Kiszla: Can Avalanche build a dynasty despite harsh economic realities of NHL?
The first, glorious taste of sweet champagne from the Stanley Cup in 21 years only wet everybody’s whistle.
Avalanche Country thirsts for a big gulp of glory.
With a strong core built to last around defenseman Cale Makar and center Nathan MacKinnon, dare we dream of a hockey dynasty?
The Avs could be the guiding light in the dawning of a new golden age of pro sports in Colorado, with quarterback Russell Wilson throwing touchdown passes for the Broncos when not sitting alongside his Denver peeps, leading cheers for Gabe Landeskog or Nikola Jokic.
As the Cup was waltzed around the ice during giddy moments immediately after a 2-1 victory against Tampa Bay clinched the championship on a steamy Monday night in Florida, the newly crowned champs approached franchise owner Stan Kroenke, who has built a sprawling sports empire that spans the globe from Los Angeles to London.
“The minute I came down here,” said Kroenke, surrounded by reporters in Amalie Arena, “the players were coming up to me, saying: ‘This is amazing. Let’s do it again.’”
But before taking a breath, Stan the Man quickly added: “That’s hard to do.”
Even in the middle of a championship party, Kroenke is a no-nonsense businessman, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Billionaires are ultra-competitive by nature. Kroenke keeps score in dollars, as well as trophies, and stubbornly refuses to lose.
Yes, his sharp edges can cut to the quick, as any Denver sports fan who has cursed a TV monitor while futilely looking to watch the Avalanche or Nuggets on Comcast knows far too well.
So before we dream of these Avs becoming the dynasty even the great teams of Patrick Roy and Peter Forsberg never quite were, let’s celebrate in the streets of downtown with thousands of our hockey besties, all united in burgundy and blue. Raise a toast in appreciation of the 16-4 record by a group that dominated the NHL playoffs from start to finish.
“This is something you dream of,” Joe Sakic said.
After a Hall of Fame playing career, Sakic has cemented his status as the most important person in franchise history by patiently constructing a roster that truly became a legit championship contender when some draftniks thought he might have reached a wee bit to take Makar with the No. 4 overall pick in 2017.
“I always used to laugh when people said you need to lose before you win,” said coach Jared Bednar, who endured the disappointment of early playoff exits in three consecutive seasons. “But I do think in this case, for our team, it was important lessons learned and helped our team’s maturity get to the point where you could win the Cup.”
I doubted Bednar for being too stoic on the bench and not proactive enough in making adjustments when momentum turned against his team. But he proved me wrong.
He never panicked when the injury bug bit hard during these playoffs. And winning the Cup without a truly elite goalie is no small feat.
Teams that hang together through heartbreak can grow into champions by becoming a band of brothers. The strong bonds in the Avalanche locker room were apparent, from how defenseman Erik Johnson mentored young Bo Byram, constantly chatting him up on the ice, to how teammates rallied support for Nazem Kadri during a storm of ugly racist threats in St. Louis.
Building a dynasty is a daunting 24/7 task, with barely enough time for a weekend getaway, let alone sentimentality. With a list of free agents longer than his arm and the signing frenzy beginning July 13, Sakic has tough decisions to make.
The bucks and pucks choices begin with goalie Darcy Kuemper, whose 2.57 goals-against average while overcoming an eye injury made him the unsung hero of this Cup run.
So does Sakic reward Kuemper with a big, new contract, or consider looking at 37-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury or 27-year-old Ville Husso as a cheaper alternative?
Kadri red-lined the emotional heartbeat of Avs Country throughout these playoffs, from his rousing hat trick in St. Louis to a clutch overtime winner against the Lightning.
But I also think he played himself out of town. On the open market, Kadri richly deserves a salary of at least $7 million per annum. The Avs, however, might be wiser to spend that money on impending free agents such as Valeri Nichushkin and Josh Manson.
I’m proud to profess admiration of Johnson, as classy as any dude who’s ever worn an Avs sweater. But with his history of injury, maybe E.J. should take a buyout and go hang with his beloved horses in retirement.
What makes the realization of championship dreams so special? The realization that true greatness can be so fleeting. In the NHL, money and the salary cap conspire to undermine a successful hockey family.
As the Avs parade the Cup through town Thursday, scream appreciation from the bottom of your heart for the champs.
In all likelihood, this parade will be the last time this band of brothers will all be united in burgundy and blue. The business of hockey will send Avs their separate ways, scattering some of them across the league.
What will endure?
Sweet memories as forever as the names of Makar and MacKinnon engraved on the Cup.