Jared Bednar

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Avs’ rising expectations put Bednar under pressure

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

If you look at lists of the best offseasons in the NHL, chances are, the Colorado Avalanche will be on most of them.

That’s with good reason, as this team seems ahead of the curve when it comes to making savvy improvements to their team, and they’re in an incredible position to be a force in the West, in large part thanks to bargain contracts for superstar Nathan MacKinnon, value in other parts of their roster, and young up-and-coming players who’ve maybe only shown a taste of what they can do in the NHL. Sometimes fans of teams make the error of merely seeing young players and assuming they’ll reach some imaginary potential that’s actually not there, yet with the Avs, such daydreaming doesn’t seem so far from reality.

All of that is great, but a significant chunk of the excitement around the Avalanche focuses on the future. What about the present, though? Are we sure that a team that squeaked into the playoffs the past two seasons can make it again, especially with a very different-looking roster?

Ultimately, head coach Jared Bednar is under a lot of pressure to make it all work.

[MORE: 3 Questions2018-19 review I X-factor: Makar]

Let’s consider some potential bumps in the road for Bednar and the Avs this season.

  • The team might not be dramatically improved, at least short-term: Some metrics put the 2019-20 Avalanche closer to a “push” with last year’s version. After all, this team lost Tyson Barrie, Alexander Kerfoot, Semyon Varlamov, and Carl Soderberg. In most if not all of those cases, Colorado made the right calls, yet it means players like Burakovsky, Cale Makar, and Joonas Donskoi can’t be seen as pure additions; instead, one might look at them as replacements. That could mean incremental improvements or downgrades for Colorado for next season.
  • A lot rides on Philipp Grubauer‘s play: After a tough first half of 2018-19, Grubauer justified the Avalanche’s gamble that he had starter potential. With Varlamov gone, there’s less of a safety net, so Bednar might be challenged to change strategies if Grubauer struggles and/or gets injured.
  • Integrating the new guys: Bednar and his staff must find the right minutes, roles, and tone to take with Nazem Kadri, Burakovsky, Donskoi, and other new faces. Also, Cale Makar is almost brand-new himself, and his development is crucial for Colorado. (More on Makar, and how he’ll hope to replace some of what’s lost in trading Barrie, in this post.)
  • Keep the top line together, or diversify? For the most part, Bednar’s been comfortable with keeping Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog together on a top line that’s deadly, but sometimes leaves Colorado a bit one-dimensional. Will the above new additions inspire Bednar to experiment a bit? For all we know, finding the right balance could be the difference between another playoff appearance versus a letdown.
  • Challenging Central Division: The Avs may not be able to rise above the wild-card level thanks to a Central Division that – while altered – still figures to be a beast in 2019-20.

The Avalanche have been one of the surprise successes of the league, particularly after the grim debacle that was Bednar’s first season as an NHL head coach in 2016-17.

For NHL head coaches, such success can be a double-edged sword, as expectations rise in the eyes of fans and owners alike. Fair or not, Bednar is under significant pressure to make sure that the Avalanche don’t stumble during what looks like a swift climb up the NHL ladder.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Avs continue strong summer by extending coach Bednar

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If you want an example of how quickly things can change in sports, consider the Colorado Avalanche and head coach Jared Bednar, who was signed to a two-year contract extension on Tuesday.

In a bizarre turn of events, Patrick Roy left the Avalanche in August of 2016, not that far from training camp. Bednar was thrown into a tough situation as head coach – some would say, in part because of a lack of options considering a hectic hiring process – and suffered through a disastrous 22-56-4 debut season in 2016-17. That was good for just 48 points in 82 games.

Things were so glum to begin 2017-18 that a miserable-looking Matt Duchene was inspiring a bunch of Simon & Garfunkel memes, and it seemed like the Avalanche might suffer through a lengthy period of … well, darkness.

Instead of merely signaling relief, the Duchene trade instead propelled the Avalanche faster toward the light at the end of the tunnel. The Avalanche stunned the hockey world by making the playoffs in 2017-18 (Bednar’s second season as head coach), and managed a repeat appearance this past season.

[PHT’s Bednar interview from August 2018]

Once the Avalanche punched their ticket to 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they made serious waves.

Colorado didn’t just upset the top-seeded Calgary Flames in Round 1. They clearly and undeniably outplayed the Flames. This Natural Stat Trick chart captures much of the spirit of the Flames falling in five games, as instead of Mike Smith being the one thing that derailed Calgary’s run, he instead held them in some of those contests:

The Avalanche also pushed an excellent San Jose Sharks team to Game 7 of Round 2, with San Jose narrowly escaping, controversial calls and all.

Considering that “mile high” elevation, any reasonable coach would want the Avalanche playing at the sort of pace that will leave opponents huffing and puffing. Bednar embraced that, but others have not, including Patrick Roy. It can be tough to separate smart coaching from sheer happenstance, yet it sure feels like Colorado is moving in the right direction, and Bednar seems to have them pointed forward.

The still-fairly-new coach also deftly handled Nathan MacKinnon‘s kind of adorable tantrum merely by not letting it become a thing.

So, aside from that first-year meltdown, Bednar’s passed most (if not) all of his tests as a head coach, making that extension easy to understand.

Bednar getting top-heavy but somewhat limited Avalanche teams to the playoffs these past two seasons is a testament to his coaching, yet the most intriguing challenges await.

Colorado’s enjoyed a smashing success of a summer, adding legitimate pieces such as Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, and Andre Burakovsky to supplement that mighty top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s up to Bednar to integrate those additions – and maybe manage Kadri’s temper? – along with making the right calls about how to work prospects Cale Makar, Conor Timmins, and Bowen Byram into the mix over the years. Bednar also must manage the goaltending position. While Philipp Grubauer looked like a genuine starting goalie toward the end of 2018-19 and into a strong playoff run, there were also shaky moments, and now the Avalanche don’t have a veteran to fall back on as Semyon Varlamov got that surprising contract from the New York Islanders.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

As much as the Avalanche seem set to take off, it’s easy to see situations where they might stumble in trying to make a greater leap forward. It could be up to Bednar to keep those frustrations from boiling over, and to manage growing pains as the Makars of the world take on greater responsibility.

In the grand scheme of things, the Avalanche appear to be on an exhilarating upward trajectory, and it seems like Bednar is a strong choice to pilot them on that journey.

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.

MacKinnon’s ‘hunger’ driving playoff point streak with Avs

Peter DeBoer was pretty happy when Nathan MacKinnon had a single point in Game 3 of his team’s series against MacKinnon’s Colorado Avalanche.

“If we can keep him to one (point) a night, I’ll take that every night in this series,” the San Jose Sharks coach said.

The Sharks picked up the victory on Tuesday, taking a 2-1 series lead after the latest episode of Logan Couture Theatre. But MacKinnon sure put the fear in the Sharks at one point.

The slow-motion replay can barely pick up the puck. The goal also sparked the Avs’ comeback from a 2-0 deficit in the game. But it was his only point of the game, so DeBoer’s wishes came true.

They won’t every night though.

MacKinnon has recorded a point in seven straight games since the Avs were blanked in Game 1 of their Round 1 series against the Calgary Flames. MacKinnon’s heater is the longest playoff streak by an Avs player since Peter Forsberg in 2004. Forsberg is also the last Avs player to run a postseason streak to eights games (2002).

“He’s got a hunger to his game right now, and he’s working at the point of the puck and he’s working away from it,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “He wants the puck. He’s one of those guys, he is trying to get available and working for the puck all the time because he wants it. He wants to be a difference-maker. We need a few more guys to follow suit with that.”

Playing at nearing a two-point-per-game pace since Game 1 last round, MacKinnon has been electric and shares the lead in playoff scoring with four others, including Couture, at 12 points.

Truth is, every time MacKinnon touches the puck and has some space, it’s a hold-your-breath-type moment. And he’s creating all sorts of scoring chances.

The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun did a quick poll of fellow NHL superstars and, well, MacKinnon is the man they’re all watching.

“My favorite player to watch right now is MacKinnon,” Patrick Kane said.

“He’s dominating,” added fellow Cole Harbour native Sidney Crosby.

 [NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“MacKinnon is probably the most fun to watch right now,” Connor McDavid explained.

MacKinnon will certainly be a key to Game 4 success for the Avs (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN). But there’s a lot to clean up from Tuesday’s game, Bednar said.

“We made some bonehead decisions with the puck, too, at times,” he said. “The bulk of their scoring chances come off turnover plays and mismanaging the puck and just poor execution.”

Finding some success on the power play will help, too. The Avs were 0-for-4 in that department in Game 3 and Bednar wasn’t holding back his opinion of what the man-advantage looked like for Colorado.

“It was bad,” he said. “It was bad through the neutral zone… it’s pretty obvious for us as a team after looking at the video what we need to do. Our execution was poor. Our support was poor. We just didn’t make the right decisions with the puck in the neutral zone.”

Colorado has never come back from a series where they’ve trailed 3-1 (like their power play in Game 3, they’re 0-for-4 in that scenario).

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

Colorado Collapse: What’s eating the Avalanche?

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Typically, the U.S. Thanksgiving break serves as a solid benchmark in the NHL for which teams will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

For this year’s Colorado Avalanche, a peek at the standings on the final day of November would prove that Colorado was tied with Nashville in points atop the Central Division. But since Dec. 1, the Avalanche are 7-15-3 (17 points), which is the worst mark in the league. Here in early February, they’re on the outside looking in, two points back of Vancouver in the Western Conference wild card race, after the Canucks defeated them 5-1 on Saturday.

Here’s a deeper look at how the Avalanche problems have (ahem) snowballed:

Top Heavy

Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen make up arguably the best line in the game. Entering Colorado’s matchup with Vancouver over the weekend, the trio had combined for 199 points (79 goals, 120 assists) after all three had been named All-Stars. But head coach Jared Bednar split them up for the Canucks game, looking to spread a bit of the wealth. Alexander Kerfoot started on the top line in Landeskog’s spot along with MacKinnon and Colin Wilson, while the Avalanche captain played left wing on the second line with Carl Soderberg at center and Rantanen on right wing. It lasted less than 20 minutes, as Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen were reunited by the end of the first period after Colorado had fallen behind 2-0.

Since the start of December, Landeskog (26 points), MacKinnon (30) and Rantanen (31) have combined for 87 points. During that span, all other Colorado forwards have combined for 69 points. Outside of the big three and Soderberg – who has a career-best 17 goals this season – the Avs have struggled to produce up front. That lack of depth will make it difficult for them to turn things around and make a playoff push.

Power Play

Through Nov. 30, the Avalanche had the best power play in the league, with the man advantage clicking at a whopping 31.4 percent, or 27-for-86 in 26 games. In the following 25 games since Dec. 1, Colorado has 20 power play goals, despite 18 more power play opportunities (20-for-104). While it is unreasonable to expect that the Avs would have continued their torrid pace from earlier in the year, the dip in production on the man advantage helps explain why Colorado’s overall goals per game has slid from 3.73 through November (tied for best in the league with Tampa Bay) to 2.92 since.

Goalie Struggles

Colorado has allowed three or more goals 33 times in 51 games, so defensive structure has certainly been an issue this season. Still, the Avalanche has also failed to get big saves from either of their goaltenders. Since early December, Semyon Varlamov is 4-8-2 with an .875 save percentage and 3.54 goals against average. That save percentage is the worst among all netminders who have played at least 10 games in that span.

Philipp Grubauer – who was signed during the off-season to a three-year, $10 million deal – hasn’t been any better with a 3-5-1 record, an .878 save percentage and 3.68 goals against average during that same stretch.

After regulation

Get this, the Avs are 1-7 in overtime this season and 0-1 in shootouts. Those are precious points they’ve left on the table in a conference with playoff spots ripe for the taking.

If all of that wasn’t enough, Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Avalanche, also owns the Los Angeles Rams. On the bright side, if the Avs get just three points, they’d be back in the playoffs.