Colorado Avalanche: The World Cup and the Avs Core

Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

The Colorado Avalanche core is under pressure to perform this year.  Did participating in the World Cup help them?

Even though I recently wrote an article criticizing the World Cup of Hockey for including corporate ads on their jerseys, I still watched a great deal of the tournament.

Overall, I thought the tournament was a little underwhelming, and I turned off the final series of Europe against Canada in favor of listening to the Colorado Avalanche preseason matchup against the  Dallas Stars on the radio.  Nonetheless, I believe the World Cup will be of great benefit to the Colorado Avalanche as they prepare for the start of the 2016-17 season.

The Avs had a strong showing at the World Cup, featuring, 6 players: Matt Duchene, Erik Johnson, Semyon Varlamov, Gabriel Landeskog, Carl Soderberg and Nathan MacKinnon, representing Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden and Team North America, respectively. For each of these players, the World Cup hopefully served as a unique learning experience,

All of these players, with the exception of Carl Soderberg, represent what is generally accepted as the Avs core.  Tyson Barrie, is the only member of the Avs core who did not participate, due to the ridiculous and indomitable defensive depth of team Canada.

It has been well documented and widely accepted by fans and pundits alike that the Avs core needs to collectively improve if they are to improve as a team.

In March of 2016, head coach Patrick Roy publicly called out the Avs core for not carrying the team into the playoffs.  This summer, GM and Executive VP Joe Sakic echoed this belief stating, “Our core group is a group that knows they have to make the next step and mature on how they play the game.”

Regardless of what any coach or GM might say, to most fans, it’s clear that the Colorado Avalanche core needs to perform to their potential in order for this team to have success.  The World Cup offered each member of the core a unique opportunity to play with skilled and experienced players, while being placed either in elevated positions of leadership or in positions to learn from more experienced and successful players.

Matt Duchene:

It’s hard to argue that any member of the Colorado Avalanche played better last year than Matt Duchene.  Having said that, there’s no doubt that Avs fans and management are expecting him to improve.

Being chosen to represent Team Canada in a major tournament is an incredible accomplishment for any player.  However, after being the face of the Avs franchise for years, Duchene is only a fourth line player and borderline scratch for Team Canada.  Despite this, our boy finished fifth overall on the Team Canada and the entire tournament in scoring, finishing with two goals and two assists in 6 games played.  This put Duchene behind only Canada’s top line of Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, as well as Jonathan Toews.

Not only should this tournament have been a great opportunity to learn from the undisputed leaders of the game, but also to give him confidence to show he has a place among the best players in the world.

Erik Johnson:

Johnson and Team USA did not have the the tournament they wanted or expected.  Nonetheless, EJ’s tournament should be considered a success, although his stat line won’t show it.

Johnson finished the tournament with 4 games played, finishing with zero points and a minus 3, but this doesn’t tell the whole story.  Beginning the tournament, Johnson started as 7th defender and a healthy scratch.  However, his physical play and active offensive play in USA’s pre tournament games stood out to USA coaches and ESPN commentators.  Based on this performance, Johnson moved up in the lineup and played all three group games for USA.

Team USA was a mess, by all standards, but Johnson continued his physical play and active offense throughout the tournament, serving as a bright spot on the roster.  Although Johnson expressed his deep disappointment in the outcome, hopefully he can take the experience of going from a healthy scratch to a key contributor to affirm his role as a top pairing defender in the NHL. 

This could’ve been Johnson’s last appearance for Team USA in a major tournament, hopefully, he will take the disappointment of Team USA’s poor showing, and use it as motivation to not have another disappointing season with the Colorado Avalanche.

Gabriel Landeskog:

Landeskog will continue to captain the Avalanche this season under new head coach Jared Bednar, but his leadership and point production will be under scrutiny this season.  Under Patrick Roy, Landeskog’s play wasn’t bad, but it also hasn’t been befitting his talent and ability.  Playing for Team Sweden, Landeskog saw himself playing mostly on the third line, while seeing some power play time.  Hopefully finding himself lower on the depth chart in both skill and leadership gave him a reflective opportunity on his own leadership ability.

Some of Sweden’s players, such as Nicklas Backstrom, Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Filip Forsberg may be more skilled than Landeskog, but Landy has a fine set of skills that can become game changing when combined with his power, energy and physicality.  Sweden would’ve been a better team had Landeskog’s skill and intensity been on full display, and so would the Avs.

Hopefully playing on the underachieving, over-skilled Team Sweden reminds Landy that his star power comes from his ability to play a smart and skilled Swedish game, combined with an intense and physical North American style.

Semyon Varlamov:

Varly’s performance at the World Cup was the most underwhelming as he only saw action in one pre-tournament game, stopping 33 of 34 shots in a win against the Czech Republic.  The real story for Russia was the incredible performance of starting goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky.  Bobrovsky, currently of the Columbus Blue Jackets, is a former Vezina Trophy winner and played lights out all tournament.  He was easily one of the best players in the tournament.

While he was stealing the show and keeping Team Russia in competition, Varly was stuck on the bench.  As much as I would’ve loved to see Varly in action, I couldn’t help thinking that watching another Russian goalie steal the show every night would only help Varly.

Varly, of course, is no stranger to stealing games for the Colorado Avalanche, but his last two seasons have been underwhelming.  Does spending two weeks watching another goalie do the same give him insight and motivation into regaining his Vezina-caliber form?

Nathan MacKinnon:

Of all the Avs, MacKinnon may have had the best tournament.  Many saw Nate’s incredible OT breakaway goal against Sweden and many others were generally hyped about Team North America.  Aside from the hype and highlights, Nate’s game was strong in all aspects and stood out on a team full of phenoms and prodigies.

Specifically, Nate was physically engaged, energetic and constantly created offense, either by his speed, willingness to shoot or vision in the offensive zone.  I was concerned that Nate would take a backseat to the likes of Connor McDavid, Johnny Gaudreau and Auston Matthews, but his play all tournament only proved that he belongs in the same sentence as these players.

The last two seasons, I’ve been disappointed, if not critical of Nate’s game – some of which I’d attribute to Roy, and to be fair, I still think he has plenty of room for growth, especially when it comes to confidence and creativity with the puck.  However, each game McKinnon stood out as one of team North America’s best player.  Other young stars showed their inexperience in this tournament, while McKinnon played strong in all three zones, and in my mind was only outperformed by Gaudreau.

 Im hoping this validating experience in the high-talent and high-pressure setting of the World Cup, in combination with a new head coach in Colorado, will give Nate the confidence he needs to become a dominant, game changing player in 2016-17.

In a recent interview, Matt Duchene remarked on his experience playing in the World Cup, saying, “I enjoyed it the day after and a couple of days after, but now it’s back to work with the ads here and I’m looking forward to helping this team win”

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Although I found the World Cup largely underwhelming, I’m hoping that the other five Avs who participated have returned to the team with this same level of commitment.  For all of them, being chosen to play in the World Cup should be a vote of confidence in their abilities as well as a unique learning opportunity to grow as individuals and a group.

I agree wholeheartedly with the belief that the Colorado Avalanche core needs to take the “next step” to be competitive again.  Hopefully the World Cup was the first step in taking that next step.