When the Colorado Avalanche selected Gabriel Landeskog second overall in 2011, the franchise was adrift. Though the Swedish power forward would go straight from the draft to the NHL that fall, Colorado continued a streak that would see the once-mighty team miss the playoffs three years in a row and six times in seven seasons.
But thanks to steady building through the draft and some deft trades, the Avs now look like a serious contender in the Western Conference, with former captain and all-time legend Joe Sakic at the helm as GM. So as Landeskog hit the links for the NHL Players’ Association’s annual charity golf tournament this summer, he was plugged into off-season rumors and at the same time above them. “You want to be informed, and you want to know what’s going on,” Landeskog said. “You care about the team and what our situation is, but I also have all the trust in the world that Joe and our management are going to do what they need to do to make our team better and ultimately get us in a position to win a Stanley Cup.”
The driving force in Colorado is a top line centered by superstar Nathan MacKinnon with Landeskog on the left wing and rising star Mikko Rantanen on the right. Sakic did end up getting much-needed forward depth for his squad by acquiring center Nazem Kadri from Toronto in a splashy summer deal that sent talented defenseman Tyson Barrie and young center Alexander Kerfoot to the Maple Leafs.
MacKinnon, drafted first overall in 2013, has already come close to a Hart Trophy, while Rantanen has posted back-to-back seasons of 80-plus points. So is Rantanen getting the credit he deserves? “No, but I think he’s OK with playing under the radar,” Landeskog said. “He’s a really calm, quiet guy and a real fun guy to be around. In my opinion, he’s one of the top guys in the NHL at what he does. He’s big, strong and skilled and can beat guys 1-on-1.”
When Landeskog showed up in 2011-12, the Avs had some impressive names on the roster: Stanley Cup-winner Milan Hejduk was still in town, as was former Anaheim goaltending star J-S Giguere. The youth brigade included Ryan O’Reilly and Matt Duchene. But it never came together. The Avs had several false starts in the next few years, broken up by an unexpected division title in 2013-14 under passionate coach Patrick Roy. The bottom dropped out the next season, and the Avs became poster boys for bad analytics. Two years later, Colorado had the worst season of any NHL team in the salary cap era.
Landeskog, who was named captain in 2012, is more qualified than anyone to ponder how this franchise has grown recently. “It’s been up and down,” he said. “The low being in 2016-17 with only 48 points as a team – it was tough. But it really makes you appreciate all the good times afterward: the excitement of making the playoffs that next year, and obviously last year we felt like we could have really done some damage, losing Game 7 to San Jose (in the second round). As a journey, we all know it’s going to be hard at times, and sometimes it’s going to come easier. But you’re never going to be satisfied until you win that last game of the year.”
And here’s where Landeskog becomes a great salesman. He knows the depth chart the Avs are working with, and he knows there is more help to come from the prospect pool, starting with a dynamic blueliner who helped the Avs dethrone top-seeded Calgary in the first round. “It’s a super-exciting time to be on the Colorado Avalanche and a really exciting time to be an Avalanche fan, too,” Landeskog said. “We’ve got Cale Makar – who knows how good he can be – Conor Timmins, Bowen Byram, Alex Newhook, these guys we just drafted. Philipp Grubauer proved to be a really good goalie down the stretch and propelled us into the playoffs. We’re enjoying the position we’re in, but we haven’t done anything yet.”
If you hadn’t noticed, that’s a theme Landeskog keeps coming back to: winning a title in Colorado. The Avalanche won two Cups during Sakic’s days as a player, but it’s finally beginning to look like another big post-season run is possible in the Mile High State. Coach Jared Bednar, whose introduction to the NHL was that awful 2016-17 campaign, eventually got his culture in place and was rewarded with a two-year contract extension this summer. Makar is a Calder Trophy frontrunner, while every key member of the current roster is under contract for at least two more seasons.
Landeskog is more than happy to promote his team to players who might want to join the Avs, though he believes it’s a task for more than just the captain. “Everybody has a role to fill in talking about the team and making sure people know how awesome it is in Denver,” he said. “That’s self-explanatory. People visit and play here, and they see how great a town it is. We also share the limelight with the Broncos, Nuggets, Rockies and Rapids. It’s a great sports town.”
From the fans to the great outdoors available to locals, Denver is pretty good place to be right now, especially with the ascendant Avalanche. In a stacked Central Division where yesterday’s pennant-winner is tomorrow’s doormat, you can’t make any safe bets. But Landeskog has seen quite a bit during his eight seasons in the NHL, so little can rattle him at this point. The mission is to bring the Cup to Denver for the first time since 2001, and it’s a quest the charming but punishing left winger is focused on. Now let’s see if he and his mates can go out and hit that high in Denver.