Jared Bednar is four wins shy of becoming hockey’s first head coach to win the Kelly Cup, the Calder Cup and the Stanley Cup.
“Yeah, well, I mean, my focus is on this cup. I want to add it, I want our team to finish the job,” Bednar said as he primed the Colorado Avalanche to face the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in a star-studded Stanley Cup Final.
Bednar isn’t necessarily one to go down memory lane, not when there’s a wide-open highway to hockey heaven ahead.
He does allow, however, that the philosophies that propelled him to titles in the ECHL and American Hockey League are the same ones he has used to navigate his way from a 48-point season in 2016-17 to the cusp of Colorado’s first championship in 21 years.
“What’s been consistent? Just my approach to the game and focus on the process of what I feel we need to do to be successful,” he said.
That includes deep dives into the pain of coming up short like they have the last three years with second-round playoff exits “and just trying to find ways to get incrementally better in all situations,” Bednar said.
“The heartbreak over the last couple of years in the playoffs has led our whole team sort of into that same mentality,” Bednar said.
After winning just 22 games his first year, taking over after Patrick Roy stepped down abruptly in August 2016, Bednar has led the Avalanche to the playoffs the last six seasons.
They finally began to fulfill their promise this year with sweeps of Nashville and Edmonton sandwiched around a six-game series win over St. Louis.
“He’s done an awesome job,” Avalanche superstar Nathan MacKinnon said. “He’s super even-keeled.
“He’s an easygoing guy, but has that switch when he needs it. So obviously, we’re very lucky to have a guy like that.”
Added centre J.T. Compher: “He’s definitely a really good hockey mind and makes sure we’re prepared for any opponent that we face: video and in practice. He just keeps it level-headed, and I think that’s what our room has tried to be. Whether it’s going good or going bad, we’re staying in a good spot that we’re just focused on what’s coming next.”
If the Avalanche can dethrone the Lightning, Bednar will swap places with Jon Cooper, who’s aiming to lead Tampa Bay to a third consecutive title, something that hasn’t happened in the NHL since the New York Islanders won four titles in a row in the 1980s.
Cooper and Bednar had similarly successful careers in the lower tiers of hockey with Cooper winning the United States Hockey League’s Clark Cup as well as the Calder Cup before joining the Lightning in 2013.
Cooper led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final in his third season, losing to the Blackhawks in six games in 2015. In 2019, the Lightning set a league record for points, won the Presidents’ Trophy and promptly got swept by Columbus in the first round.
Just like Colorado GM Joe Sakic has stuck with Bednar after earlier-than-expected playoff punch-outs, Lightning GM Julien BriseBois said he never considered changing coaches after that debacle.
“It never crossed my mind to make any drastic changes,” BriseBois said. “The whole 2019 thing, it was a really, really bad seven, eight days. It was out of character for our group. Our group had gone far to the playoffs before with Jon as the head coach with this core… So, there was never any doubt in my mind that we had what it took to win. It just it didn’t happen for us that year.”
Like the Avalanche are trying to do this year, the Lightning in 2020 had that extra motivation — which BriseBois called “one additional, very painful experience in our backpacks that we could lean on going forward and learn from it and come back stronger.”
The Lightning beat Dallas in 2020 and Montreal last year in the Stanley Cup Final.
Sakic had Bednar’s back, too, trusting he had the right man in place to take that next step with an ever-improving roster and lessons learned the hard way.
The Avalanche are aiming to turn their anguish into joy like the Lightning did.
“Certainly a lot of lessons have been learned over the last five, six years from myself, from our team going through some heartbreak in the playoffs,” Bednar said. “Even the last couple years I think has made us a stronger group, a more resilient group, a team that’s been mentally tough.”