Just a season ago, Gabriel Landeskog was a rookie trying to fit in.
Now, hes the youngest captain in NHL history and hoping to help the Colorado Avalanche snap a two-season playoff drought. The talented forward is following in some pretty big footsteps of Avalanche leaders before him, names such as Joe Sakic, Adam Foote and current teammate Milan Hejduk.
But hes not too worried about that because all I can be is Gabe, he said.
Given the length of the lockout, Landeskog had extra time to prepare for his new responsibilities. Only, he really didnt do anything special. There were no leadership classes or seminars on how to manage people.
No, he realizes the only way his teammates will follow him is if he keeps working hard and scoring goals.
And there, the 20-year-old should have little trouble. Hes always one of the last players off the ice at practice, and that spills over to game day, where he won the Calder Trophy last season after a year in which he scored 22 goals and had 30 assists.
I dont know if Ive ever had a captain that young; I guess no one has, said defenseman Erik Johnson, chuckling. But it doesnt change anything. Your captain is usually your best player. He doesnt have to be Mr. Vocal in the locker room; we have a lot of other guys for that.
So (Landeskog) just has to do what hes been doing being a good hockey player and one of our hardest workers and best players. When he does that, leadership takes care of itself.
The shortened season actually may be a benefit for the youthful Avalanche, especially since games will be so tightly packed together. Fatigue? Hardly a worry with this group; they could skate forever. A grind? Nah, theyre just anxious to be back.
We just have to play the right way, defenseman Shane OBrien said. When we play fast, from north to south, we can play with anyone. Its time for us to take the next step. Theres no reason we cant be a playoff team. Anything less will be a huge failure.
Defenseman Greg Zanon, who is sporting a scruffy beard that began as somewhat of a protest against the lockdown, thinks this team has the makeup to be a contender. Then again, at this time of year actually in October, when teams usually begin everyone thinks this is the season. Especially after what happened with the Los Angeles Kings last season, when they barely squeezed into the playoffs and ended up hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Once teams get in there, anything can happen, Johnson said.
It all starts with a reliable goaltender, and the Avalanche feel like they have two in youngster Semyon Varlamov and veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Theres no doubt we have tons of confidence in both of them, Johnson said.
In the offseason, the Avalanche added some scoring punch by bringing in P.A. Parenteau and John Mitchell. To begin the season, Parenteau will be on the same line as Landeskog and Matt Duchene.
We have a little bit of everything on that line, said Parenteau, who had 67 points for the New York Islanders last season. Landy is a well-rounded player. Dutchy brings a lot of speed. Me? I like to pass the puck. Hopefully, we can make things happen.
If only the Avs could make something happen with restricted free agent center Ryan OReilly, who led the team in scoring last season. Hes playing overseas until a deal can be worked out.
We cant worry about whos not here and just who is, Duchene said. Were all links in the chain and have to be strong so we can win.
Weve got a great group here. But its whoever gets out of the gate the fastest. First five games, if you win three, youre right where you want to be. You cant have a lull, Duchene said. If you have a tough start, its going to be over pretty quick.
Its Landeskogs task to make sure everyone is on point beginning opening night tonight in Minnesota. He inherited the C on his sweater from Hejduk, who came back for another season but told the team he wanted to relinquish his role and be an assistant captain along with Paul Stastny.
So the team turned to Landeskog, naming him captain in September when he was 19 years, 286 days old. According to the team, that makes him the youngest leader in NHL history, 11 days younger than Sidney Crosby was when he took over as captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins on May 31, 2007.
All through last year, I was playing without pressure, Landeskog said. This year, Ive got to step up and be even better.
The Avs are counting on that.
Hes a 20-year-old kid, but he certainly plays like hes been in the league a long time, fourth-year head coach Joe Sacco said. Hes in great shape, very fit, plays hard, plays with energy, plays hurt. Hes well-respected by his teammates.
Those are the qualities were looking for.