It might be hard to believe after last night’s epic debut that there’ll be a bigger story in Colorado this season than head coach Patrick Roy.
Over the course of 60 minutes, the Hall of Famer managed to inject fire and passion into the Avalanche in a way that predecessor Joe Sacco never quite could during his four-year tenure. Just by stepping behind the bench, he gifted the Avs with more than a hint of his own legendary swagger, and his late-game confrontation with Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau earned him a $10,000 fine while setting a tone that suggests the Avs will be a team to reckon with this season.
Or maybe they won’t.
It was one game, after all. One magical game that recalled the best of this team’s glorious past, when Roy was manning the pipes and Joe Sakic, now the team’s GM, was a dagger with the puck . . . but one game nonetheless.
And even taking a rough start into consideration, what we saw in last night’s 6-1 win over the Ducks may indicate a level of play this team can’t consistently achieve just yet.
But it’s certainly a preview of coming attractions.
And that will be the bigger story. Because whether or not Roy boosts these Avs from the depths of the West and into playoff contention this season or some time down the road, it’s obvious that their time is coming. And when it happens, it won’t be the coach who is doing the heavy lifting. It’ll be the finest collection of young talent in the game today.
That assessment might meet with some resistance in Edmonton, where the Oilers used three consecutive first-overall picks to assemble the core of a team with a fair amount of promise of its own. Taylor Hall is probably a season away from establishing himself as the game’s best left wing. Nail Yakupov is primed for a 30-goal campaign, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, when healthy, is a sublime playmaker. Justin Schultz, though far from polished at this point, looks to be a legitimate top pairing defender.
But the young Avs that were on display last night could be even better.
“Pick ‘em,” a Western-conference scout told SI.com. “There’s so much talent on both sides. Edmonton probably has more potential on the back end, but Colorado’s forwards are really something. They have a real nice mix of skill and edge. They’re really going to be tough to contain.”
“Both [Edmonton and Colorado] have a group of young players that could be the foundation of something special,” another scout said. “There’s no wrong answer here, but I really like Colorado’s group. Their ceiling is just so high. [Matt] Duchene is so dynamic. His ability to accelerate and find open space makes him so dangerous, and he has that really terrific shot. Ryan O’Reilly is almost like [Pavel] Datsyuk in the way he hounds the puck carrier and his ability to turn any mistake into an offensive chance. He has such a high compete level. [Gabriel Landeskog] is a born leader with a great physical presence and a developing offensive game. And you saw what the new kid can do.”
The “new kid” is Nathan MacKinnon, who was drafted first overall by the Avalanche last June. After struggling with hip problems during camp, he was brilliant in his NHL debut on Wednesday night, recording a pair of assists off some sick sauce and then giving as good as he got in a late-game, net-front battle with Anaheim’s Ben Lovejoy.
According to the league, MacKinnon, at 18 years 31 days, is the youngest player to record multiple points in a game since Jan. 8, 1944, when Toronto’s Teeder Kennedy turned in a four-pointer at 18 years 27 days. That’s not a bad start.
If you tuned in, you saw exactly why the Avs felt comfortable picking MacKinnon over local favorite (and obvious need filler) Seth Jones last June. His maturity, the creativity, the courage, and the strength were all on display.
Again, one game . . . but what a game.
“It was fun,” MacKinnon said, beaming after the win. And he wasn’t alone.
“I’m giddy right now,” Duchene said. “I haven’t felt this way in four years.”
Big wins have a way of doing that, especially for players who suffered through a lot of losses on the way to earning those high draft picks. But the pieces are coming together quickly for the Avs, who could also dress forward Michael Sgarbossa and draft steal Chris Bigras in the next year or so.
At this rate, it won’t be long before the combative Roy is just part of a much bigger story.