don’t want them holding on to the puck in the defensive zone and waiting for something to happen. You want guys Landeskog, MacKinnon and Matt Duchene carrying the puck and putting the pressure on the opposing defense.

That is something that is now happening.

“Everybody has to play with speed,” said goalie Calvin Pickard after Monday’s game when asked about where the NHL is headed in terms of playing style. “Everybody watched Pittsburgh down the stretch and in the playoffs last year. They played with speed and nobody could handle them. And I feel like we have the ability to do that in here as well.”

MacKinnon, who already has four points through the first two games, added that the new system is something that has come easy to the players on the roster and that they were quickly able to adapt to Bednar’s system in the preseason.

It’s only two games, but the early results are there on both the team and individual levels. They’re scoring goals, they have at least 31 shots on goal in both games (something they only did in 26 games all of last season) and the core players are getting an opportunity to make plays.

But what should be even more encouraging for Avalanche fans than just the early results is that the team just looks better.

They look faster. More aggressive. And even if the results don’t continue (and they may not given the shortcomings the team still has on the roster) the process in place at least looks better than the one they had over the past two years.

And as long as that continues, better long-term results could soon follow.

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