I used to have to write these "thoughts on the Avs at the quarter-pole, the halfway mark, the three-quarters pole and final season wrap-up" stories all the time in my former life as a mainstream media person. And, they were almost always manufactured bullcrap, necessitated by the tyranny of some artificial deadline, with only so much space allowed.
I have no space limitations here and nobody told me to write this. I just want to write about the Avs here, that's all. The fact that it's the quarter-pole of the season has nothing (ok, a little) to do with it.
I'm just going with five thoughts on how I see things with the Avs right now:
The future really is, well, kind of bright for this team again - I don't know how this all happened so fast, but the Avalanche is now the second-youngest team in the NHL, at 25.5 years of age on average. Their oldest player, Carl Soderberg, is 31. They don't just have young guys. They have a lot of young, talented guys, guys who are hungry and really want to prove themselves. I look at Mikko Rantanen, and I see a happy-go-lucky Finn who has major talent and is just enjoying himself out there finally. I see linemate Nathan MacKinnon and I see a guy who also is finally having some fun again after a couple of hellish years, a guy who, when he gets full confidence in himself again, well...look out. He's that's good. I see a 19-year-old named Sam Girard who already seems to have the poise of a guy 10 years older, who never panics with a puck on his stick and can make plays most others just can't. I see a rejuvenated captain, Gabe Landeskog, who seems to feel freer now to lead a truly international locker room, who has seen the lowest of the lows and never wants to go back. I see Alexander Kerfoot and I see an Adam Oates type of player, who can always spin away from pressure and find some open guy with the puck. I see J.T. Compher and I see hell on wheels, a throwback kind of kid who just goes hard every second he's on the ice. I see Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie feeling re-energized and happier with all this new young blood all around them. I see a GM, Joe Sakic, who somehow pulled off a trade in which he got SEVEN assets for one disgruntled player in a recent trade. Three of those assets are first-, second- and third-round draft picks still to come. I see a "farm" system in which one defenseman, Cale Makar, is being touted by some as the best offensive defenseman prospect to come along since Erik Karlsson. I see other developing kids such as Conor Timmons and A.J. Greer and Ty Lewis and Dominic Toninato and I can't help but be really enthused at what the future will keep bringing.
Do I think they are a playoff team this year? I'd love to say yes, but then I look at the kind of game they played Saturday night in Nashville and I think "probably not yet." There have still been games where they just look a little too overmatched by some opponents, and the Avs still have yet to play some other top teams such as Pittsburgh or Los Angeles or St. Louis on the road. There still seems to be an underlying feeling that Avs players know they're not that good just yet. Maybe in certain home games they can feel like that, such as in recent wins over Chicago and Washington. But they still have yet to prove they can go into other really tough buildings and impose their will on those teams. Could they sneak in? Sure they could. But there's still a lot of tough hockey to be played. As Claude Lemieux used to always remind me: "The real good teams don't start really playing until after Christmas."
Joe Sakic deserves early consideration for GM of the year - Where are all the critics right now? Where are the "Sakic is in over his head", "Sakic is just a nostalgic hire, he doesn't know the business of hockey" people right now? The fact is, Sakic has rapidly transformed this organization, from too old and tired to young and energized, in just a few months. When everybody ridiculed Sakic for having unrealistic trade expectations for Matt Duchene, he got way more than anyone thought possible. He won the poker game that lasted until 5 a.m. He made the others blink first. And he deserves the credit for it, after heaps of ridicule the last two years.
This is Erik Johnson's team - I really think EJ is the real leader of this team. This is to take nothing away from Landeskog or MacKinnon or Barrie or any other veteran. But, to me, Erik Johnson is the real heart of this team now. He plays 27-30 minutes a night now and just really busts his tail every shift. He's always accountable for his own play, always a stand-up guy in the dressing room, win or lose, and he really loves this organization and this city.
I really hope the fans come back again, and keep the transplants at home - I know it shouldn't, but it still ticks me off when I see the Pepsi Center half-filled with sweaters from the opposing team. Denver is a city where people want to come from all over to live, I get it. I did it myself, in 1991 as a New Hampshire transplant. And, for a few years, I wore Celtics and Red Sox jerseys to Nuggets and Rockies games and generally was one of those jackasses primping and pointing at the logo on my chest and trash-talking the people of the city in which I now lived. Shut those people up now. You live in Denver, so come on out to the game, put an Avs jersey on and keep it so the bandwagon, fairweather fans from other cities have to stay home and watch in on TV in their Colorado residences.