There is a university dormitory feel to the Colorado Avalanche dressing room these days.
There was a light, jovial air among the group of sweaty men in their early 20s as they finished a brisk skate in preparation for Monday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. “Just a good bunch of young guys enjoying ourselves out there,” said Avalanche defenceman Erik Johnson, who says even at 23 he feels “like an old guy.”
With an average age of 26.4, the Avalanche are tied with the Maple Leafs as the second youngest team in the NHL. It is no accident the Avalanche have the look of a university class, since the core players in the group are in their third year together.
Greg Sherman was promoted to general manager for the 2009-10 season and handed the job of rebuilding a once proud franchise. The Avs won two Stanley Cups in five years and enjoyed an NHL record 487 consecutive sellouts before a slow decline set in after the last championship, in 2001, a decline in which Colorado fell to the bottom of the league’s standings and attendance charts.
“It’s good to come along with the same group of guys,” said forward Matt Duchene, 20, the third overall pick in the 2009 entry draft. “You’re developing every day together.”
Duchene is one of several talented forwards, such as Ryan O’Reilly, taken 33rd overall in 2009, and Gabriel Landeskog, picked second overall last June, who make the Avalanche a potential scoring force. But question marks on defence and in goal and another playoff miss last season did not have the Avalanche among the teams expected to shoot up the standings this season.
However, the Avalanche shot out of the gate and went into Monday’s game against the Leafs with a 4-1 record. Johnson says the pundits may be surprised but the players are not.
“I think the easy prediction for everyone was to say we’d be at the bottom of the Western Conference this year,” he said. “I think we knew in this room what we had.”
What the Avalanche have that they did not at this time last year is a big, mobile defence and much better goaltending. One reason the experts did not like the team’s playoff chances is that the Avs changed four of their top six defencemen, beginning with a deal for Johnson shortly before last February’s trade deadline. Another is that Sherman’s upgrade in goal was to trade a first- and a second-round draft pick to the Washington Capitals for Semyon Varlamov, who showed promise but was inconsistent and injury-prone in his first four seasons, and to sign former Leaf J.S. Giguère, 34, as the backup.
Sherman’s goal on defence was to get bigger and more mobile, which was realized, considering Ryan Wilson is now the smallest blueliner at 6 foot 1 and 207 pounds. The defence also made the Avalanche end of the ice much less hospitable, which explains their stingy 11 goals against going into the Leaf game.
“When we stack up against some of the bigger teams in the Western Conference like San Jose, Anaheim and L.A., we won’t get pushed around as much as we have in the past,” Johnson said.
The real revelation, though, was Varlamov, 23. While he was granted a night’s rest against the Leafs so Giguère could start against his former team, Varlamov has a 3-1 record, 2.17 goals-against average and a sparkling .938 save percentage so far.
This is especially good news for Sherman, who took some barbs for giving up a first-round pick for Varlamov. But the way the GM saw it, he could have signed a veteran goaltender like Tomas Vokoun relatively cheaply (as the Caps did to replace Varlamov), but he wanted a younger player who would fit in and grow with the rest of the team. As for the first-round pick, Sherman got one in return, since Varlamov was taken 23rd overall in 2006.
Another good sign is that the Avs’ third line of Daniel Winnik, a relative greybeard at 26, along with Landeskog, 18, and O’Reilly, 20, is, in the words of head coach Joe Sacco, “setting the tone” for everyone else.
“They established a lot of time in the offensive zone, wear the defencemen down on the other team,” Sacco said. “Landeskog does a great job for a first-year player. He does a lot of the little things well you don’t normally see in an 18-year-old.”