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Conference Call Tuesday: Colorado Avalanche

By Skylar Peters
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To discuss the Avalanche’s past and future seasons, we interviewed Jeremy Lambert, Editor at milehighsticking.com.

1. The Avs went from the basement to the NHL’s upper echelon in just one season. What was the secret in 2014?

Where to begin? A lot of things went right in 2014, but I think the biggest change came just in the culture. When Joe Sacco was fired and Greg Sherman was reduced to just a cap cruncher, that’s when the change started coming for the better. Then Joe Sakic became the VP of Hockey Operations while Patrick Roy was given the same role along with being introduced as the new head coach. Roy and Sakic brought in a winning culture that Sacco and Sherman never had. The players on the team immediately had their respect because they are two of the greatest hockey players of all-time. While that doesn’t necessarily translate to front office management, Sakic immediately got rid of guys who just weren’t working out while Roy’s coaching history in juniors speaks for itself.

The players immediately bought in to what Roy and Sakic were doing and everyone saw the results. Did it help that Nathan MacKinnon had an outstanding rookie year, that Matt Duchene raised his play to another level, that the defense consistently contributing on the offensive end, and that Semyon Varlamov was one of the best goalies in the league? Of course. But I have serious doubts about any of those things happening if Sacco were behind the bench last season.

2. Many were on the fence when Patrick Roy was announced as the new hire behind the bench. How did you feel he handled his first NHL coaching stint? 

First off, I loved the hiring of Roy. On paper, did it look like a “Headline Hire”? Sure, but he proved himself to be a very good head coach in juniors, which gave me a lot of optimism given how young the Avs were last year. Roy brought passion to the team from the very first game and the team responded by playing hard every single night. Obviously he made some mistakes, but given how he turned the team around, it’s tough to complain about Roy’s first year behind the bench.

3. Nathan MacKinnon absolutely exploded and was a no-doubter for the Calder Trophy by mid-season. How important is this guy for your club going forward? Is he the “Franchise” guy just yet? 

It’s tough to say that MacKinnon is the franchise guy right now given the year Matt Duchene had, the talent and leadership of Gabriel Landeskog, and the stellar performance of Semyon Varlamov. Obviously MacKinnon is extremely important going forward though. It seems like every good team has a dynamic duo and MacKinnon and Duchene are those two for the Avs. They are the new Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg of Denver and I fully expect the Avs to sign him to a long term deal within the next year.

4. Playing in the toughest division in the league, the Avs managed to irritate and beat some of the top teams in the league, with arguably far less talent. Is it a team game that made you so successful, or just an underrated roster? 

An underrated roster, a strong team game, and an outstanding goalie. Semyon Varlamov surpassed all expectations last year. The defense wasn’t great , but Varlamov was always there to bail the team out. The Avs defense contributed, offensively, far more than anyone expected and guys like Jamie McGinn, John Mitchell, and Max Talbot played bigger roles than given credit for and the rest of the roster, while not dominant with the puck, made smart plays and almost always cashed in on their chances. At the end of the day though, Varlamov was the reason why we won so many games.

5. Many predicted the Avs’ defense wouldn’t hold up against the Central’s top snipers like Kane and Seguin, but they did just that. Will they be able to keep it up in 2015 without a true star blue-liner? 

The Avs might not have a star defenseman, but Erik Johnson finally raised his game to a true #1 level and Tyson Barrie seems poised to take that next step. Despite giving up a lot of shots, the Avs blueline was much more in-sync than it had been in previous years. The team bought into Roy’s system and were able to learn under Adam Foote and hopefully they’ll continue to take positive steps next year.

6. Will Semyon Varlamov be able to reach the same level he did last season, and is it crucial he does so for your teams’ success? 

I don’t know if it’ll be as crucial for Varlamov to be just as good as he was last season because I feel like this is a better team than we had last season, but how he performs is obviously key. Varlamov has always been a talented goaltender with athlete athleticism. Under Patrick Roy and Francois Allaire, they helped mold him into a technically sound goalie. I see no reason why he won’t continue to play at an elite level as long as he stays confident and continues to work as hard as he did last year.

7. Which Central Division team should Avs fans be most worried about facing, and why?

Can I say all of them? Seriously, the Central Division is absolutely stacked and I wouldn’t be shocked if they once again get five teams into the playoffs. In fact, I pretty much expect it. I’ll go with the Blackhawks though, just because they have been a model of consistency. Except for the Winnipeg Jets, I feel like every team in the division got better and it’s going to be an absolute grind for 82-games. Until Chicago isn’t making the Western Conference Finals, they are still the class of the division.

8. Your season came to a surprising halt when the Wild beat you in Game Seven overtime. Take us through your view on the upset. 

It’s pretty simple to me: Semyon Varlamov played mediocre hockey and the team couldn’t hold a lead. Overall, I thought the Avs played well, but they could never get that extra goal to give them a two-goal lead and Varlamov didn’t make the big save that he had made all season. As a fan, I don’t dwell on it too much and actually view it as a learning experience for a young team. Only one team can lift the Stanley Cup and it sucks when it isn’t your team, so you can only hope that they learn something from the final game of the season and come back better.

9. Are you happy with the Avs’ off-season moves so far?

I am. While it would’ve been nice to keep Paul Stastny, he was simply asking for more than he was worth and people seem to forget that Nathan MacKinnon is a natural center. So while the Avs don’t have a 1-2 punch of Matt Duchene and Stastny, they now have a 1-2 punch of Duchene and MacKinnon. Not exactly a downgrade. The addition of Jarome Iginla is huge because he’s still a guy who has a knack for scoring goals and he’ll likely be on a line with MacKinnon and Alex Tanguay, who he had great chemistry with in Calgary. Daniel Briere might be looked at as a downgrade from P.A. Parenteau, but P.A. had fallen out of favor with Roy and was underutilized on the third line. Briere isn’t a top six forward anymore, but as a third line player, he adds an extra layer of scoring. Then there’s Brad Stuart. He’s not the top two defenseman that fans were hoping for, but he plays strong in his own end and isn’t afraid to mix it up. Plus they took care of the Ryan O’Reilly nonsense, which means that cloud won’t be hanging over everyone throughout the season.

I feel like they became a more complete team this off-season

10. Predict the Avs 2014-15 season. 

I’m a sports pessimist when it comes to my teams, so I’ll say the Avs finish third in the Central and lose in the second round of the playoffs.

Thanks to Jeremy for his help this week! Stay tuned next Tuesday for the next edition of Tuesday Conference Call!

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