By Pat Graham
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. _ Ever so steadily, Jarome Iginla is getting up to speed with the Colorado Avalanche.
Not easy, either, given all their speed.
At 37, Iginla is simply trying to keep up with these kids flying up and down the ice. He picked this place in free agency because they have all the ingredients: A goal-scoring phenom in rookie of the year Nathan MacKinnon, a top-notch goaltender in Semyon Varlamov and an unorthodox coach in Patrick Roy who has a knack for pushing all the right buttons.
Given his age, Iginla doesn’t have much time left to hoist a Stanley Cup.
Given their youth, the Avs sure could use another leader like him.
“There’s going to be some fun nights because of the things they can do _ the skill level to go with the speed,” said Iginla, who scored 30 goals for Boston last season. “Very impressed with the tempo and the creativity.”
Iginla has been enthralled by the Avs for quite some time, too, watching from afar last season as the Avalanche tied a franchise record with 52 wins in Roy’s first season behind the bench. It was difficult not to pay attention with Colorado catching the hockey world by surprise and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
What happened next, though, has haunted Roy all off-season _ an overtime goal by the Minnesota Wild in Game 7 to end their season.
“We still think about that goal,” Roy said.
That’s why Roy and his former teammate turned executive Joe Sakic infused some grizzled veterans into their youthful squad, just to give them more leadership when times turned tough. They traded for Daniel Briere and Brad Stuart. And then, when Paul Stastny bolted for St. Louis, they brought in Iginla.
“The more leaders you have in the dressing room the better off you’re going to be,” Sakic said.
Now comes the real challenge _ winning when all eyes are upon them.
“Sure, there’s a little more pressure,” Briere said. “But I’d rather be a team that everybody is expecting to win, because that means you should be winning if you do your job right. I like the makeup of this team. What they did last year was tremendous.”
So far, Colorado has looked rather sluggish in the preseason, but Roy hardly gives it a second thought. He’s tinkering with different line combinations, trying to decide the best pairings between Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, captain Gabe Landeskog, Alex Tanguay, Iginla and MacKinnon.
Here are some things to watch as the Avalanche prepare to open at Minnesota on Oct. 9:
EVEN FASTER: Believe it or not, the already lightning quick MacKinnon may have found another gear this off-season working out with Duchene and Penguins standout Sidney Crosby. MacKinnon is coming off a season in which he scored 24 goals on his way to rookie of the year honours. “I do have more jump in my step,” MacKinnon said.
FEELING HIP: Tanguay dealt with nagging knee and hip injuries all last season before finally electing to have hip surgery in February after playing in just 16 games. Healthy again, he’s using this preseason to gain trust in that hip. He could again be paired with Iginla. The two were once teammates in Calgary.
ANY ROLE WILL DO: When he arrived in Denver, Briere wasn’t informed of his role by Roy but given some advice. “Told me to come in and have fun, to relax,” said Briere. He played a limited role most of last year for Montreal, which advanced to the Eastern Conference Final. “Personally, a frustrating season as far as responsibilities went on the ice,” Briere said. “So that was (Roy’s) words of advice, just to come in here and have fun and good things will happen.”
VARLY, VARLY: Colorado will keep leaning heavily on Varlamov, who broke Roy’s team record for most wins (41) in a single season. “He showed the world last year that he was a No. 1 goalie and I’m sure Varly’s going to continue to do that,” Roy said. Varlamov’s backup will be Reto Berra after Jean-Sebastien Giguere retired.
LATE KNACK: Roy was revered last season for taking chances, like pulling the goaltender with plenty of time left in the third period, just to give his team more of a chance to score the equalizer. “He’s one of the best in-game tactical coaches that I’ve had,” defenceman Erik Johnson said