Take a look at the teams that made the NHL playoffs last year: in the East, ’twas PIT, MON, WAS, BOS, TOR, NYR, OTT, and NYI. In the West, ’twas CHI, ANA, VAN, STL, LAK, SJS, DET, and MIN. Detroit moved from the West to the East over the off-season. Now look at the current NHL conference standings: in the East, the eight best teams are PIT, BOS, MON, TB, WAS, DET, TOR, and CAR. Tampa Bay’s new from last year’s playoff seeds, as is Carolina — but Carolina’s the eight-seed and only a couple of points up on the Rangers, who were in that group of teams from year. In the West right now, it’s CHI, ANA, LAK, STL, SJS, VAN, COL, and MIN. The only difference in the West compared to the end of last year is the Colorado Avalanche, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2010 and finished fifth in their division last year. Tampa Bay, the other new addition to the top eight as of almost January 1, missed the playoffs the last two years — but was in the Conference Finals the year before that. The last time the Avalanche were in the Conference Finals was 2002, and the last time they won a playoff series was 2008. The Avs’ semi-return to prominence is one of the best team stories of this year.
If you want to understand how they’ve gotten better, there are a couple of good reads around the Internet, including this piece on the Yahoo Contributor Network talking about Nathan Mackinnon (18), Gabe Landeskog (21), Ryan O’Reilly (22) and Matt Duchene (22), four of the nine under-25 players on the Avs’ current roster — all of whom are stars or approaching stardom. There’s also this article from Grantland contrasting them with the Oilers, which is interesting. I only tangentially follow hockey — I am one of those people who is really into it in the playoffs but not on a night-by-night basis, which is kinda how I am with baseball too — but I figured by now, or by next season at the latest, the Oilers would be insanely good, seeing as how they had three No. 1 picks in a row. No. They’re actually the worst team in the Western Conference. I have no emotional connection to the Oilers aside from once owning an Oilers hat (good conversation starter), but still, that situation sucks. The Grantland article does a better job than I could describing the pros and cons of each rebuilding model. One of the keys has been a change in system that Roy brought around; he also shifted the team to a man-to-man. They started 14-3-0 and are currently 21-9-1, so their last 13 or so are about even, but the hot start can help, especially in a competitive Western Conference. There’s also Mile High Hockey and All Things Avs for more context than this post could ever provide.
On surface, I can say this — it would have seemed, when Roy was hired, that it was a move to sell tickets. Last year, Colorado was 26th (out of 30) in terms of putting behinds in seats. Roy had coached before, but never at the NHL level. It seemed like maybe a reach, but then he went out and did something like this in the first week of the season:
Then he went toe-to-toe with NHL coaching veteran Ken Hitchcock, who currently is coach of the Blues:
I’m gonna say it — on a bigger level in a bigger sport (for Americans, at least), Roy has basically been the equivalent of Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco. Ex-player, fired-up dude, maybe quick to anger, not afraid to back down from dudes/arguments, likes his team to play fast and ruthless. I’m not saying the Avs are going to reach two consecutive Conference Finals (as the Niners did), but the parallels are there. Roy had some legit stones / was potentially insane as a player. Remember this, when he skated past the mid-line and deked Gretzky? (Goalies can’t do the former.)
Harbaugh’s a little nuts too, and he’s not afraid to throw grenades at other coaches/players.
Roy’s intensity probably helps them with scoring first, and when they do that, they’re 17-0 this season.
I have no idea what’s going to happen with the Avs this season — they’re in a rocky stretch, and five of their next six are against over-.500 teams (Stars, Kings, Sharks and Blackhawks). I don’t really see them winning the West, but I’d love to see a deep run out of ’em. They’re a young, entertaining team with a coach who could give us some high-quality soundbites and moments in intense games/series. Buckle up and get ready.