Great expectations: MacKinnon, Avs embracing contender role
DENVER -- Nathan MacKinnon views pressure almost like shots on goal - the more, the better.
That’s why the Colorado Avalanche forward fully embraces his team being mentioned among the Stanley Cup favorites.
With MacKinnon, one of the top playmakers in the league, and Cale Makar, the defensive phenom who’s coming off a rookie-of-the-year campaign, they’re not that youthful team filled with speed and promise.
They’re flat-out legit.
''Our expectation is to win the Cup, not just claw and scrape our way into the playoffs,’' said MacKinnon, who finished runner-up in the MVP race after a season in which he had 35 goals and 58 assists in 69 games. ''The pressure is obviously a nice thing to have.’'
The Avs are coming off an injury-riddled season in which they advanced to the Western Conference semifinals inside the bubble before being eliminated by Dallas during overtime of Game 7. In that pivotal game, they had to rely on a third-string goaltender due to injuries to Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz. Also missing were captain Gabriel Landeskog and defenseman Erik Johnson.
MacKinnon can only imagine what might have transpired had Colorado remained healthy.
''For myself and the whole team, we’re very motivated, because you don’t have many chances to win,’' said MacKinnon. ''We need to do everything in our power not to ... waste it and take advantage of the special group we have.’'
For the most part, this will be the same nucleus as a season ago. They did add defenseman Devon Toews in a trade with the New York Islanders and forward Brandon Saad in another deal with Chicago.
Those additions, along with the play of MacKinnon and Makar - 12 goals and 38 assists a season ago in earning the Calder Trophy - are why the Avs remain a trendy Cup pick.
''We want the pressure,’' Colorado coach Jared Bednar said. ''We want to be considered one of the favorites.’'
BO KNOWS DEFENSE
The Avalanche will give young defenseman Bowen Byram every opportunity to be a contributor on the blue line. Byram was the fourth overall pick in the 2019 draft and played last season with Vancouver of the Western Hockey League, where he had 14 goals and 38 assists in 50 games.
''This is a real gifted, real special player,’' Bednar said of Byram, who’s a co-captain for Team Canada at the 2021 world junior championship. ''We certainly feel he’ll be able to help us if not now then certainly in the near future.’'
The additions of Toews and Saad were a way for general manager Joe Sakic to bolster an already deep roster in this time of a flat salary cap.
''They’re both really good players,’' said Francouz, who figures to split time in net with Grubauer during the compressed season. ''They’ll be the special spice for this team.’'
Barring injuries, Bednar plans to get a look at these early pairings: Andre Burakovsky, MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen on the top line, followed by Landeskog, Nazem Kadri and Saad on the second. The third line will consist of Valeri Nichushkin, J.T. Compher and Joonas Donskoi, while Tyson Jost, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Matt Calvert form the fourth line.
The early defensive pairings are Toews/Makar, Samuel Girard/Johnson, Ryan Graves/Ian Cole and Dennis Gilbert/Conor Timmins.
Being from the same general area in British Columbia, Toews is quite familiar with Sakic. But he never had the chance to cross paths with the Hall of Fame forward turned GM - until now.
''There are streets named after him in Burnaby that I’ve driven down to go to different hockey rinks,’' Toews said, referring to the city where Sakic once lived and earned the nickname Burnaby Joe. ''He was kind of a tall figure when I was growing up. I watched a lot of Avalanche games when they were at their peak.’'
Colorado opens the season against the St. Louis Blues at Ball Arena on Jan. 13. The team faces West Division opponents Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles, Minnesota, St. Louis, San Jose and Vegas a total of eight times each.
The team’s regular-season finale is scheduled for May 8, which will be the latest in team history.
''It’s a lot of hockey and a condensed schedule but it’s lots of time for recovery and the ability to leave it all out there every game,’' MacKinnon said.