Patrick Roy’s return to the NHL as Colorado’s head coach has generated plenty of hype, especially in Canada. After he answered questions posed in English following his team’s morning skate today, he answered a couple posed in French.
Still, he’s taking over the second-worst team in the league last season, so I asked him, in English, what is fair to expect from the Avalanche this season in his first year as head coach.
“We want to surprise the world of hockey,” he said. “I look at all the predictions and nobody puts us in the playoffs. But we have the right to prove people wrong, and it starts tonight.”
Brave talk is common this time of year, of course. The Avs have been full of hope before each of the past three seasons, but that didn’t stop last season from being their worst since the franchise moved to Colorado from Quebec. Only Florida registered fewer points in the standings. The Avs’ point percentage was their lowest since the 1991-92 season, when they were the Quebec Nordiques.
Nevertheless, this year’s team is stocked with a group of talented young players reminiscent of those young Nordiques. With franchise legends Roy and Joe Sakic having taken the controls — Roy on the ice and Sakic in the front office — the Avs are convinced that things are looking up.
“In this dressing room, we’re expecting nothing less than a playoff spot,” 20-year-old power forward and team captain Gabe Landeskog said when I asked about fair expectations.
“It’s going to be a tough road there because we’re in a tough division this year with the defending Stanley Cup champions and a bunch of other teams as well. So it’s going to be tough, but we feel like we have the confidence going into this season that we can make a difference and we can surprise some people.”
However it turns out competitively, the league’s realignment should provide a relief to fans, and perhaps a little juice at the gate, too. Gone is the little-lamented Northwest Division that seemed to pit Colorado against Calgary every other night. The Avs are in a new Central Division that includes the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks along with the Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets.
With four players selected among the top three picks of their respective drafts — defenseman Erik Johnson (No. 1, by St. Louis, 2006), center Matt Duchene (No. 3, 2009), Landeskog (No. 2, 2011) and Nathan MacKinnon (No. 1, 2013) — the Avs have lots of skill. Whether they have the other characteristics that make up a winner is a different question.
“There’s no more excuses for being young in terms of myself and a few other guys in this room,” Duchene told me. “Once you get past your first couple of years, I think you’re well on your way to being a seasoned veteran in this league. This is my fifth year and hopefully there’s a lot more to come, but I’ve learned a lot so far and looking forward to applying that here this season.”
“We can’t just rely on our skill,” Landeskog added. “We know that we have a lot of skill, but it didn’t work last year and it didn’t work the year before, so we need to change something, obviously, and we need to pay more attention to details, pay more attention to the systems, all these kind of things Patrick’s been talking about and harping on all preseason here. What better experience can you have than with Adam Foote, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy? So we’ve got the best circumstances here to make sure we’re a playoff team and a playoff contender. We know if we can develop the skill and experience and more leadership we’ll be fine.”
Beaten down by constant criticism as the team foundered under former coach Joe Sacco, several players mentioned the upbeat approach Roy has brought to his first NHL head coaching assignment.
“He’s very positive,” Duchene said. “When we need a kick in the butt, he gives it to us, but when we’re doing things the right way and doing things well, we get praise as well. And as a team, you need that. As much as you’re being criticized, you’ve got to be built up as well. He’s done an outstanding job of that and everybody has loved that part of it so far.”
Near the end of last season, veteran goaltender J.S. Giguere ripped into unnamed teammates for being too ready for summer vacation. So I asked him where the sense of urgency missing a year ago needs to come from.
“Obviously, the coaching staff’s going to help, making sure we have urgency and putting us back in the straight direction if we wander, but most of it has to come from within,” Giguere said. “We have to have some leadership. We have to have some guys standing up to the other guys when they’re not going in the right place. I totally believe in the leadership we have in this group.”
On paper, the Avs look like they could pull off a turnaround season. Their top lines — Landeskog, Paul Stastny, Alex Tanguay; Ryan O’Reilly, Duchene, Steve Downie; Jamie McGinn, MacKinnon, P.A. Parenteau — have plenty of speed, skill and scoring ability. Stopping their opponents from scoring — the Avs gave up 152 goals in 48 games last season — is another matter.
“Defense is extremely important,” Landeskog said. “I think for us, we want to play in the offensive zone, but if we’re not good in our zone then we’re never going to be in the offensive zone. So as simple as that. We want to make sure we’re good in the defensive zone. We know we struggled a little bit with that last year, so we made some changes there and some tweaks here and there, so we’ll be better this year.”
Everybody knows the history of Hall-of-Fame players trying their hand at coaching. It’s not good. But Roy paid his dues at the junior level and his players clearly believe in him. Still, surprising the world of hockey has been easier said than done for the Avs lately.
As a player, Roy often wrote big checks with his mouth, then cashed them between the pipes. The Avs desperately hope he can do the same from behind the bench.