The third and final iteration of This Season and Beyond for this offseason concludes with a team that went quickly from historically bad to a potential powerhouse. As reiterated previously, This Season and Beyond is a series in which I dissect various topics and questions surrounding a team undergoing extreme change. The team being discussed in this instalment are the Colorado Avalanche.
Colorado came very far from where they were back in 2016-2017. That season brought misery in a variety of ways as virtually every player underperformed and were made trading assets because of it. The only player that Avalanche General Manager Joe Sakic would refuse a trade of was Nathan MacKinnon, who had led the Avalanche with a very unimpressive 53 points. His teammates also struggled mightily as Matt Duchene produced only 41 points amid trade speculation. That point total marked the second-lowest in Duchene’s career. He was second in team scoring.
That team finished with an abysmal 48 points — the lowest since the 1999-2000 Atlanta Thrashers. In a way, they were the Ottawa Senators before the Ottawa Senators became the Ottawa Senators.
Just taking a peek at the top scorers for the Avalanche looks awful. Virtually every player on the roster slumped. That does make the upcoming 2019-20 Avalanche even more impressive, though. Almost every aspect of the team is different. They have more stability in net, a capable defensive group with some really talented youth, a first line that might be beyond elite, and depth that is talented enough to be effective.
Last season, Colorado extinguished the Flames in an upset victory before being ousted in the second round. Many including myself considered this a successful season especially when considering that they entered the playoffs as the eighth seeded team in the west. Now, the Avalanche are poised to take another step and solidify themselves as perennial contenders.
(This addition to the series will not be quite as lengthy as its counterparts but with the regular season having already begun, I think that the shorter length makes sense. The format will resemble more of a season preview than a team outlook due to that.)
The Colorado Avalanche are led by arguably the greatest line in hockey. The trio of MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog single-handedly helped the Avs reach the postseason in 2017-18 and took another step the following year. The focal point of that line is former Hart nominee and definite superstar, Nathan MacKinnon. MacKinnon’s playstyle gives many reasons for fans to tune in and watch. He is quite easily one of the most exciting players in the league. He is also one of the most talented. He currently ranks third in points league-wide since the beginning of the 2017-18 season.
Simply put, the Avs are much better when they are together on the ice. At all strengths since 2017-18, the top line has controlled the play with a corsi-for percentage of 60%. Likewise, without the three it drops down to 43%.
One concern expressed was the quality of depth and that was clearly the focal point for the team. Nazem Kadri was added via trade on July 1st and will be Colorado’s number two centre. The price to acquire him was rich; Tyson Barrie is arguably a top-pair caliber blue-liner and Alex Kerfoot is a quality young middle-six forward but with the additions of a few other forwards and the Cale Makar signed, the Avalanche certainly thought that it was worth it. Kadri will provide much needed depth as the Avalanche try to contend. They also added Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi over the summer to aid in that department.
On defence, Erik Johnson is now the veteran of this Avalanche team as he enters his 10th season as a member of the organization. Throughout his tenure he has become a quality defensive-minded defender for Colorado. His presence will also help insulate some young players such as Makar and eventually both Byram and Timmins.
Surrounding Johnson are a couple young defenders with bright futures. Sam Girard just signed a seven-year extension over the summer which begins after this season so clearly the front office has faith in his abilities. Alongside him is Cale Makar who won the Hobey Baker award last season and was widely regarded as the best defensive prospect in the league. Colorado clearly has faith in him too as they had enough confidence in his abilities to willingly trade Tyson Barrie while freeing up room on the first power play unit for him. Both are exceptional skaters and are quality players on both ends of the ice. The former is 21 while the latter turns 21 by the end of the month so I would expect them to be core players long-term.
Nikita Zadorov is also just 24 and is a top-four blueliner already.
Similarly to the previous team covered, goaltending could become an issue though as the inexperienced Philipp Grubauer will be the starter while backed up by the even more inexperienced Pavel Francouz. Grubauer had an impressive showing in the playoffs after combining to create a tandem alongside Semyon Varlamov in the regular season but with Varlamov’s departure to New York, Grubauer will be tasked with a much larger workload. I think that he will perform well but it is still something to consider.
I would be very comfortable with stating that the Avalanche have a top-ten prospect pool. Cale Makar is currently looked at as the best defensive prospect in the league while Bowen Byram is not far behind. Both were fourth overall selections in their respective drafts.
Their backend boasts two of the best defensive prospects in the league. The aforementioned Cale Makar and Bowen Byram could pair up and be an unstoppable top pairing for a decade-plus. Byram will spend this season continuing his development on the Vancouver Giants but it is safe to say that the NHL is a legitimate possibility for the following season.
Behind those two is Conor Timmins. Timmins had his 2018-19 campaign derailed as he spent the entire season recovering from a concussion sustained in the 2018 OHL finals. At times I was concerned about his future, concussions are a scary and unpredictable thing to deal with and the ramifications of missing an entire season could have had a serious impact on his career. Luckily for Timmins and the Avalanche, he was finally able to play in this past preseason and impressed. While he did just get sent down, I was glad that Timmins started the season on Colorado, especially after what last season entailed for him. Typically, missing an entire season is troublesome and extremely hampering to development. Heck, concussions alone are frightening regardless of the severity. The fact that Timmins is still on track to become a valuable contributor for the Avs is encouraging.
The Avalanche also have a few terrific young forwards off the roster. Martin Kaut was their first round selection in 2018 and spent last season playing in the AHL. An impressive feat when considering his age. It is hard to pinpoint a specific season that I can predict him reaching the NHL as that largely depends on his performance this year.
Alongside him is a fellow 16th overall selection in Alex Newhook. Newhook is a raw player with tons of potential who will only improve on a strong Boston College team. If I had to set an expected time of arrival, I would imagine that he will spend two seasons in college and arrive ready to make an immediate impact, exactly like Makar has done.
I think that Colorado reaching the postseason for the third consecutive season is a fair assumption to make. I do not necessarily know if they are contenders yet, but they will be soon.
It’s too early to take much from this season. The Avalanche have looked good in the two games played, but it is a limited sample size. The power play has done well and I would imagine that we see more success.
Until then, lets enjoy some hockey.