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Three questions facing Washington Capitals

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

1. How bad will the Stanley Cup hangover be?

Look, it’s probably silly to ask if there will be a hangover at all. I mean, have you seen what Alex Ovechkin‘s been up to?

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Я очень рад что привёз кубок Стэнли домой, в Москву, где его увидели тысячи людей на Воробьёвых горах, а так же мои близкие друзья, родные и самое главное моя семья! Хочу сказать огромное спасибо нашим незаменимым организаторам @svadberry @anna_gorod @goroddimka , всё было как всегда на высшем уровне, эти два вечера были не забываемы!!! Отдельное спасибо @renat_agzamov за совершенно уникальный торт! You r the best💪🏻И конечно же спасибо всем, кто был рядом в эти дни❤️… @orlov_09 @kuzy092 мужики мы чемпионы!!!! Thanks to all my team @capitals for the greatest time ever!!!✌🏻❤️

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After winning the Presidents’ Trophy for two straight seasons, the Capitals slipped a bit (by their regular-season standards) in “only” winning a division title. In hindsight, that was far from a setback – what with the whole “winning it all” thing – but perhaps it was a sign that Washington may no longer run roughshod over the regular season?

Again, it’s not the end of the world. Washington won its long-awaited Stanley Cup without home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, after all. Still, a slow start could make some dominoes fall in a negative way.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

New head coach Todd Reirden indicated that he’ll try to spare the Capitals in different ways as they try to repeat, but such measures could be sidetracked if a groggy start pushes Washington to the bubble.

A bad hangover might rob Washington of the underrated luxury of rest and/or make the path to repeat that much more treacherous.

Such thoughts bring us to another variable could factor into the Capitals’ chances of building a cushion:

2. Was Braden Holtby‘s tough regular season just an anomaly?

Fatigue was one of the concerns for workhorse goalie Braden Holtby, much like it seemed to be for Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy. Perhaps opening up about those challenges will keep the issue from cropping up again?

It’s a nice thought, and Holtby’s strong postseason silenced his critics, but goalies are an unpredictable lot, so who knows what kind of season he’ll experience? After all, Holtby seemed like as close to a guarantee of being elite (his previous three seasons featured a save percentage of .922 or higher, despite a Brodeurian workload), yet he suffered through a .907 save percentage in 2017-18.

Again, Holtby was dazzling during that championship run, underscoring the notion that he probably deserves more consideration as the flat-out best goalie in the NHL.

While his odds for success are high, there are some potential stumbling blocks.

With Philipp Grubauer out of town, the Capitals face more uncertainty behind Holtby. How much might this team stumble if Holtby gets hurt or merely struggles to stop pucks? Will Pheonix Copley or someone else be able to hold down the fort or will the Caps need to roll the dice any time they turn to a backup?

The Capitals have more questions in net than they did coming into last season.

3. Will the veterans lose a step?

Washington’s core players are entering that window where every season is a battle with Father Time.

That’s not to say that the Capitals need to worry about the aging curve to the same degree as, say, the Ducks or Sharks. Still, declines can be pretty sharp at times in professional sports, and the Capitals boast a few candidates who could slip (even if just by small measures).

Alex Ovechkin is 32, and he’s already played in 1,003 regular-season games. Nicklas Backstrom is 30, while both T.J. Oshie and Matt Niskanen are 31. Even Lars Eller is 29.

Washington features some guys in the meat of their primes (Evgeny Kuznetsov is flying high and only 26), not to mention promising young players who might get more looks under Todd Reirden, particularly Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana.

It’s not necessarily a question of if the Capitals will be any good. Instead, the worry is that they might lose enough steps to fall behind the NHL’s best. It didn’t happen last season – clearly – but the Capitals face some real questions as they hope to repeat.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Under Pressure: Todd Reirden

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

Barry Switzer deserved better.

You won’t hear that take often, certainly not on a hockey site. But that’s my take: people often act like the Dallas Cowboys winning a Super Bowl post-Jimmy Johnson was a given, to the point that Johnson had to shake off claims that “Switzer owed him his ring.” Such reactions dismiss how difficult it is to win at a high level, particularly when you carry the mantle of heavy favorites.

Once everything is said and done, new Capitals head coach Todd Reirden might feel Switzer’s pain.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

Even out of the specific context, Reirden would be under serious pressure. After all, the 47-year-old is receiving his first opportunity to be an NHL head coach after a long climb, including several years as an assistant between gigs with Washington and Pittsburgh.

Taking over for a team with aspirations to contend would already be a challenge on top of that, but he’s also responsible for the encore after the Capitals won their long-awaited first Stanley Cup. As The AP’s Stephen Whyno noted, Reirden is just the fourth new coach to take over a reigning champion over the last 30 years.

Colin Campbell was one of those other three coaches, as he inherited the New York Rangers after Mike Keenan’s historic (and tumultuous run).

“You can only tie. You can’t do better,” Campbell said. “Tying’s pretty good. You have to win a Cup just tie your performance from a year before.”

Whyno collected the advice three other coaches (Campbell, along with Dave Lewis and Scotty Bowman) gave to Reirden, which came down to being himself but also managing the transition from being an assistant/associate to head coach. That could be an underrated challenge, especially if an assistant and head coach previously created a “good cop/bad cop” dynamic. What happens if a more nurturing presence must now bring the hammer down?

Reirden said the right things about finally getting his head coaching shot, but it’s most interesting to note how he’ll aim for systemic changes, and how he’ll approach different personalities.

“I think one of my strengths as an assistant is I’ve been able to have a strong pulse of when the players need time away, when they need to be pushed harder,” Reirden said recently, via NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. “In terms of those type of things, with it being a longer [Stanley Cup Playoff] run (last season), it’s important to have a strong pulse on your team and your leadership group in particular and know when to push and when to pull back a little bit in terms of where we’re at energy-wise. Those are things that I’ve already made adjustments to (in) our overall schedule that’s planned out, with travel situations or different things we can do to make sure we’re fresh to be able to give ourselves every chance we can to repeat.”

That sounds promising, and it’s plausible that Reirden may actually end up being a better fit for the Capitals. The painful possibility, though, is that he could very well do a great job and still get bashed if Washington’s results aren’t there. Winning a Stanley Cup – not to mention racking up Presidents’ Trophies before that title – sets the bar very high.

There are a number of scenarios where bad results could be out of Reirden’s hands:

  • He simply might not be a tactician at Trotz’s level: Trotz has his critics – Reirden may have more trust in skilled, young players, for example – but few would doubt his defensive schemes. Could there be a drop-off from Trotz to Reirden? It’s possible even if Reirden is still strong in that area.
  • Luck going the other way: One factor that slips under the radar is that the Capitals were weirdly healthy during Trotz’s years. It’s gotten to the point where it’s bordering on spooky.

Honestly, that might be the thing people should have harped on during Washington’s letdowns: they rarely dealt with key losses like other teams did. Their bitter rivals in Pittsburgh won a Stanley Cup with Kris Letang on the shelf, yet they’ve also been hobbled by serious issues to virtually all of their key players, including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Maybe the Capitals’ staff can continue to work under-the-radar miracles, paralleling the Phoenix Suns’ glory days. Such a run of health might also have as much to do with luck as anything else, though, and Reirden could end up footing the bill.

  • Aging curve: The Capitals’ health luck has been remarkable, in part, because of the sheer mileage on their best players. Between international play and regular trips to the playoffs – disappointing or not – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and other key Caps have played a lot of hockey.

The older a player is, the greater injury risks tend to come along, strengthening the worries about health above. Even if trainers get that under control, you wonder if Father Time might come knocking as early as 2018-19.

The Capitals aren’t ancient, but if a series of moderate declines hit at the same time, it could really sting. Ovechkin is 32, and has played in 139 more regular-season games than his rival Crosby (1,003 to 864), even though both took the league by storm during the same 2005-06 season. Nicklas Backstrom is 30, T.J. Oshie is 31, and Matt Niskanen was showing signs of decline and is 31.

Again, these guys wouldn’t make the same pop culture references as Joe Thornton or Jaromir Jagr, but they’re already liable to start the season with a Stanley Cup hangover. (Ovechkin’s summer might be one big hangover, really.) It could be a tough regular season if they lose a few steps, particularly if they try to save some energy for the postseason.

Some people will be fair to Reirden if 2018-19 is bumpy. All it takes is a few impulsive (and probably unfair) hot takes to start to turn up the temperature, though.

  • Some losses: The Capitals navigated the off-season reasonably well, aside from the occasional debatable decision like Tom Wilson‘s new contract. Time will tell if it was right to pay big to keep John Carlson, but Reirden has to be relieved to have him to start.

That doesn’t mean that the Capitals kept the whole band together, and some subtractions could make life tougher for Reirden.

There’s at least some reason to worry that Braden Holtby might have another tough regular season, as Philipp Grubauer is no longer there to pick up the slack.

***

So, there are “be careful what you wish for” elements to Reirden getting a promotion to the head coaching gig.

As Campbell said, it’s not like he can really “top” what the Capitals did last year. It’s probably unfair to expect Reirden to duplicate those results – after all, this Stanley Cup run probably surprised more than a few Capitals executives and fans – but plenty of people will demand as much, anyway.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

It’s Washington Capitals day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

2017-18
49-26-7, 105 pts. (1st in the Metropolitan Division, 3rd in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Won the Stanley Cup in five games against the Vegas Golden Knights.

IN
Nic Dowd
Brooks Orpik (technically)

OUT
Alex Chaisson
Jay Beagle
Anthony Peluso
Tyler Graovac
Jakub Jerabek
Philipp Grubauer

RE-SIGNED
Tom Wilson
John Carlson
Travis Boyd
Devante Smith-Pelly
Michal Kempny
Madison Bowey

– – –

Stanley Cup champions.

Alex Ovechkin and others diving into the Georgetown fountain.

Two things that will never be forgotten in the nation’s capital.

In reality, it’s the first one that will be etched in history forever. The Capitals, a team that had always come up short, always underperformed when they needed their best performance, finally broke through, sent all their demons back to where they came from and hoisted Lord Stanley in June.

And in true Capitals form, none of it came easy.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

From dropping the first two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets to losing three straight after taking a 2-0 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Capitals had to work for the Cup.

Beating Pittsburgh in the second round was historical. Not since 1994 had the team bested the Penguins in the playoffs, and they’d been plagued by the Penguins ever since, including the previous two seasons where they were stopped in their tracks by Crosby and Co. in the second round.

Furthermore, the window appeared to be closed on the Capitals. They had won the Presidents’ Trophy two years running, but couldn’t figure it out when it mattered most. Their roster also appeared to be dealt a serious blow with key departures during last offseason, including Marcus Johansson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt.

They still had their core, but good cores need good complements and Washington lost several.

The team endured Braden Holtby losing his starting job for a time late in the season, only to regain it in Game 3 against the Blue Jackets and never look back. Holtby appeared to be his elite self, especially in the final two games to close out the series against the Lightning, where he posted back-to-back shutouts against the regular season’s most potent offense.

In the Cup Final, Holtby bounced back from allowing five goals in Game 1 to post four straight wins and a .938 save percentage during that span.

The Caps simply trudged along, taking every bump in stride and never wavering too far off course.

Ovi scored 49 to capture his one-millionth Rocket Richard Trophy and Evgeni Kuznetsov rebounded from his 59-point season (which followed a breakout campaign with 77 in 2015-16) to post career bests in both goals (27) and points (83). Kuznetsov’s form carried over into the playoffs where he paced the league with 32 points. Ovechkin finished second in scoring and first in goals with 15 and Nicklas Backstrom rounded out the top-three point producers.

There’s been a lot of partying this summer, nothing foreign to a team that’s won hockey’s greatest prize.

Keeping John Carlson is the most important thing the Capitals have done this offseason.

Signing Tom Wilson to a lengthy extension worth many millions of dollars is the most controversial decision they’ve made.

Not re-signing head coach Barry Trotz might be their biggest mistake. Assistant coach Todd Reirden takes over the reins while Trotz will be the bench boss in Long Island.

The Caps head into next season with much of the same team intact and a belief now that they can overcome anything. We know they’re going to score goals. We know their power play is going to be elite. A bounce-back regular season from Holtby should keep the Caps at the top of the Metropolitan once again.

A conversation involving the Caps and the Stanley Cup used to elicit laughter. Now, it emits chatter of a repeat.

How times have changed.

Prospect Pool

Ilya Samsonov, G, 21, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL) – 2015 first-round pick

Three years of elite numbers in the KHL has the hype train carrying Samsonov moving at full force. The 21-year-old signed an entry-level deal after Metallurg was bounced from the Gagarin Cup and will play in North America this. The only question now is, where?

Samsonov is expected to be given a shot to be Holtby’s backup with Philipp Grubauer now out of the picture. Samsonov will face competition from Pheonix Copley, who will also be vying for the bench job. Samsonov appears as ready as one can be to make the jump, but allowing him some time in the NHL to adjust and adapt to the American game wouldn’t hurt. He’s still going to see time with the Caps this year.

Alexander Alexeyev, D, 18, Red Deer (WHL) – 2018 first-round pick

The 31st and final pick in the first round this past June, Alexeyev had a breakout season with the Rebels with 37 points in 45 games.

He’s big, too, at 6-foot-4, 196 pounds and has plenty of room to fill out his frame. Alexeyev won’t be turning pro this year, and another season of development in the WHL will be good as he continues to adapt to the North American game. He’s got some good mentors in Washington, including fellow Russian defenseman Dmitry Orlov.

“He’s a really intelligent player, extremely patient with the puck, good shot, skates really well,” Washington assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said. “I think he’s going to have a really bright future with us.”

Lucas Johansen, D, 20, Hershey (AHL) – 2016 first-round pick

Johansen made a nice transition from junior with the Kelowna Rockets to professional with the Bears last season, scoring six times and adding 21 assists in 74 games.

A second year in Hershey is in the cards for Johansen, the younger brother of Nashville Predators forward Ryan Johansen. Washington’s three defensive pairings aren’t going to change in training camp, but an injury could change all of that.

“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t want to play here,” Johansen told the NHL at the team’s developments camp in June. “But I know I have a lot of things to improve on and [for] the jump to the NHL you have to be strong, you have to be fast. But I’m looking forward to committing myself to getting better and I’m going to come to camp and do the best I can to make this team and whatever happens from there, I’ll be happy.”


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

Three questions facing Nashville Predators

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Nashville Predators.

1. Can the Predators find that extra gear?

It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Predators lack stars altogether.

P.K. Subban would be a star even if he didn’t back up all the sizzle with elite play (delightfully, he walks the walk). Subban very deservingly received a Norris nomination in 2017-18. Filip Forsberg fills up enough highlight reels to argue that he deserves that designation, too. And, of course, Pekka Rinne just won the Vezina.

The Predators have what you need to make it to the dance, so to speak, but what about when you boil down to the best-on-best level?

Consider this: Nashville didn’t employ a single person in the top 50 in points in 2017-18. Forsberg tied for 52nd place with 64 points. Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets featured two players in the top 50 (Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler), while Mark Scheifele finished with 60 points despite being limited to 60 games.

Nashville can generate scoring thanks to two strong scoring lines and a war chest of excellent offensive defensemen, so this isn’t a blanket dismissal of their offense. Peter Laviolette has a track record of being a coach who emphasizes offense, and the Predators scored 261 goals last season, tying them for seventh-best in the NHL.

The bar is set pretty high for this group, though. A lot of hockey players will throw out the “Stanley Cup or bust” line, yet the Predators rank among the small number of teams who should actually mean it.

Such aspirations call for harsher digging at self-awareness, so it’s fair to ask: when teams are engineering matchups and leaning heavily on their big guns, does Nashville lose out a bit there? Sometimes smaller, incremental disadvantages can make all the difference amid the brutal competition of postseason play.

None of this is to say that Nashville can’t make this work. It’s fair to ask the question, though.

2. How will the goalie situation work out? 

As today’s under pressure topic asserts, Pekka Rinne comes into 2018-19 in an odd spot.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

While he won the Vezina trophy – and very much deserved it with a truly fantastic season – Rinne continued to hand his harshest critics ammo with a brutal outing in Game 7 against the Winnipeg Jets. The towering Finn was yanked from that contest after allowing two awful goals, making five saves, and only lasting 10 minutes and 31 seconds.

After sporting a fantastic .927 save percentage and covering up some under-the-radar lapses from the Predators defense during the regular season, Rinne struggled during the postseason even beyond that harsh experience in elimination, allowing at least four goals on five occasions (in 13 games played). Even taking into account struggles against Pittsburgh, Rinne pitched an outstanding .930 save percentage during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. One year later, his playoff save percentage was at a backup-level of .904.

The ups and downs of NHL goaltending should already have the Predators on alert as far as how long of a leash they give Rinne. Context makes that notion even more important to consider.

Rinne, 35, sees his $7M cap hit expire after 2018-19. Juuse Saros has already shown signs of possibly being a future No.1 goalie, and the Predators authored another killer contract by signing the 23-year-old to a three-year deal that carries a laughably low $1.5M cap hit.

So, the Predators have incentive to get Rinne to pass the torch to Saros, with the main question arguably being how gradual that transition should be.

Ultimately, there’s some room for maneuvering, especially next season. Will Laviolette be willing to give Saros the net in big games if Rinne’s struggling (or Saros has simply been superior), as he’s been reluctant to do so far?

Perhaps the Predators need to look to their former coach as an example. Barry Trotz made the courageous move to give Philipp Grubauer the starting job – tentatively – as Braden Holtby struggled mightily at times in Washington. Some would argue that such a decision proved foolish, what with Grubauer struggling against Columbus, yet one can only speculate about how this situation impacted Holtby. For all we know, Holtby wouldn’t have authored such a magnificent playoff run if he didn’t a) get some much-needed rest and b) have a fire lit under him as he saw someone else begin the playoffs as the Capitals’ starter.

Laviolette needs to roll with the punches here, something he’s struggled to do at times in Nashville (possibly being too reliant upon Rinne) and Philadelphia (maybe being too erratic with goalies, particularly a young Sergei Bobrovsky?).

If that means putting Saros in instead of Rinne, so be it. If the starts go to whoever has the hot hand/goalie glove, then maybe that’s the best solution, instead.

There are some political landmines to dance around, but the end result could very well be more than worth the trouble.

3. Does David Poile have any more tricks up his sleeves?

The Predators have a remarkable amount of room to work with, considering that they’re the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners.

According to Cap Friendly, Nashville has about $7.625M in cap space heading into 2018-19. They don’t have any outstanding RFAs to deal with, and the team-friendly Ryan Ellis deal gives them wonderful cost certainty.

GM David Poile is no stranger to blockbuster moves, so he could address Question 1 in a big way via any number of trades. Nashville wouldn’t even need to move salary to fit the 2018-19 cap hits for Erik Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, Artemi Panarin, or Tyler Seguin.

They also have managed to bring along some promising prospects who could be used in a trade, if Poile can stomach such moves.

Would landing a big name be worth parting ways with Dante Fabbro or even Eeli Tolvanen? Maybe, maybe not. There are ways where Poile could probably even manage a balancing act of extending a Karlsson or other game-breaker, particularly with Rinne’s $7M set to come off the books.

(Nashville has $64.44M devoted to 18 skaters for 2019-20, and Kevin Fiala is one of the only noteworthy guys who would need a new deal, beyond the Rinne puzzle.)

There are reasons why the Predators were at least trying to get into the John Tavares sweepstakes, and the Predators have plenty of incentive – not to mention that cushy cap space – to land that extra player to put them totally over the top. Can Poile hunt that big game once again?

Totally unrelated side question: well, does Marc Bergevin still accept his calls after the Subban – Shea Weber trade? Again, totally unrelated.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Q&A: Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar

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Training camps open in about a month’s time, which means it’s time for coaches around the NHL to really ramp up preparation for the new season. Some coaches have a lot of work ahead of them to try and turnaround poor seasons. For Jared Bednar, he’s hoping to build off of the success that his Colorado Avalanche had in 2017-18, improving by 47 points and returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2014.

After being at the NHL Draft in Dallas and going through the start of the free agency period and development camp, Bednar was able to get away for some vacation before turning full focus on the 2018-19 campaign.

“For me, I like to stick around at the end of the year, do a bunch of review and take a look at some things and get my plan together,” Bednar told Pro Hockey Talk on Thursday during his drive from South Carolina to Denver. “Then you get a little bit of time away and you go to the draft and we do our development camp following the draft, so that’s a good week of getting to know some of our new players, but also your coaching staff is all there and the schedule comes out around that time and you can put together training camp schedules and get a lot of that type of work done. And then it’s nice to take a breather and get away from the game for a little bit.”

Bednar is entering his third season as head coach of the Avalanche. Year one, which he described as “horrible,” saw him hired in late August after Patrick Roy’s abrupt resignation, something that affected preparation for that season. But year two was much better with a playoff berth and great seasons from Nathan MacKinnon, who was a Hart Trophy finalist, and Mikko Rantanen. He was rewarded by getting a trip to Las Vegas in June as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award.

We spoke with Bednar about his growth as a head coach, the plan for his two goalies and his brief time playing in Roller Hockey International with the Anaheim Bullfrogs.

Enjoy.

PHT: How have you seen yourself change in the 10 years since your first professional head coaching job?

BEDNAR: “Well, there’s a lot of ways, I think. I’m more patient now. The experience that you have. I believe I trust my players more now than I did when I first started coaching. Try not to worry as much. I always felt like the preparation was the key to success and still is. A lot of things have stayed the same but I would say I’m a little bit easier to deal with and less riding the roller coaster… Probably a little more calm now than I was as a younger coach.”

PHT: Is there more delegation on your part now?

BEDNAR: “Absolutely. Part of that’s the level of which you coach. In the ECHL you wear so many different hats and your staff is small. I was alone for my first year and then added an assistant my second year, so you’re kind of doing everything hockey related and [also] GM duties and just the things you need to get done for your players. A lot of interaction with your guys at that level, which is nice. But your staff is small so you’re kind of overworked and you have to be real good with your time down there, which is a good thing to learn because it seems like I’m back to that at the NHL level as well.

“You have to really manage your time because you get pulled in so many different directions as a head coach that you have to rely on other people. We’ve got a great staff. My staff has been amazing and they’re all very good at what they do. It’s kind of the more detailed work the higher you go and the bigger the staff you need and more attention you try and give your players, especially nowadays. Players like the back and forth with the coaches, a lot of communication, so it’s real important you have a good staff and a big staff.”

PHT: You’ve won a Kelly Cup (ECHL). You’ve won a Calder Cup (AHL). Was there a trait that those two teams shared and do you see that in this current Avalanche roster?

BEDNAR: “Yes. The leadership both times that I’ve won with was outstanding, and not just coaches. Our players taking over our room and the character of our leadership and the hunger, the willingness to come out and do things right every day… Those teams had it and they were hungry for more. The desire to win was deep and it started with our captain, Ryan Craig in Cleveland, Jaime Sifers, guys like that that kind of forced our team to have this daily mentality that we were going to get better and pay attention to the process.

“I saw it a lot last year in our group. The hunger that we had coming into the season after a horrible first year with me at the helm, I saw our leadership get passed to our young core, our star players, and they were focused and driven and resilient. They got along with each other. Our room was really tight and I think you have to have that in order to win. We still have a lot of work to do, but those are the things that lead you in the right direction and eventually will push you over the top. Hopefully we can continue to grow in those areas. But that’s the main thing, is that leadership and focus and determination that we had.”

PHT: How do you and your staff keep the complacency out after a season that saw huge strides?

BEDNAR: “We’ve talked with our guys, even during the off-season. The hunger has to be there again from our players, from our coaching staff, and I believe it is. Our division, our conference, I think is more competitive than ever and everyone’s building and adding and trying to get better and we’re no different. It comes down to the character of our players wanting to be coached, wanting to be pushed and willing to go the extra mile in order to get it done. We’ve got a talented group. We’re trying to fill in pieces around our core to make our team better. From my conversations with our guys they’re hungry, they want more. They had a taste of it last year and I think we’ve added some nice pieces in there, too.”

“It’ll be a little bit of a different feel this year, but I know that our key guys are hungry for more. Adding players to our roster like Philipp Grubauer, who just won a Stanley Cup; Ian Cole’s won a couple Cups. Having guys that have been through it before and that were able to achieve and win the Stanley Cup are great additions to our team, along with a guy like Matty Calvert, who’s hungry and comes over from the Columbus organization.”

PHT: If Semyon Varlamov shows he’s 100 percent healthy and with Philipp now in the fold, do you have a percentage split in mind for both guys this season?

BEDNAR: “It’s hard to say. I think there’s been some inconsistencies in Varly’s game because of his injury history over the last couple of years, right? We eased him into the season a little bit last year to make sure that he was feeling confident in himself and that he was feeling right, and it worked out. He had a tough break at the end because there’s a collision and he hurts his MCL. I don’t think that you can prevent that as a goalie. He’s there to make the save. It’s not something that was tied to his previous injury. 

“We need Varly to stay healthy and when he’s been healthy, especially last year, as he started to play midseason and go he’s proven that he’s a No. 1. Now you have a guy like Philipp Grubauer coming in and he’s hungry to be a No. 1, he’s pushing to be a No. 1. Certainly last year he took over the net at times in Washington. But at the end of the day it made him a better goalie and it made Braden Holtby a better goalie and he ends up going in and winning them the Stanley Cup. We want the best out of both of these guys and we’ll ride the hot goalie at times, but I’d like to see Varly stay healthy and be able to regain his form because I think he’s trending that way and it’s going to be a matter of health for him. I know he’s one of our hardest working guys and a real hungry guy and I feel like Philipp Grubauer is hungry to prove that he’s a No. 1 as well.”

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PHT: Nathan MacKinnon received a lot of attention last season and deservedly so, but Mikko Rantanen had a tremendous year playing alongside him. What kind of kid is he and how has it been to coach him?

BEDNAR: “First off, their success goes hand in hand. They play on the same line, the same power play, the majority of their ice time they’re on the ice at the same time. They got a great chemistry, they complement one another. Mikko is a really nice kid, had a breakout season. He’s a hard-working guy in the off-season and also during the season. I think he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. He’s still a young player, both age-wise and from an experience standpoint in the league. I think that he has another level that he can get to, we’re going to try to push him to that level here this year as a coaching staff and demand more of him. He can still become more consistent. But he’s a real receptive guy. He’s a highly-intelligent, highly-skilled player and he’s got great size and strength, too. Sky’s the limit for Mikko…

“Certainly, Gabriel Landeskog is part of that line and can’t be overlooked because they all play a different game but they find a way to complement one another and there’s a chemistry there that I’d like to see them continue to grow as a line. Last year, just being the first step, they can continue to improve as individuals and as a line, to be honest.”

PHT: Obviously playing with Nate and Gabe helped him a lot with the point jump in year two, but what areas did you see Mikko take major strides in last season? Was it a matter of playing with those two guys and just another year of experience or was there more?

BEDNAR: “I think there’s more. There’s certainly a comfort level there with Nate and Gabe. I think knowing the league, knowing his opponents, pushing himself to be a difference-maker every night and getting more consistent in year two. [He] was healthy to start the season, he got dinged up his first year and it gave him a little bit of a slow start, so he was out of the gates right away playing well. I also think that their success, you have to give their teammates some credit, too. We had some depth. We had a checking line with [Carl] Soderberg, [Blake] Comeau and [Matt] Nieto that freed those guys up to play in more offensive situations. I felt like the year before they were doing a lot of the heavy lifting defensively and still we had to try and rely on them to create offense. Last year a lot of the responsibility was split because of the depth we had. We had some secondary scoring with guys coming in like [Alex] Kerfloot and [J.T.] Compher and [Tyson] Jost. It’s also there’s a team perspective to their success as well.”

PHT: Finally, you’re one of a handful of people in the NHL with a tie to Roller Hockey International. How did that opportunity [six games with the Anaheim Bullfrogs in 1995] come up and did the ankle injury prevent you from playing again the following summer?

BEDNAR: “I was playing in the ECHL in Huntington [West Virginia] and Grant Sonier got hired as our coach and we got talking. They invited me out to go play. A lot of ECHL players were doing that. It was a way to stay in shape, to keep training. Heading out to the west coast in LA or Anaheim seemed like a fun idea. Enjoy the beach and train and continue working at hockey and then getting paid for the summer instead of going back home and getting a construction job or something, it was a way to keep training and continue to live like you would during the season and just put more into your training. That seemed like a no-brainer for me and [I] went out there and had a great time, met some great people. I did end up getting hurt, jamming my ankle into the boards and breaking it, so I spent a little time in a cast which set me back but it was just a risk that you take in order to try and continue to get better as a player and be able to train for the summer when you need to make some money and work. 

“I enjoyed it. I just decided not to go back. Because of the injury I was a little bit leery of competing all summer long again when I could put a little bit more time into my training, which it turned out to be a good decision.”

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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.