DENVER (AP) — The captain of the Colorado Avalanche has a pingpong paddle sitting in his locker that features a picture of him taped to one side.
Merely a ploy, explained Gabriel Landeskog, the self-proclaimed table tennis champion of the dressing room.
“Seeing my face, yeah, it’s distracting for them,” he said , grinning.
It’s certainly been a lot of fun and games this season for the Avalanche — a stark contrast to a year ago when they were the worst team in the NHL. Behind a Hart Trophy candidate in Nathan Mackinnon , an even-keeled coach in Jared Bednar and a youthful, high-octane roster, the Avs have turned things around to the tune of a 45-point improvement so far. They are the first NHL team to post a 40-point gain over an 82-game season since the Pittsburgh Penguins jumped 47 from 2005-06 (58) to 2006-07 (105).
There’s also this: Take care of business with a win at San Jose on Thursday and another in regulation against St. Louis in the season finale Saturday and they will earn their first postseason berth since 2013-14.
“What our guys have done this year as a group, first year of a rebuild, a lot of new faces, I don’t know there are too many people that would’ve put us in the situation we’re in right now,” said Bednar , whose team managed only 48 points during his first season in charge. “Our guys have done an excellent job this year of being committed to what we’re doing and trying to turn this thing around and get to where we want to go.”
Bednar and general manager Joe Sakic calmed some pretty turbulent waters after a forgettable 2016-17 season that began with Patrick Roy surprisingly announcing he would step down before camp.
A year later, Bednar had a chance to implement more of his philosophies in camp. He got to know his players’ strengths better, too.
Still, there were some early season obstacles to navigate, including moving on from Matt Duchene when the talented forward wanted out of town. He was traded to Ottawa in early November.
Through it all, Bednar’s message was succinct: Just concentrate on hockey. The Avs won 10 straight earlier this season; they had 22 wins all of last year.
“If you believe in each other and believe in the system, you can accomplish things that other people probably don’t think we could,” said defenseman Erik Johnson, who’s currently sidelined with a fractured kneecap. “We took it upon ourselves to be the underdog.”
Even through the lows of a 48-point season, Bednar didn’t lose the room. His players call him “Bedsy,” a sign of respect for a coach who will hold them accountable but mostly helps them figure things out.
“Looking back, it’s easier to realize that he could’ve been a lot harder on us, could’ve been a lot worse. He didn’t do that,” defenseman Tyson Barrie said. “I have a lot of respect for him with what he’s done this year and how he’s handled the team and everything.”
Any other season, Bednar might even be a runaway coach of the year winner. But there’s Gerard Gallant, who has expansion Vegas headed to the postseason as Pacific Division champions.
“I tried to be as fair as I possibly can be with still doing my job to the best of my ability,” Bednar said. “I have a lot of belief in our team.”
Colorado features the youngest active roster in the league with an average age of 25.7. With Alexander Kerfoot leading the way, 11 different rookies have combined for more than 410 games and 121 points.
Then again, Bednar has plenty of experience dealing with youth from his days in the American Hockey League. Bednar joined the Avalanche from the Columbus Blue Jackets’ affiliate Lake Erie after leading the Monsters to the 2016 Calder Cup trophy.
“He definitely gets it,” said MacKinnon, who is among the league leaders with 94 points (38 goals, 56 assists). “He communicates really well with the younger generation.”
Colorado has had its share of bumps and bruises along the way, with MacKinnon sitting out eight games due to a shoulder injury. And now the team is missing top goaltender Semyon Varlamov (lower body injury) for the rest of the regular season. But they have veteran Jonathan Bernier to step in.
“We got some of those injuries (last season), and didn’t have the depth that we needed,” Bednar said. “When things took a turn, it was hard to stay motivated as a team when you fall out of the playoff race.”
It’s not the best turnaround in franchise history: The then-Quebec Nordiques went from 52 points in 1991-92 to 104 the following season. But that was a different time.
“It’s a turnaround, but we also thought we shouldn’t have been as bad as we were last year,” Landeskog said. “We’ve still got a lot of work left. It doesn’t really count if we don’t go to the playoffs.”
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