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Illustration by The Sporting Press; photos courtesy of Colorado Avalanche

The Inside Story of the Colorado Avalanche’s Turnaround

A little more than two years ago, the Colorado Avalanche were among the worst teams in the NHL. Then the Avs made back-to-back playoff appearances, and this year, with a talented young lineup, they might well be Stanley Cup contenders. Here’s your guide to one of the league’s most exciting teams—both on and off the ice.

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Beginning of an Era?

“Dumpster fire.” “An unmitigated hockey disaster.” “Lowest of the low.” Those were just a few of the phrases local sports writers used to describe the Colorado Avalanche in April 2017. It had been a difficult season: The Avs’ volatile coach, Patrick Roy, had abruptly quit in August 2016; three months later, Matt Duchene, the face of the franchise, requested a trade. Amidst the turmoil, the team put together one of the worst records in the history of professional hockey: 22-56-4.

The season reflected the nadir of what had been a 10-year tumble (after making the Stanley Cup playoffs 10 times in a row). It was so dismal that no sane sports writer could have forecast what came next—a playoff appearance. And then another in 2019, in which the Avs upset the top-seeded Calgary Flames in the opening round.

By May 2019, Avalanche jerseys hung from the canopy of lights in Larimer Square; fans paraded across Speer Boulevard dressed as yetis or sporting suits made of blue pompoms; and Denverites who two months earlier couldn’t tell you how many periods are in a game (three, for the uninitiated) gushed about Nathan MacKinnon and could even spell his name properly. The Avs were officially back. So how did the team climb out of the dumpster and extinguish the fire?

“It was pretty simple,” says head coach Jared Bednar, who took over the team in 2016. “The goal was to get a whole lot younger and a whole lot faster.” Translation: grooming promising speedsters, such as center MacKinnon and forward Mikko Rantanen, who, over the past couple of seasons, have turned into full-fledged stars alongside talented veterans like Gabriel Landeskog. The Avs also added standout rookie defenseman Cale Makar at the end of this past season—and thanks to well-structured contracts, Colorado will likely keep those players for at least a few years. Pair that core with their recent playoff experience, and many fans believe the Avs have the recipe for a championship future.

We’re some of them. So whether you’ve been a devotee since the days of Peter Forsberg or you’re still not entirely sure what icing is, we’ve got you covered with this guide to one of the NHL’s youngest—and most exciting—teams.

[Read More: How Cale Makar Went from the NCAA to the NHL in 48 Hours


Greatest Hits

A bite-size history of the Colorado Avalanche’s 24 years in Denver.

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Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

1996: In the team’s first year in Colorado, the Avs defeat the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup Final. Pandemonium ensues in the Mile High City.

1997–2000: In four trips to the playoffs, the Avalanche fail to make the Western Conference finals only once. Hating the Detroit Red Wings, whom they play in the playoffs three of those years, is very much in vogue.

2001: The Avs convincingly march to a second Stanley Cup title after adding legendary defenseman Ray Bourque. The organization immediately retires his number (77), and he never plays another pro hockey game.

2002–2005: The team has a mild championship hangover. The Avs make the playoffs each year, but they never progress beyond the conference finals.

2006–2016: The Broncos maintain a firm grip on Denver fans’ attention as the Avs sputter, only advancing beyond the regular season four times in a decade.

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2016–2017: The Avs lose. A lot. Fifty-six times, to be precise. Some Avalanche fans wear brown paper bags over their heads at the Pepsi Center.

2017–2019: The Avs make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in more than a decade.


Tracking a Turnaround

How to go from one of the worst teams ever to what could be one of the best—in just a few years.

Illustration by Sean Parsons

1. Hire a Nobody

After three mostly winning seasons, Avs head coach Patrick Roy—a former goaltender who led the Avalanche to two Stanley Cups—abruptly resigns in August 2016, citing a lack of input in personnel decisions. The organization hires Jared Bednar, a promising minor league coach, to replace him two weeks later.

2. Deal with a Disgruntled Star

Matt Duchene, who had been the Avs’ star center since he was drafted third overall in 2009, asks general manager Joe Sakic for a trade in November 2016. Duchene says he wants to taste more playoff hockey and doesn’t see it happening in Colorado. Despite his request, he plays out the rest of the season with the Avs.

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3. Rebuild in the Offseason—and into the Next Season

The roster undergoes a massive transformation over the summer of 2017. The front office adds 12 new players and drops 17 from the previous season’s team. In November, Duchene is finally traded to the Ottawa Senators in a three-team deal, in which the Avs receive three draft picks and four players. “The team was completely different,” Bednar says. “The leadership got handed over to our young stars [Nathan MacKinnon and Erik Johnson].”

[Read more: Avalanche Defensemen Erik Johnson on Life Without His Three Front Teeth]

4. Get Streaky

The Avs, who had been sitting outside playoff contention for much of the season, go on a run in January 2018 and become the season’s only NHL squad to post a 10-game win streak. On the final night of the regular season, the Avalanche beat the St. Louis Blues 5-2 in a winner-takes-all game to earn a Stanley Cup playoff berth for the first time since 2014.

5. Experience Some Growing Pains

In 2018-’19, the Avs cruise to a 16-6-5 record through their first 27 games—in large part due to a scorching start from MacKinnon, who notched 27 goals and 44 assists before the All-Star Game. In the new year, poor goaltending and an inability to win in overtime cause a slide in the standings.

6. Be Resilient

After a series of February and March meetings, in which Bednar stressed “process not results,” the team finishes strong, going 16-7-3. They earn a second straight playoff berth with a 3-2 overtime comeback win against the Winnipeg Jets.

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7. Fight Like an Underdog

The Avs upset the top-seeded Calgary Flames in five games to open the 2019 playoffs. The team then pushes San Jose to Game 7 in the second round but loses 3-2. After finishing the playoffs one win away from the Western Conference finals, the Avs head into the offseason with the fifth-best chance of winning the 2020 Stanley Cup, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers.

8. Pick Up Where You Left Off

The Avs will return to the Pepsi Center on October 3 to battle the  algary Flames in their first regular-season game. “People are expecting us to contend for the Stanley Cup,” Avalanche defenseman Johnson says. “It’s the first time this group will have to deal with big-time expectations. We’ll see how we deal.”


Don’t Puck This Up

If you just learned what the “five hole” (the scoring zone between the goalie’s legs) is this past May, fear not. We answered a few common questions to help you sound like a fanatic when the Avs’ first preseason “faceoff” (when the referee drops the puck between two opponents’ waiting sticks) occurs at the Pepsi Center on September 17. —Kaelyn Lynch

Illustration by Sean Parsons

Why are the teams sometimes uneven?
Each team typically has six players on the ice. But when a player commits an egregious foul (called a penalty), he goes to the penalty box for two to five minutes, depending on the transgression’s severity. Common penalties include “hooking”—restraining a skater with one’s stick—and “high-sticking,” when a player lifts his stick above shoulder height to play the puck and the stick contacts an opponent. (If the player doesn’t hit an opponent, it’s still high-sticking, but the infraction doesn’t come with penalty time.) The loss of a teammate creates an advantage for the opposing team known as a “power play.” Last year, the Avs were the fourth-best-scoring team on power plays, notching 63 such goals in 82 games.

What’s with all of the people skating on and off the ice during play?
Unlike almost every other sport, hockey substitutions can occur on the fly. Instead of individual changes, players also come on and off the ice in “lines.” NHL teams generally have four three-man offensive units and three two-man defensive units. Each group spends about 45 seconds on the ice before being switched out by the coaching staff, who play a high-speed game of mental chess against the competition. The Avs’ first (read: best) line of forwards—Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog—is widely considered one of the finest in the NHL.

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I get that a faceoff is like a jump ball in basketball. Why are there so many?
A faceoff results almost anytime there is a stoppage of play, whether that’s for a penalty or a rules infraction. Two common infractions that lead to faceoffs are icing and offsides. “Icing” occurs when a player on his team’s side of the red center line sends the puck past the opposing team’s goal line. If the referee deems an opposing player is likely to reach the puck first, icing is called. “Offsides” is called when a player without the puck passes the blue line on the opponent’s side before the puck crosses the same line. Avs fans are all-too-familiar with this rule: A controversial offsides call against Landeskog negated a key goal in Game 7 of last season’s playoff series against the San Jose Sharks.


Must-Watch Matchups

Four regular-season home games you won’t want to miss in 2019-’20.

October 3 vs. The Calgary Flames

The Avs open the season at home against the team they beat in the first round of the playoffs last year.

January 16 vs. The San Jose Sharks

This will be the first of three chances the Avalanche have to avenge last season’s playoff loss to the Sharks.

February 15 vs. The Los Angeles Kings

The field at the Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium will transform into a hockey rink for the second outdoor game in Avs history.

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April 4 vs. The St. Louis Blues

The defending Stanley Cup champions come to the Pepsi Center to close out the season.


Engineering an All-Star

At six feet tall and 205 pounds, Nathan MacKinnon’s physical presence doesn’t jump off the page—but the Avs’ superstar center has preternatural skills that make him uniquely suited for the ice. We break down the attributes and intangibles that have made MacKinnon one of the keys to the Avalanche’s ascension.

Illustration by The Sporting Press; photo courtesy of Colorado Avalanche
Singular Focus

When MacKinnon was a teenager, O’Brien once got distracted and forgot to tell him to stop doing high knees. Five minutes later, O’Brien realized MacKinnon was still doing the drill. That mental drive has helped MacKinnon take his place among the most dominant players alive. “He’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever met,” says Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar.

1 Hard-Charging Trainer

MacKinnon hails from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia—the same 25,000-person town that produced NHL phenom Sidney Crosby. It could be something in the water, but it’s more likely the fact that Andy O’Brien, who is currently the Pittsburgh Penguins’ director of sports science and performance, has long served as a personal trainer for both.

205 Pounds of Muscle

Sports Illustrated hockey writer Alex Prewitt once called MacKinnon “the ultimate physical unicorn for today’s game.” His six-foot frame has always allowed him to be low enough to the ground to accelerate quickly. But since coming into the league, MacKinnon has added 10 pounds of muscle while still maintaining seven percent body fat. The extra layers of fast-twitch muscles that make up his 205 pounds’ worth of broad shoulders and tree-trunk legs keep him from being easily pushed off the puck by bigger defensemen.

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12.3 Percent of Shots Converted

MacKinnon’s shots can be hard to read because he doesn’t need a full windup. That allows him to use his right hip to hide which direction he intends to flip the puck with a “wrist shot”—basically, a quick, short-range flick. He’s particularly accurate with these tricky shots: During the past two years, he’s converted 12.3 percent of his shots, resulting in a total of 80 goals. The league average? Around nine percent.

Fast Feet

Most NHL players need four to five strides to reach full speed, but MacKinnon’s wide, powerful skating motion often allows him to do it in just two. O’Brien attributes MacKinnon’s acceleration to his ability to maintain a deep leg bend while moving both forward and laterally. He began honing such strength during 5 a.m. power-skating sessions around the age of 10.


Number One Fan

Think you know the Avs? Test your knowledge of the team and the Pepsi Center—which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year—with this quiz. —Kasey Cordell

1. Before they came to Colorado in 1995, where did the Avalanche call home?
a) Hartford, Connecticut
b) Milwaukee, Wisconsin
c) Quebec City, Quebec

2. What does it signify when the Avs wear the logo that has a triangle with a C in it on their chests?
a) They’re playing at home.
b) They’re playing away.
c) They’re playing a divisional rival.

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3. How many times per season does head ice technician Tony Kreusch create the Avs’ ice rink?
a) Once
b) About 10
c) About 25

4. How many U.S. cities had three professional sports teams in the playoffs this past spring?
a) Zero
b) One
c) Two

5. What is the name of the Avs’ mascot?
a) Howler
b) Rakshasa
c) Bernie

6. Which of these Avs game elements is human-powered, not mechanized?
a) The organ music played during games
b) The red light that comes on when a goal is scored
c) Both of the above

7. True/False: You have to be a female to be a member of the in-game ice-cleaning crew.

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8. What temperature is the Pepsi Center thermostat set to during Avs games?
a) 66 degrees
b) 68 degrees
c) 72 degrees

Answers

1. C
Established in 1972 as part of the World Hockey Association, the Quebec Nordiques (Northmen) joined the NHL in 1979. After the premier of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau, refused to bail the cash-strapped team out in 1995, it was sold to the owners of the Denver Nuggets (COMSAT Entertainment Group), relocated to Colorado, and renamed.

2. C
The tradition began this past season.

3. A
Kreusch regularly retouches parts of the 85-by-200-foot playing surface, but it’s only put down in full once per season. When the Nuggets play, the court is built on top of it.

4. B
Denver’s pro hockey, basketball, and lacrosse teams all made the playoffs, although the Colorado Mammoth never played at home.

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5. C
Bernie the Saint Bernard was introduced in 2009 and is the Avs’ second mascot. The first, Howler the yeti, was retired in the early 2000s, not long after a fan accused Howler of injuring her during a Chicago Blackhawks game in 1999. The employee wearing the suit was cited for disturbing the peace, according to news reports.

6. C
A keyboardist mimics whatever song the DJ played at the last whistle. An NHL-appointed judge stationed in the press box watches to determine if a goal is legit before pressing the button to turn on the light.

7. False
Last year was the Ice Girls’ sixth and final season. This year, a coed crew, the Ice Patrol, will maintain the playing surface during games.

8. A
Even at full capacity (18,007 for Avs games), the temp in the Pepsi Center will only hit 66 degrees, ensuring the integrity of the glassy playing surface.

Scoring

Six to eight correct: You’re a superfan!
Three to five correct: Not bad, but maybe you should brush up by investing in season tickets (starting at $645).
Two or fewer correct: Admit it; you’re a Broncos fan, aren’t you?

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