Colorado Avalanche: Are They More Than an Eighth Seed Success Story?

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News came out the middle of last week that Jared Bednar was re-signed by the Colorado Avalanche to a two year extension, as he’s led the club to two straight playoff appearances. Both of those playoff appearances for the Avs involved playing consistently around the end of the season and locking up the last playoff spot in the Western conference.

You read that right, the Colorado Avalanche have been the eighth seed two years in a row and have played as well if not better than most people expected; taking the Nashville Predators to a surprising six games in the first round in 2018, smashing the Calgary Flames in five games in round one earlier, and then lost a nail-biter to the San Jose Sharks in round two in a seven game series.

Before the two years of being in the playoffs, the Avalanche had two subpar seasons and one dreadful one. As with many teams who have multiple years of missing the playoffs, there were a good number of reasons why they couldn’t get back to being the best in their division during the 2013-2014 season. Goaltending had become an issue, star player Nathan McKinnon wasn’t the same player as when he first came into the league, and most notably, the team lacked good defensemen. Including this year’s draft, the Colorado Avalanche have drafted a total of 37 defensemen (they took zero in 2012 and then five in 2013). Compare that with 30 centers, 13 left and right wings (each), one forward and 14 goalies, per hockeyreference.com.

Ever since that dreadful 2016-2017 season, the Avs have turned things around, starting off with the hiring of Jared Bednar. A lot has come together since, with Nathan McKinnon fully back to his 2013 debut form being a big one. McKinnon proved he’s one of the best players in the league and single-handedly turned the tide in the first-round series against the Calgary Flames in the Saddledome by netting an OT winner in game two.

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Nathan McKinnon (right) swats a puck in during Game 4 against Martin Jones. The Avalanche shut out the Sharks 3-0 to even the series

The acquisition of German Stanley Cup Champion goaltender (although backup to Braden Holtby) Philipp Grubauer has been a breath of fresh air and a much needed body in net, which led to Colorado being fine with Semyon Varlamov’s departure to the New York Islanders. As noted by Joe Micheletti stated during game five of the Avalanche/Sharks series, “Grubauer’s best attribute is how he plays honestly and doesn’t seem to ‘cheat’ when he’s in net,” and “at times for Colorado playing defense, Grubauer took control and directed the defense on what to do, as if he could see every little thing that was going on.”

Roster depth has built up especially for the wings over the years, as team captain Gabriel Landeskog and J.T. Compher have anchored the first line. Colin Wilson, Matt Nieto and Mikko Rantanen are worthy backups behind both of them. As for center,  Tyson Jost is a complimentary backup to MacKinnon, though free agency did help Colorado build what could be a scary secondary line behind a fantastic group on the first. The Avalanche gained three quality players in Nazem Kadri (via trade), Joonas Donskoi and Andre Burakovsky (free agency), something that will give teams in the western conference headaches.

There will be a lot of questions over the third and fourth lines when next season begins and progresses, especially when it comes to certain opponents and important games late in the year, so it’s probable Bednar and his staff are planning with the rest of the team. Philipp Grubauer could also fall back to earth or not play at a Vezina-like level he had late last season, though if the depth of this roster can get it going, he shouldn’t have to. The Avalanche drafted the top defensemen Bowen Byram in the 2019 draft, but they did trade their best defensemen away to Toronto in the complicated Nazem Kadri trade, so again there must be cohesion and solid play from the defensemen, highlighted by the re-signed Nikita Zadorov.

Four of the remaining six teams in the central division added pieces to take a good shot at either making the playoffs or getting to the Stanley Cup Finals, with the St. Louis Blues (one of the two that didn’t) will have the same focused roster as they had when they won the Cup in June. Whoever wins the central could possibly be the favorite to go to/back to the Championship, and for the Colorado Avalanche to do that, they’ll have to rely on their stars, grow and develop the lines and role-players behind them, and get a monumental push from Coach Bednar, with some things falling in their favor. The Avs have proven they can handle not just an underdog role, but to build off of it and become a threat for upcoming seasons. Expect this team to make a resonating impact this year.

The NFL Super Bowl Champion of the Decade Is…

 

Before the name of the champion is revealed, I will break lines with objectivity and say thank you to everyone who voted on the poll conducted with the question asked who the best Super Bowl winner this decade was. Over 130 people submitted votes in, both in and out of the United States. Every team received at least five votes, and every Super Bowl winning team deserved to take home their titles, thus making this very hard to pick who’s the best.

Written below are two picks: the team with the most votes, and my pick. While the first one will have an in-depth description, my choice will be broken down as to why that team was the best in different categories.

The NFL Super Bowl Champion of the Decade according to the public is….The 2013-2014 Seattle Seahawks

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While I do have a good number of peers who are Seahawks fans, it was stunning to see how many people, from casual viewers to those who watch every game (taking the 12th Man fans out of it) vote for this team as the best. Simply put, the performance the Seahawks put on Denver throughout the four quarters of action have stuck in peoples’ minds over the five years since the game was played. With the best defense in the 2013-14 season, Seattle wound up being the #1 seed in the entire National Football Conference, besting it’s division rivals (the Arizona Cardinals were a surprising 10-6 while the San Francisco 49ers claimed the fifth seed in the NFC), the New Orleans Saints twice at home, and obliterating their former division rival Denver Broncos in the Championship game.

The year for Seattle was expectedly in their favor. Ranked at times from best overall by NFL.com, to second to third overall by Vegas before the 2013 season began. They played their best football in their most important games, especially defensively, making life miserable for offensive coaches, quarterbacks and offensive lines. A dual offensive threat in Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson made opposing defenses stressed and mentally drained, especially the more a game progressed (most notably overtime games against Houston and Tampa Bay). All three losses were by seven points or less, with all being determined in the fourth quarter, meaning Seattle, in every game that year, had a lead at some point.

The play now known as The Tip in the Conference Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers, ultimately giving Seattle the 2-1 series win during the season, tipped the division rivalry in Seattle’s favor, and would make them the NFC team to beat for over two years. In the Super Bowl, Denver looked helpless, especially after breaking record books and playing as the best offense of all time much of the season. As legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Doug Buffone said the morning after the game, “That defense was absolutely gorgeous.”

The Seahawks would score 12 seconds into both halves and Denver would score on just one drive. No other team in the NFL this decade (since the Saints played their regular season in 2009) was so utterly dominant from beginning to end in flaring fashion.

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The Author’s pick for Super Bowl Champion of the Decade: The 2013-2014 Seattle Seahawks

There are a lot of reasons why I picked the Seahawks, but bias was not one of them. The categories I used to determine this would be regular season grade, dominance in the game itself, low number or severity of injuries, and other factors that could throw an asterisk in. The Saints weren’t dominant the whole game against the Colts, as well as two of the Patriots’ wins (Seattle and Atlanta, though both were exciting). Green Bay, New York and Denver struggled during the regular season, though Green Bay and New York caught fire while Denver had to switch the offense up. The Eagles suffered a loss to their star quarterback Carson Wentz and relied on Nick Foles the rest of the way. That’s not to say Foles was still the chink in the armor, but recall the team looked vulnerable with Wentz gone especially at the time. Last but not least, the Ravens could possibly have had this spot, but the stadium lights shut off at the beginning of the third quarter, and the 49ers got back in the game and almost won, and this recent Patriots team won against a Rams team people cried shouldn’t be there, and over which Roger Goodell should’ve exercised his power to make the final minute/plus be replayed. This leaves Seattle as the only team that accomplished all four of these feats.

Seattle did a lot of unique things that few teams this decade got to do or had resources for. They include;

  • great depth at defensive line: Coaches Pete Carroll and Dan Quinn wanted the defensive line to switch and substitute frequently, letting the older players like Chris Clemons get rested and refreshed for later on in games. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril weren’t even slated as starters. That should stand out to those who’ve watched them play. This idea not only worked, it gave the Seahawks the upper hand especially in close games (notably ones which went to overtime).

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  • Quality Opponents and a Deep Conference; as the National Football Conference was clearly the superior conference at the time. The NFC had created four of the past six super bowl winners. Seattle faced all but one of those winners at least once during the year. Then there was what a lot of people deemed the best division in the game, the NFC West, as the Arizona Cardinals just missed the playoffs and the NFC Championship winner and runner-up the two years prior was the San Francisco 49ers. The only out of conference challenge before the super bowl was the Indianapolis Colts.
  • Youth, which gave Seattle the cap room to sign guys like Cliff Avril and Percy Harvin. It’s also how they kept their core together even after. A team of hungry, young players wound up being a nightmare for the league. It was also the first team since the 1990 Buffalo Bills to have not one player go to a Super Bowl any years prior.
  • The better the opponent, the better they played. New Orleans felt that after Seattle was off its bye week, San Francisco felt that Week 2 and Denver got all of it in the title game. The bigger the test, the better the team played as a unit. While the divisional and conference playoff games were grinders, Seattle saved up what they had for the super bowl and didn’t leave a choice about who was the best team.
  • The Offensive backfield, preferably Michael Robinson and Marshawn Lynch. With an All-Pro fullback and a running back exceedingly hard to take down, it was excruciatingly difficult to stop Seattle’s run game. While Wilson was the dangerous one throwing accurate passes, Lynch was the opposite and relished bowling over half the opponent’s defense. With Robinson, it became an advantage the Seahawks hadn’t had in almost a decade. It made opponents forget that Wilson was accurate when he slung the ball downfield. It’s why Denver was caught off-guard when he started throwing the ball to begin Super Bowl play instead of handing the ball off to Lynch.

Seattle had a lot of other factors that helped, including playing home games in one of if not the loudest stadium in the NFL, great drafting and development and having an energetic and exciting head coach who knew how to keep players competing whether in practice or in games. The little things didn’t go unnoticed, and it’s why this team is historically special.