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Avalanche following the leader

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DENVER — It wasn’t long ago that the Blackhawks — five moribund years removed from their last playoff appearance but loaded with highly drafted and highly skilled young talent — and their new, fiery coach caught the NHL by surprise, put together a 104-point regular season and marched all the way to the Western Conference finals, announcing their presence as contenders for years to come.

That was five seasons and two Stanley Cups ago.

“We were such a young team, it was almost like we were too young and stupid to know what was going on,” Patrick Kane said.

The Colorado Avalanche, this year’s surprise team, know exactly what’s going on. They saw the Hawks do it. They saw the Pittsburgh Penguins do it before that. Now they’re trying to be the next team to parlay years of disappointment into years of dominance.

The Avs have missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons and four of the last five. They were last in the league last season with 39 points in 48 games. But they drafted current leading scorer Matt Duchene with the third pick in 2009. They drafted current captain Gabriel Landeskog No. 2 in 2011. And they drafted current wunderkind Nathan MacKinnon first overall in June. By peppering in some other young talent and veteran presences, and bringing in the Hall of Fame tandem of coach Patrick Roy and executive Joe Sakic, the Avalanche burst onto the scene this season by winning 12 of their first 13 games.

And though they’ve come back to earth a bit, losing three in a row before trouncing the Hawks 5-1 on Tuesday, the Avs clearly are headed in the right direction — the same one the Hawks were headed in five years ago.

“I hope we’re on that same path,” said defenseman Ryan O’Reilly, a second-round pick in 2009. “Definitely, after what they did, rebuilding and everything and winning a Stanley Cup, that’s the goal we want here.”

Just as Joel Quenneville came in — four games into the 2008-09 season — and heightened the intensity and installed a more structured scheme in Chicago, Roy has done the same thing in Denver. The fiery coach knocked down the partition between the benches during an opening-night shouting match with Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, making it clear he meant business after four lackluster seasons under Joe Sacco.

“Right from the get-go, Patty made sure to tell us he’s not here as a coach, he’s here as a partner for us — he’s in this together with us,” Landeskog said. “Every team goes through that rebuilding mode. Chicago went through it, and Pittsburgh did, as well. For us, bringing in Joe and Patrick this summer was key. They could really be at any golf course in the world right now, but they want to be here. They sent a message to all of us that this is for real.”

Of course, leadership only goes so far. You need talent above all else. And just as the Hawks stockpiled skilled players such as Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and the Penguins hoarded Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in the early 2000s, the Avalanche has been doing the same.

Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, when discussing the Hawks’ rise last spring, said, “If you do a good job when you’re a bad team, and you draft really well, you can ride that for probably eight to 10 years.”

That’s what the Hawks — the league’s model franchise these days — did. That’s what the Penguins did, too. The Avs hope they’re next.

“Things change quickly,” Quenneville said. “You get some young kids in your system, and all of a sudden these kids are top players in the league and you’ve got a different type of team.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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