AVALANCHE

Avalanche’s chase for their first Cup in two-plus decades begins tonight

Oct 13, 2021, 6:28 AM
Darcy Kuemper...
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Joe Sakic doesn’t mince words.

“Our goal is to try and win a Stanley Cup. We’re one of the favorites and that’s a good position to be in,” Sakic said on Tuesday, although the Hall-of-Famer and Colorado Avalanche’s general manager is certainly aware that the hardest team trophy to claim in sport isn’t won on paper.

“It doesn’t guarantee you anything, but to be picked as one of the favorites going into the season means that you’re doing a pretty good job with your roster,” Sakic added. “We have some incredible players, talented players, exciting players. The way we play the game, I think fans love coming and watching us play. But the ultimate goal is to win a Stanley Cup, and we’re going to try and do that.”

In actuality, the Avalanche aren’t “one of” the favorites — they’re the favorite.

From Vegas to ESPN to the NHL’s own website, everybody is picking the Avalanche. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn, who writes analytical breakdowns of every team, proclaimed, “In all my years of doing this, never has a team been projected to be as strong as the Colorado Avalanche. Colorado is the team to beat this season by a wide margin.”

The Avalanche won the President’s Trophy for the league’s best regular-season record last season, but were unceremoniously dumped in the second round by the Vegas Golden Knights after once leading that series 2-0. The hard lessons learned weren’t lost on Sakic or his charges.

“You’re up two games to nothing. We didn’t play well for a stretch there, and I think the lesson is you’ve got to deal with adversity a little bit better,” Sakic explained. “We did a good job of turning it around, but we didn’t win the games when they mattered, and that was disappointing. The guys were disappointed this summer; (now they’re) motivated, they’re hungry to go and try to get back to it. In the meantime, we have an 82-game schedule that we’re just trying to get better from the start to the end of the year.”

The first of those 82 happens tonight at Ball Arena in a nationally televised game against the visiting Chicago Blackhawks, and the Avs won’t have either head coach Jared Bednar or Hart Trophy candidate Nathan MacKinnon, who both contracted “breakthrough” cases of COVID-19. Sakic confirmed that his entire team — all players, coaches and staff — is fully vaccinated and hopeful that these occurrences will be rare. Both men are asymptomatic, and could return on Saturday for the team’s home game against the St. Louis Blues.

In a tumultuous offseason that saw the stacked Avalanche roster pillaged in the Seattle Kraken’s expansion draft and free agency, the team said goodbye to major contributors in forwards Brandon Saad and Joonas Donskoi, defenseman Ryan Graves and goaltender Philip Grubauer. A mix of youngsters and veterans will take their place, with defensemen Ryan Murray and Jack Johnson and forwards Darren Helm providing valuable experience to complement an injection of youth with returning forward Alex Newhook and defenseman Bowen Byram, along with 21-year-old winger Sampo Ranta, who will make his NHL debut on Wednesday night.

“We have got some guys that I think can grow in their roles offensively that will be given some more opportunity,” Bednar explained last week.

Goaltender Darcy Kuemper will garner the most attention of the newcomers. The Avalanche traded for the 6-foot-5 netminder, making a deal to obtain him from the Arizona Coyotes, after Grubauer surprisingly chose to go to Seattle in free agency rather than resigning with the Avalanche.

“We’ve seen a lot of (Kuemper), and he’s tough to score on,” MacKinnon said earlier in the month. “He’s a big guy, and those big goalies, when they’re off, pucks just hit them. They don’t have to be on all the time to be effective. He’s a huge guy. Great personality, great attitude, we’re really pumped to have him.”

The feeling is mutual. The 31-year-old goaltender led Canada to a world championship earlier this year, but has spent the majority of his career toiling for underwhelming teams; something that he’s clearly delighted to be done with.

“I’ve felt at home right away. I’ve felt like a part of the locker room right away,” Kuemper said in training camp. “I just try to be positive all the time — in all aspects of life — and just try to keep a smile on my face. When it is time to work, work — and when it’s time to have fun with the guys, it’s time to have fun with the guys.”

The Avalanche’s fun starts tonight. How long it lasts will be entirely up to them.

***

Shawn Drotar (@sdrotar) is the on-air host of “Sandy and Shawn;” weeknights from 9p-midnight on 104.3 The Fan.

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Avalanche’s chase for their first Cup in two-plus decades begins tonight