Perhaps it has something to do with the vagaries of a league where the white-hot teams change places with the stone cold seemingly with the snap of a finger. Perhaps the Matt Duchene trade has simply settled things in a dressing room that needed everyone pulling at the same end of the rope. For sure, some of it is because Nathan MacKinnon is realizing his potential as an elite NHL player and is dragging his linemates along with him.
But it’s not exactly an easy task putting a finger on what has made the Colorado Avalanche so good so fast. Rather than any one thing, it’s been more a culmination of factors that has conspired at an opportune time. With their 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night, the Avalanche are the hottest team in the NHL, riding a 10-game winning streak. Eight of those wins have come without their No. 1 goalie in Semyon Varlamov and all 10 of them have come without their best offensive defenseman in Tyson Barrie. If not for the ridiculous and equally unexplainable run the Vegas Golden Knights are on in their first season, the Avs would be the NHL’s surprise story of the year.
“I can’t really point to one particular time where we had a meeting or did anything in particular that really set us in the right direction,” said defenseman Erik Johnson, the longest-serving and longest-suffering of all Avalanche players. “I just think our game has matured and we’ve just gotten better as the year has gone on.”
There is no doubt that maturation process kicked in with the trade of Duchene, but it would be far too simplistic to chalk all of the Avs’ success up to GM Joe Sakic finally pulling the trigger on a deal and setting the team up very well in doing it. After all, the Avs didn’t exactly respond by lighting the world on fire immediately after the trade went down. Going into their current streak, they were just 9-10-3 in the 22 games after dealing Duchene. And MacKinnon himself said that even though “it did a lot” to change the culture, he also acknowledged that the team probably would be in the same place it is now even if it hadn’t dealt Duchene.
A big part of that maturity of which Johnson speaks comes from MacKinnon himself. He has taken the leadership mantle and run with it. There probably hasn’t been a better player in the NHL since the beginning of December than MacKinnon. But it’s more than that. It’s almost impossible to win, especially on the road, with just one good line. So you look down the Avs lineup and see that their second line consists of Carl Soderberg between Blake Comeau and Matt Nieto.
Let that settle in your mind for a few moments. The Avalanche couldn’t give Soderberg away last season as he struggled through an absolutely miserable season. Nieto was a waiver pickup a little more than a year ago and Comeau is a 31-year-old utility player. And on a night when the Avalanche’s top line was held to an empty-net goal and MacKinnon saw his point streak halted at nine games, it was the Soderberg line that scored the game-winner. “They’ve been arguably our best line all year,” Johnson said. “We’ve gotten secondary scoring up and down the lineup. Just look at tonight. We get a big goal from (Gabriel Bourque), secondary scoring. Yak (Nail Yakupov), secondary scoring. Our top line, for the first time in a long time has been held off the board, so that speaks to how we can win games without those guys.”
A few things are coming to roost for this team, as well. When the Avs drove Ryan O’Reilly out of town it was thought the Buffalo Sabres got the better of that deal, but now you look and you see defenseman Nikita Zadorov driving Auston Matthews to distraction and providing a big-body presence, and the capable presence of J.T. Compher on the fourth line, and maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. Johnson for Kevin Shattenkirk? Another trade that looked a little lopsided against the Avs for a while, but one that has given the Avs a defenseman who seems to be improving with age, providing a minute-munching presence and a stable presence on the blueline.
(And speaking of the blueline, it could be the envy of the league within a couple of years, particularly if they hang on to Barrie. Cale Makar and Conor Timmins, standout defensemen for Canada’s team at the 2018 World Junior Championship, are on their way and Zadorov is just 22. Johnson, meanwhile, is signed for another five seasons after this one.)
And so go the Avalanche. Only one team in history, last season’s Philadelphia Flyers, have posted a 10-game winning streak only to go on to miss the playoffs. This Avs team seems much better equipped. The same team that made the playoffs four years ago employing a template that the analytics community said was unsustainable – and it turned out to be bang-on on that one – finds itself with the third-best goals differential in the Western Conference and one that is among the best in shot attempts against.
“It hasn’t felt like a 10-game win streak,” Johnson said. “We’ve come in the locker room every day and enjoyed each other and had fun, but we’ve been real professional about it and we’re enjoying the run we’re on, but we know we have a lot of work left. We haven’t proven anything yet."