Best and worst of the NHL this week: How the Colorado Avalanche are handling being a top Stanley Cup favorite

Milan Hejduk was the last remaining member of the 2001 Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche to stay on the roster. But entering the 2012-13 season, Hejduk knew he would have a diminished role. He called teammate Gabriel Landeskog and told him to meet him and then-coach Joe Sacco for a meeting at the team facility when he got back to town.

"I wasn't really sure what the meeting was about, I was kind of confused," Landeskog says now. "I was young at the time. Hejdy said he felt like it was time for him to step down as the captain, and he felt the right man for the job was me. When he said that, I was still kind of confused, but obviously very excited."

Landeskog was just 19 years old, entering his second season in the league. At the time, he was the youngest captain in NHL history (he would be surpassed by Connor McDavid, who was 20 days younger when named Edmonton Oilers captain in 2016). The Avalanche were trending younger, anyway, embarking on a rebuild. Landeskog would help usher them through it -- though little did he know how bumpy the ride would be.

Finally, eight years later, the Avalanche are back where they envisioned. The season opened with Colorado as the favorite (+700) to win a Stanley Cup, per Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill.

To get here, the Avalanche had to learn a lot about themselves. And they know to make it further -- and to get over their current second-round-exit hump -- they'll have to push even harder. There's only one way Colorado knows how to do it: address the expectations head on.

"We're obviously not afraid of talking about a championship this year," Landeskog said. "I think we're ready for it."

About a week after Landeskog was named captain, the NHL entered a lockout. The next few seasons weren't much easier for the Avalanche. Two of the best forwards on the team, Ryan O'Reilly and Matt Duchene, were traded. Another, Paul Stastny, left in free agency. Things came to a boil after the 2016-17 season. Colorado had a league-low 48 points, then lost the draft lottery, falling to No. 4.

"That season was tough, it really was," Landeskog said. "It got to the point we were so bad, we just kept losing, and we tried to patch one hole up and three others opened. We just couldn't find a way to turn things around midseason or spark the group. We had good players, but even our best players weren't playing very well. It got to the point where you took it personal. You always talk about leaving hockey at the rink and separate it from your personal life, but it's hard to do when you're basically going through a season-long slump."

After further reflection, that was actually the turning point. Colorado drafted Cale Makar at No. 4, who turned out to be an absolute gem, winning the Calder Trophy last season. Nathan MacKinnon flourished into a superstar, posting three straight seasons of 90-plus points. The team incorporated a new generation of young players, and GM Joe Sakic began outsmarting some of his peers on trades. Landeskog said being at the low point was not only grounding, but provided experiences to learn from. They haven't missed the playoffs since.

"The guys who were around for that '16-17 season, we had been embarrassed for a full season," Landeskog says. "We didn't want to be the laughing stock of the NHL anymore. We wanted the fan base and organization to take pride in what we do on the ice. We just all looked at ourselves in the mirror and said we should be better. We took it personal."

Landeskog said they embraced an underdog role in the 2017-18 season. "Even the following year [in 2018-19], I don't think people gave us a whole lot of credit," Landeskog said. "But having said that, it's kind of the same thing this year. Because to us, it doesn't really matter what the outside expectations are. To us, the expectations inside the room is more important, and we hold each other to a high standard."

And that high standard this year? Stanley Cup glory.

The Avs felt something special brewing last season. Colorado entered the postseason bubble as the No. 2 seed in the West, but caught unrelenting injury luck. By the second-round series against Dallas, the Avs were down to their third-string goalie, were missing their No. 1 defenseman and had three key forwards -- including Landeskog -- get injured. Colorado lost to the Stars in Game 7, its second straight second-round Game 7 exit.

"Obviously we need to stay healthy -- injuries happen for all teams, but ours came at a bad time," Landeskog said. "But ultimately it comes down to performing when it matters the most. That's what we need to realize as a group, we need to hit our stride when it matters most."

All eyes were on Colorado in its nationally televised season-opener on Wednesday against the Blues. The Avs did not look like Cup favorites at all, falling 4-1, with sloppy and uninspired play on home ice.

"The first game was just really, really bad," Landeskog said. "It was almost like we were feeling ourselves a little too much, we were feeling too good, maybe we bought into the outside expectations too much, I don't know. You have to give credit to St. Louis because they played hard and made us look bad, but we wanted to make sure we responded and showed who we were."

Two nights later?

The Avalanche thrashed the Blues, 8-0, limiting St. Louis to just 21 shots. Colorado's power play looked unstoppable with five tallies. Landeskog had two goals, giving him 200 for his career.

"Ultimately that's the new standard, and that's the standard we need to hold ourselves to," Landeskog said. "It wasn't so much about fancy plays or doing anything crazy or individual efforts. We put the work boots on, and that's how we're going to win this year."

Emptying the notebook

1. Andy Sutton carved out a 14-year career playing defense in the NHL, but never played a full, 82-game season. In fact, he missed more time to injury in that span than any other NHL player. Sutton, who studied engineering at Michigan Tech, always took an analytical approach.

"I was always looking for ways to restore and renew while still playing the way I wanted to play," Sutton says now. "Working with my team trainers and equipment managers, I realized a lot of that had to do with equipment deficiencies." When Sutton retired in 2012, he launched his own hockey equipment brand, Verbero. The idea was to create high-end equipment but make it affordable by "obliterating the traditional sales structure."

Before the pandemic, Sutton was playing shinny hockey one morning in Los Angeles when he noticed a women's player on the other team. "I was blown away by how powerful she was," Sutton said. "Her lateral movement, how hard she shot the puck. I never had the chance to skate with incredible women's players before."

Sutton introduced himself after the game. She was Blake Bolden, a former Boston College player who now works as a scout for the Los Angeles Kings. Sutton and Blake got to know each other, which piqued Sutton's mind once again: there was a huge deficiency in the market when it came to women's hockey. A hockey equipment company had never created and designed a signature stick for a female athlete, then branded it with her name. Sutton wanted Bolden to be the first.

"It was serendipitous, my meeting with Andy, and our vibing on a level where he was inspired," she said. "And I appreciate that. Because as a woman in this game, we're always working and pushing so hard for every little scrap. So this feels like a tremendous feat for women in hockey. This is huge, this is historical. I'm a brand now. I'm going to look back on this when I'm old and my little grandkids will have a vintage BB stick. And it will be a beautiful thing to have."

Verbero unveiled the Blake Bolden Signature Series Mercury V350 Stick in December, after a truly collaborative process.

Bolden decided on the color red because her slogan is "be bold." "Then I wanted it to be murdered out on all black," she said. "Because I think murdered out things on cars or wheels or windows looks classy, but also bad a--."

She then thought, if it was her signature stick, she should probably have her signature on it "like Steph Curry has on his signature sneakers," she said. "So I was inspired by that. I love my initials, BB, so I wanted that big and bold on the blade -- front and back."

As for the engineering? "As a defenseman, I don't like to hold my stick too tight so having a little grip is nice," Bolden said. "My curve, as I've been playing for the last seven years pro, was a huge banana curve that made my shot go really high. I wanted a curve that wasn't extremely flat, but wasn't a banana curve. It's perfect for me because I can shoot quick wristers or snapshots from the point. I can get off pucks fast from the point, and it works marvelously for me."

Bolden is one of 15 female athletes Sutton has brought into the Verbero structure. He is also working on a signature stick for Canadian national team player Brigette Lacquette (in which they commissioned a leading indigenous artist to create the art) as well as one for Hockey Hall of Famer Hayley Wickenheiser. ("Can you believe nobody ever created a Wick stick?" Sutton said. "That's wild to me.")

For Sutton, the collaborations are all about "uplifting female athletes, making them feel heard, seen and supported." Bolden will have her own interface on the Verbero website, and is encouraged to market her stick to her own network -- from minor associations with which she's associated, to her alma mater. Verbero will give Bolden 50% of the net profit of her sticks sold. "We give the girls an opportunity to make a lot of money, and support themselves through hockey," Sutton said. "We know we're on to something really meaningful and long overdue here. That feels inspiring."

2. After the complicated situation where players' families were mostly prevented from joining the NHL bubble this summer, I was curious how teams would handle family members attending games this season. According to the CBA, each team must make available two complimentary tickets per player per home game, and a minimum of two tickets for purchase for each home and visiting player. In negotiations for 2021, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to an updated policy for this season. Each home player's group of guests will be seated in their own "pod" while keeping distance from other player guest pods. Teams were also told to designate a separate visiting player guest section.

If you've been watching broadcasts, you've probably noticed some family members in the seats, but not at all arenas just yet. Some markets still can't allow family members due to attendance restrictions from local public health authorities, though that could evolve as the season goes on.

3. A few observations from players on how this season feels different:

  • "I don't do much outside the rink at all. I feel like I'm living in a bubble at home."

  • "They're definitely pumping the sound loud at the arena, but it's a different energy without fans. Sometimes [fake] crowd reaction sounds one or two seconds delayed."

  • And from a player on a road trip: "I think there's a team room we're allowed to hang out in, but there's not much to do just hanging at the hotel. Most guys will probably spend a lot of time in their rooms."

4. I asked a veteran player how he would feel if he played for Columbus or Winnipeg and he knew a top player like Pierre-Luc Dubois or Patrik Laine wanted to be traded.

"I don't know all of the details of the situations," the player said. "But in general, as long as he's competing hard and giving it his all for the team while he's there, I wouldn't care. What's going on between the player and management is between them. I just want teammates who are committed to helping the team win."

Neither the Blue Jackets nor Jets appear to be in any rush to make a trade, instead waiting for deals that make sense. But it seems notable that Dubois leads all Blue Jackets forwards in ice time through two games, and Laine nearly had a Gordie Howe hat trick in his first game (he didn't get credited with a fight, but he was engaged, and feisty) plus had this wicked wrister:

There are very few players who could get away with taking this shot from the top of the circles on a breakaway.

What we liked this week

1. I dare you to find a post-game interview as pure as this one with Devils rookie Yegor Sharangovich after he scored the game-winning goal against the Bruins on Saturday:

2. Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom both scored in their season debuts. Is there a better feel-good story in the league this week than this? Patrick had not played in a game in 652 days, missing all of last season with a debilitating migraine disorder. Lindblom was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in Dec. 2019. He finished chemotherapy treatments this past July.

Patrick is 22. Lindblom is 24. The Flyers are counting on both to contribute this season -- they're key pieces in the vaunted prospect system that has finally arrived -- but I'm just inspired by the mental fortitude it took for both of them to get to this point. Wishing them health and success going forward.

3. Great to see The King on the mend. The 38-year-old said he will stay in Cleveland for more tests before returning to New York City, where he will continue his rehab and recovery. Though many have speculated Lundqvist's playing career is likely over after undergoing open heart surgery, there have been no absolute medical determinations made on the goalie just yet:

4. Bill Plaschke made this his "FaceTime" on Around the Horn on Thursday, but just wanted to echo his words with a kudos to the Los Angeles Kings here. As you know, the NHL has allowed teams to put advertisements on their helmets this season for the first time, and most teams are using it as "make goods" with their arena sponsors. Los Angeles went in a different direction. The Kings' helmet now features the logo of the California HOPE Crisis Counseling Program, a mental health and wellness initiative. As we navigate through the 10th month of the COVID-19 pandemic -- which has put a strain on so many of us mentally, physically and financially -- it's great to see a pro franchise be a leader in this space.

"It's easy to put on a brand," team president Luc Robitaille told the L.A. Times. "But for us to have something that can actually make a difference, it can really help us spread the message, that was when it really perked my attention. I was really happy."

5. Glad to see Florida reverse course (whatever the reason) and put Keith Yandle in the lineup on Sunday, extending his ironman streak to 867 consecutive games, dating back to 2009. It's the fourth-longest streak in NHL history. The fact that he scored in the game (and celebrated so emphatically) was an exclamation point:

Even Rick Pitino -- yes that Rick Pitino -- had a say on the matter. Keep an eye on Yandle this season, as trade rumors are already brewing. The 34-year-old is under contract for two more years, with an annual cap hit of $6.35 million. It's apparent new GM Bill Zito is trying to put his stamp on the roster he inherited, and he isn't pleased with his current defensive group, having already made two waiver claims on blueliners.

What we didn't like this week

1. Watch Pierre-Edouard Bellemare's hopes and dreams get crushed in real time. Sad stuff.

2. Ads on helmets haven't been distracting for me, but on opening night I was having a hard time getting past the new on-glass signage around the top of the boards. The most egregious was in Tampa Bay, where small Adidas logos lining the glass made it hard to follow the action on the near glass.

The NHL heard the viewers complaints: By Day 2, the league mandated that all glass signage on the camera side be removed. Much easier viewing experience.

3. Few things are worse than being injured in warmups. And it was not an ideal way for Ilya Sorokin to make his long-awaited NHL debut, as the Rangers thrashed the Islanders 5-0 after the unexpected goalie start change:

4. Another year, more frustration for Colorado fans trying to watch the Avalanche. Altitude and Comcast still haven't come to a carriage agreement, which meant the team's season opener against St. Louis, which was broadcast on NBC Sports Network, was blacked out for Comcast subscribers. Brutal.

5. Uncertainty in the AHL has a lot of minor-league players in financial limbo -- and many in duress. Players aren't getting paid until the Feb. 5 start date, and they're unsure of what their prorated salaries on a severely truncated season will look like.

Larry Brooks of the New York Post covered the story here, including this sobering quote from Larry Landon, the Professional Hockey Players Association executive director: "There is no one to blame, but I would hope the NHL and NHLPA would recognize the dire financial and mental situation so many of the AHL players are in at this point. These players are maxed out on their credit lines, they have piled up debts since the end of last season and they are fearful of what awaits them. Our players are filled with anguish and anxiety."

Three stars of the week

Kirill Kaprizov, RW, Minnesota Wild

It was a debut six years (and three Minnesota GMs) in the making, and it did not disappoint. Kaprizov became the second player in the last 37 years to score a game-winning overtime goal in his NHL debut (Tim Sweeney, 1990, is the other). Kaprizov also set up Marcus Johansson's overtime winner two nights later to finish the week with a goal and three assists in two games.

Juuse Saros, G, Nashville Predators

The Predators say they will rely on both Saros and Pekka Rinne this season, but the 25-year-old Saros got the first two starts against Columbus, and dazzled. He turned away 71 of 74 shots for a .959 save percentage and 1.50 goals-against average.

Travis Konecny, RW, Philadelphia Flyers

Plenty of Flyers looked terrific in their pair of opening wins against the rival Penguins, in which they out-scored Pittsburgh 11-5. Konecny was the most productive, with a hat trick and two more assists for five points in two games.

Teammate Travis Sanheim wins the title for best pregame fit, however, with the magenta suit (bonus points for no-show socks):

Social post of the week

These good vibes are contagious. Artemi Panarin is a reigning Hart Trophy finalist, but he should get more help from teammates this season. Rangers coaches were raving about Pavel Buchnevich in training camp, and it looks like the 25-year-old is ready to level up, with two goals, an assist and an average ice time of 19:38 per game in New York's first two contests.

The best games on tap this week

Note: All times ET.

Wednesday, Jan. 20: Edmonton Oilers at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m.

A sneaky bonus to divisional realignment: more Connor McDavid games in primetime (for those not living on the West Coast). This will be the first of a two-game series against Auston Matthews and the Leafs (the second, on Friday, is on ESPN+). Even better: we'll get to see these two young stars square off seven (!!!) more times this season.

Friday, Jan. 22: Nashville Predators at Dallas Stars, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN+)

The defending Western Conference champion Stars make their season debut a week after everyone else, because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the team. They'll make up their four missed games later, but for now, I'm taking a pulse on their offense (which will be without Tyler Seguin for a while) in what should be a close game.

Saturday, Jan. 23: Tampa Bay Lightning at Columbus Blue Jackets, 7 p.m. (ESPN+)

This has become one of my favorite rivalries in the NHL over the past few seasons, and I'm pumped the realigned divisions will bring it to us eight times this season. The Lightning's offense looked sharp without Nikita Kucherov in easy opening wins against Chicago, but the Blue Jackets' stingy defensive structure often gives them fits.