What a Difference a Year Makes

The Colorado Avalanche ran a freewheeling practice before boarding a plane for the cold hinterlands of Minnesota. Watching practice is a treat I haven’t been able to enjoy this year so today was fun. I had the chance to observe several practices around this time last year and the differences were tangible.

First, this practice was LOUD. Last year, spring practice was a tough go and while there were a few on ice conversations, the loudest sound was the puck hitting the sideboards. Today, however, the players were shouting, talking, and playing with each other amidst the practice drills and the cacophony of whistles and stick taps. All good-natured expressions of the camaraderie developed by this team.

Players egged each other on, called for passes, and harassed each other when they missed shots on the net. Sometimes, pairs of skaters would leisurely talk as they drifted to the boards, only to rush out energized to steal the puck or launch a shot on goal. It was an odd chemistry of casual affability alternating with fierce competitiveness.

Prior to the official start of practice, some players were working with coaches on the alternate rink.

Erik Johnson, still sporting the no-contact jersey, worked out on one end of the alternate rink. His shot appeared to pick up velocity as he practiced and he looked to be working on accuracy against a goaltender. He also trained on passing drills with assistant coach Nolan Pratt. In between sets, it appeared that Johnson needed to rest – whether to catch his breath or for some other reason was unclear. As with everything EJ does, he put his whole body into every movement so it’s hard to determine his progress, other than he’s moving fairly close to normal.

On the opposite end of the ice, Spencer Martin fielded a flurry of pre-practice shots from the likes of Sven Andrighetto, Gabriel Bourque and Nail Yakupov while getting instructions from goaltending coach Jussi Parrkila.

Nathan MacKinnon made a point of stopping by to chirp good naturedly at Andrighetto as Nate the Great headed over to official practice on the other rink.

Regular practice started with the players in five different colored jerseys. Eight defensemen skated in black jerseys along with Johnson in the pumpkin. The forwards were divided into four groups – the Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen line in blue, the Sven Andrighetto-J.T. Compher-Tyson Jost line in burgundy, the Matt Nieto-Carl Soderberg-BlakeComeau line in grey, and Gabriel Bourque-Nail Yakupov-Dominic Toninato-Alexander Kerfoot group in white. Both Semyon Varlamov and Spencer Martin fielded the nets at opposing ends of the ice.

Everything was different from the past couple of years. Players started with a three-on-three drill at game speed. No one took the drill lightly. Everyone was competitive. While the players appeared loose at rest, they were alert and watching every play.

Erik Johnson participated in the first 20 minutes of the regular practice drills. He looked like he missed running through a full practice with the team. The team ran through a series of drills with forwards vs. defensemen in odd combinations and rushes. During one of them, Johnson faded back to protect the goal and intentionally slid full out on the ice to block a shot. I’m guessing the trainer may not have been thrilled with that play but it was good to see Johnson’s competitive juices running at full throttle. He left the ice shortly thereafter so hopefully he didn’t create problems for his recovery.

Parkilla talked with Martin a couple of times during breaks, which should help him get up to speed. One of the directions concerned his side to side motion in the net which Martin then tried to implement. That can only be good. Having a full time goaltender coach, especially in a year fraught with injuries, only makes sense. Welcome to the modern age, Colorado.

After one of the drills, Mikko Rantanen finished a shift and went by Carl Soderberg, giving him a nudge. Carl responded like a patient parent with a rambunctious kid, shrugging and showing just a hint of a smile.

One of the other key differences pertained to Coach Bednar himself. He was actively involved in every phase of practice. Whether he was gathering pucks at center ice, giving instructions on drills, or whistling shift changes, there was no doubt he was in charge and he was paying attention to all the little details. He wasn’t micromanaging but he was making sure the players knew what he expected and that he had their attention. An active and engaged coach was refreshing. He was very much like this in preseason but I thought he was involved because he was trying to gauge players, their talent levels, and who would fill what roles. But he’s a far cry from Coach Roy and looks every bit what the doctor ordered for a young team.

Last year, the passing and scoring drills lacked the speed and power of this year’s crew. Some players even looked a little bored by the end of last season. Today, however, everyone played at an alert and engaged level. Tyson Barrie slammed his stick against the boards after missing the net, Rantanen smacked his stick when he shot wide, and even in the light drills, Mikko ended up down behind the net after getting body checked.

Even with the intensity, though, there were plenty of light hearted moments when they weren’t skating. During a stretch near the end of practice, Nikita Zadorov laid down ON Mikko Rantanen. They looked like two big bear cubs nudging each other. Tyson Jost and J.T. Compher skated away from a skirmish with their heads together – whether they were discussing practice or pizza, who knows. When Anton Lindholm made a good defensive play, another player skated by and gently tapped his helmet. Mikko Rantanen took a shot that bounced off the goaltender and threw his arms up in celebration. Even somber looking Patrik Nemeth cracked a smile when Tyson Jost tried to steal his puck and the two ended up going back and forth. There were stick taps and cheering for good plays, some cat calls on flubs, and a fair share of shouting out directions while skating. Noisy, and fun, and effective.

Newly acquired defenseman Mark Alt looked to still be figuring out how the Avalanche ran some of their drills as fellow players had to redirect him a couple of times. Yet, everyone seemed to include the newcomer and cheered for him during the final goal scoring challenge.

It’s been said before, but Sam Girard looked like a kid out there, even more so than at the Pepsi Center. At one point, he was skating with Mark Alt next to him and they looked like they were on a father and son outing. Only the son showed some serious skills.

As practice wound down, the white line of Toninato, Kerfoot, Yakupov and Bourque as well as defensemen Alt, Lindholm and Duncan Siemens continued to work on fine tuning their game along with Spencer Martin. Even the gathering of the pucks showed some flair as one of the defensemen tried redirecting passes into the bucket. The final puck cleanup was left to Toninato, Kerfoot and Martin as they filled the bucket for Martin to carry off the ice.

The Colorado Avalanche currently sit in the last Wild Card spot and their fate is still uncertain. Regardless of whether or not they make the playoffs, though, one thing is sure. The culture has changed. This year, the Avalanche are becoming a real team – competitive and united. What a difference a year makes.

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