Cinderella Goes To Sochi

http://www.thechiefly.com/features/cinderella-goes-to-sochi-colorado-avalanche/

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The Colorado Avalanche are worth paying attention to. Not only because they’re a group of young, fast, and wildly entertaining players who had the second worst record in the league last year–and now have more wins than the defending Stanley Cup Champions at the Olympic break–but because they’re beginning to write a great Cinderella story.

Patrick Roy, one of the greatest goalies of all-time and a staple of Team Canada at the end of the 20th century, is in his first year coaching the franchise that he won Stanley Cups with in 1996 and 2001. The Captain, and franchise GOAT Joe Sakic joined the front office in the offseason. “Super Joe” is the new VP of player personnel, and the two are running the franchise together (Sakic is basically a demigod in Canada because of his performance in the gold medal game against Team USA in the 2002 Olympics).

You probably don’t know much about their players since most of them are very young–Colorado has become a relatively obscure hockey market since the first lockout of the 21st century–but over the coming weeks, you will most certainly hear some of their key players’ names as you tune into the best part of the Winter Olympics: hockey.

The Kid

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If there ever were a season to throw away, last year was it. The NHL’s trademark infringement of the NBA’s half-season lockout created 41 games of hell for Colorado. The Avalanche wound up with the first overall pick, and selected a 17-year-old Halifax prodigy named Nathan MacKinnon. Halifax of course being the same hometown as Sidney Crosby, and the comparisons don’t end there.

MacKinnon has probably been Colorado’s most consistent offensive player this year.

Since a five game stretch at the beginning of the season when he admitted that he was still getting used to the speed of the NHL, the longest he has gone without recording a point is three games, all while playing nearly every position on one of the top three lines.

If you expanded his last 24 games (19 G, 12 A) into a full 82 game season, he would be on a ridiculous pace of 65 goals and 41 helpers.

The Avalanche have a lot of unique talents on this team, but Nathan MacKinnon is the only one with super-duperstar upside. You can pretty much hand him the Calder Trophy right now and lock him into Team Canada for the 2018 Olympics and beyond.

The Captain

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Gabriel Landeskog is going to be an integral player on an underrated Swedish team hoping to ride star goalie Henrik Lundqvist to a gold medal. Canada, Russia, USA, and the Swedes are the best teams in the tournament (in that order).

“Landy” was taken 2nd overall by the Avalanche in 2011 and took home the Calder Trophy the following season. The Avalanche then made him the youngest captain in NHL history at age 20, which seems odd, but when you watch him play, you can see why they did it.

He delivers bone-jarring hits, scores dirty goals, has an absolute howitzer of a shot, and even started an internet “thing” called Landeskogging with his celebration after scoring an overtime goal. Throw in the fact that he looks like your high school football team’s quarterback, and it’s clear why the Avalanche named him captain.

The Star

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Matt Duchene is someone that fans of the Olympics should learn about as he will skate on one of the top three lines for Team Canada, AKA: “The only thing that truly matters in Canada.” The third overall pick of the 2009 draft is quite possibly the most entertaining offensive player in the league.

If you only click on one of these player highlight films, make sure it’s this one (and yes that was him and Paul Stastny doing the Bang-Bang-Bangity-Bang dance from How I Met Your Mother).

You hear a lot of the east coast hockey analysts wondering how a guy like Claude Giroux can be left off the Canadian team (it is nuts, he’d be Team USA’s first line center). Well, look no further than “Dutchy,” whose speed on the larger than NHL rinks European sheets of ice will be devastating.

The Defenseman

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Erik Johnson was on the bubble and just missed making Team USA after playing in the 2010 games, and if an injury were to arise, he’d be one of the first people Brian Burke would call (with Bobby Ryan being the 105,784th).

Every great team needs a top shelf defenseman to cover the other team’s best line and captain the power play, and when the Avalanche shocked the hockey world by dealing Kevin Shattenkirk (defenseman for Team USA) and promising power forward Chris Stewart to St. Louis for the under-performing former #1 overall pick, they thought they were getting that guy.

After a rocky start to his Avalanche career, Johnson has been at the forefront of the Avs’ defensive resurgence this season, and the team is beginning to see glimpses of the player they wanted to build part of their franchise around. Team USA probably made a mistake by not including him on the team; he is a rock on the back end.

The Goalie

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Semyon Varlomov has been Colorado’s best player this year, ranking 4th in the NHL in wins, and could make a big impact for Team Russia along with last year’s Vezina Trophy winner, Sergei Bobrovsky. This position is reason #1 why you can never “predict” hockey because the hot goaltender at the right time basically controls the entire world (cut to Kings fans looking to their Jon Quick jerseys and silently nodding, he’s Team USA’s best hope for gold).

“Varly” is a tremendous athlete with astounding lateral agility, but the former Washington Capital has either been hurt or been inconsistent for most of his career.

The arrival of one of the greatest goalies of all time in Patrick Roy, and perhaps more importantly, his trusted goalie coach, Francois Allaire, has helped turn him into a much better player, and made the Avalanche brass believe that this is their man.

The Other Guys

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You know that you have a good team when a young, yet long-time Olympian, along with one of the premier thieves in the NHL are not part of your headliners.

Paul Stastny will play a key defensive role while providing grit and underrated “hockey things” for Team USA as he has been an integral part of this program for the past half-decade. Stastny is everything you would want in a 2nd line center: a big, gifted playmaker who can defend the other team’s top line, with intangibles to boot.

The guy who was supposed to be their 2nd line center is Colorado’s 2nd round pick from the Matt Duchene draft: Ryan O’Reilly. A gym rat who has a knack for finding the puck (he lead the NHL in takeaways 2 years ago, and is currently 4th), “The Factor” has slid over to left wing this year and clicked with Matt Duchene, ranking 2nd on the team in goals (behind MacKinnon) and 27th in the NHL.

O’Reilly would be an Olympian in nearly every other country, but he has the honor of being Canadian, and that team might be the hardest to make in sports.

The Coach

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Patrick Roy isn’t just your run of the mill all-time great who thinks he can do a better job than the guys that he had to listen to as a player. He actually spent time honing his new craft. Roy coached the Quebec Remparts in Juniors, winning the franchises first ever title and coaching teenagers for eight straight years.

Roy was always known as a hothead, and he kind of was. But he is also the smartest guy in the room. He was passionate but calculated.

This year, he provided the most high profile moment of the NHL season when he convinced Bruce Boudreau that he really did not want a piece of this.

At the time, people used it to show that Roy is a crazy person, also known as a goalie, who proved that his tenure in Colorado will provide endless GIF worthy moments.

While it certainly was unique, this was not done by accident. He knew exactly what he was doing.

It was his first game as head coach, and Roy wanted to send a message to the rest of the league at the end of a beat down of one of the best teams in the NHL: “Yes, we have been doormats for a while, but things have changed, and we’re not going to be pushed around anymore.”

Armed with Olympians at nearly every key position, the Avalanche have finally escaped the doldrums, looking to move on to bigger and better things. If you’re a fan of the NHL or the Olympics, start paying more attention to these guys, as they will be prominent factors in both story-lines for years to come.

Jacob Weindling
Pure bred Coloradan with a dash of Masshole (go UMass). Sports and politics junkie. If I've learned one thing in life to this point, it's that stupid loses more games than smart wins.
Jacob Weindling
Jacob Weindling

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