TRAIKOS: Avalanche’s patience with core could be a lesson for the Maple Leafs

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DENVER — Year after year, the result was the same.

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The team would dominate in the regular season, build up a bunch of excitement for the playoffs, only to watch it wash away in a sea of disappointment. They kept inventing new ways of stubbing their toes, kept losing earlier than anyone expected, kept failing to make progress. 

Meanwhile, fans kept wondering when their luck was going to change — or if anything with the team would change. 

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Why, they asked, was the general manager sticking with this formula? Why didn’t he break up the core? Or at the very least, fire the head coach?

“It’s a belief,” said the general manager. “It’s a belief in your core. You have to learn, you have to grow and over time we kept getting a little bit better.”

The person who said this was Joe Sakic — not Kyle Dubas. But the Colorado Avalanche’s journey from playoff punching bag to Stanley Cup finalist might shed on a light on why the Maple Leafs have so far refused to part ways with any one of its $40-million core.

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As the Avalanche — and several other teams — have shown, sooner or later your luck changes. You eventually break through. You just have to persevere and be patient. And believe.

“Our guys, especially this year, really competed and faced a lot of adversity and overcame it every single time,” said Sakic. “It’s a group that believes in each other and we believed in them. And you saw it over the years with Tampa. Look at the them now, they’re the two-time Stanley Cup champions and looking for their third. And we’re looking to dethrone the champs, I guess.”

The adversity that the Avalanche faced was failing to advance past the second round in each of the past four years. While it’s not quite the same as the Leafs’ six straight first-round losses, the pain was similar for a team that many believed should have won a championship by now. 

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Then again, it’s nothing new.

“Going through some heartbreak in the playoffs,” added Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar, “has made us a stronger group, a more resilient group, a team that’s mentally tough for the bulk of the season.”

Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, who didn’t reach the final until his seventh season, finally won a championship when he was in his 13th year in the league. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin also waited 13 years before hoisting the Cup.

Now, it might be Colorado’s turn to end their drought.

This is Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog’s 11th season in the league. Nathan MacKinnon is on his ninth season. Mikko Rantanen is playing is his sixth full season, while Cale Makar has been in Colorado for four playoffs.

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For all of them, this is their first trip to the final. Prior to this year, they had never even made it out of the second round.

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“It’s obviously been tough,” said MacKinnon. “We’ve been in the playoffs for five, six years now. But the second (round) is hard though. There’s only eight teams left in the whole league. With the new playoff format, you’re playing the second or third seed in the conference. It’s very difficult obviously. We’ve learned a lot. We’re at this point now. It’s not by accident.”

Indeed, the Avalanche have been just as dominant in the playoffs as they were in the regular season, when they finished with the best record in the Western Conference. They have lost just three games so far, having swept the Nashville Predators in the first round and the Edmonton Oilers in the third round. 

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Their toughest battle was against St. Louis in the second round, though it might have been more of a mental hurdle than anything. 

“I’ve been here the last three years and not getting out of the second round , you just have to put that in the past,” said Makar. “Obviously, you learn from it. Like everybody says, you learn from it. But for us as a team, we really got that resilient presence this year and that’s been the main driving factor through these rounds. So hopefully that can continue.”

That resiliency didn’t come by accident. There were several times when Sakic could have pulled the plug and made a change, whether it was replacing his head coach or stripping Landeskog of the captaincy or trading one of the team’s high-priced players. Instead, he mostly stuck with the status quo, choosing to swap out secondary pieces rather than tinker with the core.

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It was a decision that reverberated throughout the dressing room. And with Colorado four wins away from a long-awaited championship, has paid dividends.

“I think it starts from the belief from Joe and ownership,” said MacKinnon. “They never expressed disbelief in us at all, even through the hard times. That kind of gives you a little more confidence, I think especially when you’ve got a guy like Joe Sakic supporting you and believes in you. 

“I guess he was right. We got to this point. We are doing something good. And obviously with some of the moves we’ve made, you don’t win with two or three guys. You need a full 20-man line up and. Yeah. We’re we’re really lucky to have a deep as a team as we do.”

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