Sports

Through highs and lows, Landeskog has been the Avalanche’s undisputed leader

DENVER — Both sides knew exactly what they were trying to achieve, but that didn’t mean the staring contest at the negotiating table didn’t reach the uncomfortable stage.

Rewind to July, when the Colorado Avalanche and longtime captain Gabriel Landeskog were embroiled in contact talks, trying to find common ground on a new deal.

Landeskog had just completed his 10th season with the Avalanche — and his ninth as captain — and was looking for a raise.

Of course, his ultimate goal was to remain with the only franchise he’d known, the same one that selected him with the second overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft in St. Paul, Minnesota, one spot behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers.

Landeskog had been through some challenging times with the Avalanche, but was also a pivotal part of the culture building, the undisputed leader and a valuable contributor on one of the most effective — and productive — lines in hockey.

At the age of 28 and an unrestricted free agent for the first time, Landeskog wasn’t necessarily looking for greener pastures but he knew his value and expected to be compensated accordingly.

Power forwards like Landeskog don’t become available often, so it was no surprise when the St. Louis Blues made an offer that was worthy of consideration.

Another Central Division foe, the Nashville Predators, were also believed to be in the running if Landeskog couldn’t get a deal done with the Avalanche.

But those tense times eventually gave way and the Avalanche secured the services of Landeskog for eight more seasons at an average annual value of $7 million (and $56 million total), a steady bump from the $5.6 million per season he earned on his previous seven- year deal.

“It did go down to the wire, that’s for sure,” Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic said on Tuesday morning. “That was part of the negotiations. He went out there and saw what he could get, but at the end of the day, he wanted to be here. We knew he wanted to be here and he knew that we wanted him here. Sometimes it takes a while. Maybe near the end, I was a little worried, but I was hopeful we’d get it done and both sides were really happy with the deal and he can finish his career with the Avalanche, which is how it should be.”

There’s no doubt that factored into Landeskog’s decision-making process.

Having invested a great deal of sweat equity through his first 10 seasons, he wanted to see this through.

“It was a different time, something I hadn’t been a part of before, something I hadn’t been through,” said Landeskog. “It was clear from the get-go that this is where I wanted to be. This is my home and I wanted to commit to this team, this city and this organization long term and that’s what we were able to get done.”

With the Stanley Cup Final between the Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning set to open on Wednesday at Ball Arena (8 p.m. ET, Sportsnet), Landeskog is just four wins away from reaching the ultimate goal and having his name engraved on Lord Stanley’s mug.

The fabled trophy was on location for media day on Tuesday and Landeksog couldn’t help but look over at it, especially when he was asked a specific question about it.

“I saw it over there. I tried to focus on something that somebody else was asking,” said Landeskog. “I don’t want to stare at it too much. You are close, it’s so much more realistic now, but at the same time, we’re only three-quarters of the way there. This is still another big step and it’s still going to be a grind and it’s still going to be a long series and a challenging one.”

While you can’t help but wonder what it might be like to lift that Cup over your head for the first time, Landeskog was quick to get back on task, patiently answering questions in both English and Swedish from members of the assembled media.

But what is it that makes Landeskog such a good leader?

“It’s just the way he handles himself,” said Sakic, who knows a thing or two about being a good captain, having led the Avalanche to two Stanley Cups. “You see what he does on the ice, he’s a competitor and he’ll do anything for his teammates. He’s a great hockey player and in the dressing room, he’s not the biggest rah-rah type of guy, but he’s got the pulse of the team and he takes care of that room and he’s got a good way of bringing everybody along with him. He’s a really good role model.”

“For us he’s able to speak in those right moments when we need his voice,” added Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar. “But at the same time he’s consistent for us every night playing that same physical force but he’s also so good on the offensive and defensive end. Just such a well-rounded captain.”

“You have to do the right things first, before you can really talk about it,” said Avalanche forward JT Compher. “He does that every single day. He protects his teammates and does all of the little things, whether it’s blocking shots, fights, scoring big goals, he just does it all. He says the right things as well—and he means it. It’s not like he’s just saying cliches, his whole heart is behind getting this team to win and you want to follow him.”

During the Western Conference Final, Landeskog was asked by your humble agent what defines a good leader and he conceded that talking about himself was one of the few things that makes him uncomfortable.

Then Landeskog laid out an answer that embodies all of those leadership qualities.

“To me, it’s always just who you are and just be yourself,” said Landeskog. “You still have to try to evolve as a person and try to learn things from other people and try to educate yourself on certain things. At the end of the day, it’s a group effort. I think we’ve got tons of leaders in that locker room, letters, no letters. It comes with experience as well and you just get more comfortable in that role.

“But to answer your question, I think being able to relate to different people in that locker room, there are 24 different personalities and trying to relate to people in different topics and things like that, being a good teammate, leading by example. I mean, go down the list of all the things you’ve heard in the past, but be yourself. If you’re going to start faking things and trying to pretend to be something you’re not, people will see right through that.”

Lightning center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who spent the previous two seasons with the Avalanche, admits he wasn’t a big fan of Landeskog before his arrival but that changed quickly.

“It’s funny because before I got to play here, I hated him and he told me that he hated me too. So that was reciprocated,” said Bellemare, who signed a two-year deal with the Lightning in July. “We’re hockey players, it gets heated at times. I had been playing for so long in Sweden and I speak Swedish, so there were a lot of chirps going on — and I respect that too.

“On the other side of the world, when you look at them giving a captaincy to a young kid (at 19), you’re kind of thinking ‘why is he getting the captaincy?’ But when I got to the team, I got my answer. He’s so mature. He understands what has to be said in the locker room and he always says the right thing. He’s ready to stand up for whatever a teammate has done. He stands up for his teammate first and then asks for answers. I have tremendous respect for the way he conducts himself on and off the ice.”

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman considers Landeskog to be one of his close friends and has a great admiration for him from their time together playing on the Swedish national team.

Hedman joked that he would be losing Landeskog’s number for the next couple of weeks, though he did show his appreciation for a guy he will be going head-to-head against in this series.

“A guy I’ve known for a very long time,” said Hedman. “He’s leading his team on a nightly basis. He sounds more American than Swedish, he doesn’t even have an accent. When you listen to him talk, he’s very calm but he plays his heart out every night. He’s tough to play against.”

Landeskog is playing excellent hockey for the Avalanche — chipping in eight goals and 17 points in 14 games through three rounds while playing a solid two-way game — and they’ll need him to continue leading the way to dethrone the two-time defending champions .

“We wouldn’t be here (in the Stanley Cup Final) if he left, that’s for sure,” said Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon. “It would have been a big hole in our organization, in that locker room and on the ice. Everything. He’s a special person and an amazing player, he could have had 50 goals this year if he didn’t get hurt.

“He’s a selfless guy. He’s always thinking about others and serving others. He’s a warrior. He fights, blocks shots and he’s great to everybody. He’s a great human. He was the captain at 19 for a reason. His leadership qualities are obvious and we’re super lucky to have him on our team.”

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