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DENVER — As Nico Sturm walked into the grand atrium inside Ball Arena on Tuesday, he took a gaze around the hall of pods set up for Stanley Cup Final media day and immediately noticed a dozen hanging banners of captains hoisting the Stanley Cup.
There were grizzled Steven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin, with gaps in their teeth showing the incredible elation that comes after two months of grind. There was Lanny McDonald peacefully hugging the Cup with his eyes closed.
Banner after banner of Cup euphoria from over the years.
Twelve weeks ago, when Sturm got word from Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin that he was being traded to the Colorado Avalanche for Tyson Jost, it was this exact moment that Sturm envisioned.
“The first thing that you think of when you’re going to Colorado — because they’re obviously one of the top contenders — is, ‘I’ve got a chance to win the Stanley Cup,’” Sturm told The Athletic on Tuesday. “It’s obviously a long journey to get to this day, and there’s still a couple steps left. But I definitely feel fortunate to be in this position, that’s for sure, because I could have been traded to 30 other teams, right?”
Breaking down the Tyson Jost-Nico Sturm trade with @RussoHockey: https://t.co/1UQXcVndLN
—Peter Baugh (@Peter_Baugh) March 15, 2022
Three months to the day after being traded by the Wild to one of their biggest rivals, Sturm is expected to make his Stanley Cup Final debut with the Avalanche on Wednesday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
He has been scratched in seven of the past eight games, including four times in the St. Louis Blues series and in three of the four games against the Edmonton Oilers. But with Nazem Kadri and Andrew Cogliano working their way back from injuries, Sturm could be filling important minutes.
“It sucked obviously, after the first loss in playoffs, to go out,” Sturm said. “But just also gave me time to work with (skills coach) Shawn (Allard) and the skills coaches here on my touches. And those are the parts of my game that I still think I can improve on the biggest.
“I actually felt like I see pretty quick improvements working with him. So was I happy about being out of the lineup? No, but I was never sulking or anything. I’m just fortunate to be part of this experience … that I get to be part of this team.”
The trade from Minnesota came as a surprise to Sturm, but in hindsight, it probably should not have. The Athletic reported in March that Sturm turned down a long-term contract extension.
“Yeah, there were some talks,” Sturm confirmed Tuesday, “but I don’t want to get into the specifics. It was a good offer, but it wasn’t about more money. That was not the reason.”
He didn’t want to elaborate beyond that other than to admit role was a concern. With center Joel Eriksson Ek coming off an eight-year extension, potential top-six center Marco Rossi coming, maybe Marat Khusnutdinov in the future and Ryan Hartman centering the top line, Sturm probably felt typecast indefinitely on the fourth line.
He also found himself in and out of the lineup, not only this season, but last, including in the playoffs.
“It’s been a long journey, for sure. And it wasn’t always easy mentally,” Sturm, 27, who scored nine goals and 17 points in 53 games for the Wild this season, said. “Obviously for me, it was my first trade in my career, and I think everybody knows that I loved it at Minny, and the guys in the locker room were obviously great. It was a bit of a shock, but honestly, as soon as Billy said that I’m going to Colorado, it kind of turned into excitement right away.
“I think I’m a player that needs to feel comfortable, from a human-being perspective, to play my best on the ice. And the guys here have been awesome. The day I put them in San Jose, they made me feel like I can help this team. And besides all the hockey stuff, everything off the ice and the city here in Denver has been awesome. I honestly didn’t think I would feel that comfortable that soon.”
After recording three assists in 21 regular-season games for the Avs, Sturm has one assist in seven playoff games. That assist was on Cale Makar’s overtime winner in Game 2 of the Nashville series. He’s averaging a team-low 9:04 per game, but this is a straight-line forechecker who hopes to make an impact in the Stanley Cup Final on a deep, high-octane Avs team.
“Honestly, I’ve adjusted really well,” Sturm said. “The hockey part has been truly easy because I think I fit in the system really well. That straight-line, north-south game, I think fits my style of play.”
And his goal is to feel that same elation all those captains captured on banners in that atrium experienced when they once — or in Stamkos’ case, twice — lifted that shiny, silver Stanley Cup.
—Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) June 14, 2022
“Whether I’m in the lineup or out of the lineup, I kind of told myself, ‘Your contract’s running out. You never know. Some guys never get this chance and they play 20 years in the league,’” Sturm said. “I’m trying to approach every day as if I would play. And if I see my name on the lineup board, great. And if not, that’s also good.”
It beats the alternative. After all, he could be home with the rest of his old Wild teammates in another premature offseason.
(Photo of Nico Sturm: Ron Chenoy/USA Today)