Ed Willes: Speed in NHL fast lane means winning — just look at the Avs

 

 
 
 
 
Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche competed in the fastest skater competition during the NHL All-Star skills competition at Amalie Arena on Jan. 27 in Tampa, Fla.
 
 

Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche competed in the fastest skater competition during the NHL All-Star skills competition at Amalie Arena on Jan. 27 in Tampa, Fla.

Photograph by: Mike Carlson, The Province

Nathan MacKinnon would like to tell you he saw all this coming, but who in their right mind could make such a claim?

Last season, the Colorado Avalanche weren’t just bad. They were historically bad. With 48 points, they were still 21 points back of the next worse team in the NHL — your Vancouver Canucks.

The Avs didn’t really add anyone of note in the off-season. But they did jettison a handful of respected veterans who might have eased the transition of the team’s younger players. Or so we’re told.

So if that was the beginning of a stunning turnaround for his team, MacKinnon didn’t see it. Sure, he saw the Avs were younger and faster and that gave him some hope. But this? Really, who could have predicted this?

“We were optimistic but, to be honest with you, I don’t think many of us thought we’d be in a wild-card spot after the All-Star break,” said the Hart Trophy candidate who’s helped spark the Avs’ resurrection.

“We had 48 points last year. We didn’t know how it would go with all the young guys. We’re definitely in a better spot than we hoped for.”

Or anyone could have imagined.

Outside of the even wilder story taking place in Las Vegas, the Avs came to town Tuesday night as the surprise story of this NHL season. In the space of a couple of months, they’ve reinvented themselves as a nowhere team to a rising power that is positioned for sustained success in the ultracompetitive Western Conference.

The new Avs also came as advertised in the Canucks’ 4-3 shootout win at Rogers Arena. True the game turned midway through the second when MacKinnon left for the evening after a big-time collision with Alex Edler. But their speed, their pressure game and their four-line look were also on display as were their collection of impressive young players.

Now, the why of the Avs’ turnaround isn’t a great mystery. As MacKinnon said before the game, just look at the lineup where you see a team that’s build around youth and speed. But it’s the wholesale commitment to those ideals that have set the Avalanche apart and put them on the leading edge of a changing game.

The Canucks, as it happens, are trying to do the same thing. We’ll leave it to you to figure out who’s been more successful.

“The game’s getting faster and faster and every team is trying to play with more pace,” said Avs’ coach Jared Bednar.

“The best teams in the league play at a high pace and they execute. In order to score goals you have to outskate teams and pressure them to turn the puck over. I’d say (speed) is the most important thing.”

He doesn’t have to look any farther than his own bench for proof.

Again, the striking thing about this Avs’ season is the, er, speed in which they’ve ignited this startling makeover. On any given night, more than half the Avs’ skater are 25 or under, including teenagers Samuel Girard and Tyson Jost and rookies Alex Kerfoot and J.T. Compher.

Kerfoot, the West Van kid, has had the biggest impact of the newbies but it’s the collective impact of the young legs that is the story in Denver.

“It’s pretty clear what we’re trying to do with all the young guys coming into this room,” said captain Gabriel Landeskog, a grizzled veteran of 25 who scored twice on Tuesday night. “They’re excited to play, excited to make a difference and that’s rubbed off on a lot of guys. We know the way we want to play.”

Which, come to think of it, is the way every NHL team wants to play. Today’s game is about speed and there’s a number of reasons for that. Speed doesn’t go into a slump. It can be used on offence and defence. It puts pressure on the opposition and pressure causes mistakes.

Now, the Canucks have tried to employ a similar blueprint this season and Tuesday night they were able to match the Avs’ pace. But can they deliver that game on a consistent basis?

You look at their lineup and wonder. The Canucks have five regulars who are 31 or over — the Sedin twins, Thomas Vanek, Loui Eriksson and Alex Edler — and none are exactly burners. Throw in a blue-line that, with the exception of Troy Stecher, isn’t very quick and it isn’t exactly a mystery why the Canucks have trouble playing at a high tempo.

“I’ve seen our team play fast,” said Canucks’ head coach Travis Green. “At the beginning of the year, people would talk about how our team looked fast and aggressive. I think our system can allow you to play that way.”

The system, yes. But do they have the personnel to play that way? Their record would suggest otherwise which is the sign of a team caught in transition.

The Avs, meanwhile, have no such issues, now or in the future. This season has been promising and more help is on the way with draftees Cale Makar and Connor Timmins and the boat-load of assets acquired in the Matt Duchene trade.

It started with a decision made by GM Joe Sakic this off-season and it was followed by a commitment to the new direction. If the Canucks aren’t paying attention, they should be.

Ewilles@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/willesonsports

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Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche competed in the fastest skater competition during the NHL All-Star skills competition at Amalie Arena on Jan. 27 in Tampa, Fla.
 

Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche competed in the fastest skater competition during the NHL All-Star skills competition at Amalie Arena on Jan. 27 in Tampa, Fla.

Photograph by: Mike Carlson, The Province

 
Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche competed in the fastest skater competition during the NHL All-Star skills competition at Amalie Arena on Jan. 27 in Tampa, Fla.
Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, second in league scoring with 60 points, visits Rogers Arena tonight to face the Vancouver Canucks.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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