Central Chessmatch: Colorado Avalanche vs. St. Louis Blues

Division Rivals Collide! Photo by @thevoiceofvlad

Welcome to my inaugural edition of what I hope will be a long-running series for Burgundy Rainbow entitled, “Central Chessmatch”.  This will be Burgundy Rainbow’s one-stop shop for surveying our Central Division opponents and how their success (or lack thereof) will impact the landscape of the Central for our beloved Avalanche.

Today’s edition will serve as a season preview edition, showcasing the St. Louis Blues as they make their first visit to Pepsi Center this season.  Before puck drop on tonight’s game, let’s dive into a few of the nuts and bolts of each team and see which team may have bragging rights on the season series.

Series Schedule

Thursday, October 19, 2017: St. Louis Blues at Colorado Avalanche (7:00 P.M. MDT)
Thursday, January 25, 2018: Colorado Avalanche at St. Louis Blues (6:00 P.M. MST)
Thursday, February 08, 2018: Colorado Avalanche at St. Louis Blues (6:00 P.M. MST)
Thursday, March 15, 2018: Colorado Avalanche at St. Louis Blues (6:00 P.M. MST)
Saturday, April 07, 2018: St. Louis Blues at Colorado Avalanche (7:00 P.M. MDT)

(What’s with all of the Thursday games?!)

History in Brief

Overall Head-to-Head Matchups: 87
Overall Record (since 1995): 45-32-6-4 (stats courtesy of avalanche.nhl.com)
Home Record (since 1995): 27-12-4-2 (stats courtesy of avalanche.nhl.com)
Road Record (since 1995): 20-20-2-2

Central Division Head-to-Head Matchups: 19
Overall Record (since 2013): 6-12-1
Home Record (since 2013): 4-6
Road Record (since 2013): 2-6-1

It would seem that the Avalanche have enjoyed a fair amount of regular season success against the Blues based on the overall numbers above.  However, since joining the Blues in the Central Division for the 2013-2014 season, the Blues have won every season series, losing only six games to the Avalanche during that span.  While winning only six games–two of them by shootout–against very strong division opponent is concerning, I’m here to offer a little bit of optimism in light of such dismal facts.

What’s Changed – Avalanche

Younger.  Faster.  Hungrier.  Photo by @thevoiceofvlad

The short answer is, a lot!

The veteran skater has essentially gone the way of the dodo: future Hall-of-Famer Jarome Iginla and much-maligned defenseman Francois Beauchemin are out, fan favorite Cody McLeod’s “leaderiness” landed in Nashville via trade in January of last year, and John Mitchell made a “smooth” exit at the end of the season. General Manager Joe Sakic has laid out the template for a younger and faster squad, and sending off these long in the tooth vets was the first step in that process.  Underperforming players also did not return for this season. Mikhail Grigorenko returned home to Russia, while defensemen Cody Goloubef, Fedor Tyutin, and Patrick Weircioch also weren’t brought back.  Calvin Pickard was the first pick by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights this summer.

Taking the place of these players are a slate of younger players eager to inject energy and enthusiasm into a lineup that largely resembled a bumper car spinning helplessly in the corner on the track last season.  Sven Andrighetto has gotten off to a solid start this season, as has free agent signee (and former St. Louis Blue) Nail Yakupov.  Alexander Kerfoot and J.T. Compher have likewise had solid starts to the season, as has Jonathan Bernier during his first pair of starts between the pipes for the Avalanche.  Rookie Tyson Jost is coming off an injury sustained in the home opener against Boston, but he is also expected to make strides as the season progresses.

The core players on the roster have been led by a rejuvenated Matt Duchene, who has shown plenty of motivation out of the gates.  Captain Gabe Landeskog has been part of a defensive shutdown line which has made life difficult for opposing skaters, and Semyon Varlamov has been stellar in his return to the crease after missing half of last season with injury, displaying quickness and sound positional awareness reminiscent of his Vezina candidate season four years ago.  Top center Nathan MacKinnon and linemate Mikko Rantanen have yet to find their groove, but it won’t be long before these two start piling up points together.  Defenseman Tyson Barrie is tied for the team points lead (2G/4A/6PTS), Erik Johnson (former first overall pick by STL in 2006) has led all defensemen in time on ice, and Nikita Zadorov has displayed that physical brand of play–even engaging in fisticuffs!–we’ve all come to love from the 6’5″ Russian blueliner.

Coach Jared Bednar now has a full coaching staff of his own choosing in place after the nuclear winter during his first year as Avalanche bench boss.  Having had a full offseason to craft his battle plan with assistant coaches Nolan Pratt and Ray Bennett, Bednar has made some adjustments to his systems, and at this point in the season, we’re already beginning to see the benefits of the adjustments Bednar and Co. have thusly implemented.  Players have been more mobile on the power play, and the breakouts from the defensive zone are much improved.  The team has not been blown out in the three losses sustained this season, and have continued to battle hard through a full sixty minutes every game.

What’s Changed – St. Louis

Over fifty years of singing the same (Blue) notes. Photo by @thevoiceofvlad

Well, um, a lot!

The St. Louis Blues have enjoyed a lot of regular season success the past few seasons, but have been snakebit in the playoffs.  After coming within two victories of reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, the Blues brought in former Minnesota Wild head coach Mike Yeo on a four-year contract to succeed incumbent Ken Hitchcock (who had re-signed for one more season with the Blues).  Hitchcock never finished out the season with the Blues, as Yeo took over midway through the season (Hitchcock is now the head coach of the Dallas Stars).  Now, in his first full year as bench boss for the Blues, Yeo has his squad in first place in the Central Division.  He is flanked by former NHL veterans Craig Berube, Steve Ott (seriously!),  and Darryl Sydor, all of whom are getting their first taste of coaching experience at the NHL level.

The makeup of the Blues roster has changed as well.  They acquired Brayden Schenn from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Jori Lehtera, the Blues 2017 first-round pick (27th overall, acquired in the Kevin Shattenkirk/Pheonix Copley trade to the Washington Capitals the season prior), and a conditional pick in the 2018 draft.  Resident tough guy Ryan Reaves was also traded at the 2017 NHL Draft, along with the Blues second-round pick (51st overall) to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a first-round pick (31st overall, used to select Klim Kostin) and Oskar Sundqvist.  Scottie Upshall was brought back on a one-year deal, and while he made his return to the Blues lineup late last season, Vladimir Sobotka returns to the club for his first full season after spending the last two years playing in the KHL.

With young center Robby Fabbri out for the season with a knee injury and holes created with the departures of Lehtera and Reaves, other young faces have been given the opportunity to make an appearance in the Blues’ lineup.  For example, players such as Sammy Blais, who recently made his NHL debut, Ivan Barbashev, and the aforementioned Oskar Sundqvist, are being given a chance to shine.  They are surrounded by a strong core that Avs fans have been familiar with over the years: Jayden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko both lead the team in goals (5) to start the season, while captain Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko lead the defensive corps for the Blues.  Former Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny continues to provide a strong veteran presence along with Patrik Berglund, Alex Steen, and Jay Bouwmeester.

Jake Allen and Carter Hutton return as the goaltending duo for the Blues this season.  After the dismissal of Hitchcock last season, Allen begun to find his groove, propelling the Blues past the Minnesota Wild in the postseason before his squad bowed out to the eventual Western Conference Champion Nashville Predators.  This season, Jake Allen is on pace for a staggering 47 win campaign (yes, yes, it’s early)!  With a projection like that, the Blues could be well on their way to a deep postseason run!

How Will the Avalanche Succeed?

Two words: Ray Bennett.

While it’s a common practice for players facing off against former teams to have something resembling an “inside scoop” on how the opposition plays, this practice reaches new heights when assistant or former head coaches jump from one team to another.  Ray Bennett served in the St. Louis program for many years and ran the power play for the Blues during his tenure.  He has served under Mike Yeo and has familiarity with his coaching style.  He knows the makeup of the roster better than anyone, and can provide insights few others are able in his capacity.  Leaping from one division team to another as Bennett has will only benefit the Avalanche as they square off against his former club for the first time.  The treasure trove of knowledge Bennett has in his head regarding the makeup of the Blues roster levels out the playing surface significantly.

Having the first game on home ice will help.  Bednar and Co. will get the final change, allowing the coaching staff to make more favorable matchups against Yeo’s line combinations, and the crowd noise is something that can help motivate and drive this young team.  Though it is up to Bednar and Co. to prepare the team for battle every night, it is on the players to execute their style of play.  The Avalanche, having won only six prior contests against the Blues, absolutely must impose their will on the Blues from the opening faceoff to the final buzzer.  They must use their assets in speed and youth in order to create havoc for the Blues, who will be tasked to slow down this revamped Avalanche roster, a much different one than roster the Blues faced in April.

How Will St. Louis Succeed?

Two Words: Mike Yeo.

These are words that have struck fear into the tender hearts of Avalanche fans for years.  As head coach of the Minnesota Wild, he led the Wild to that Game 7 overtime loss we’d all rather forget about (but don’t, because we Avalanche fans have trouble with that).

With Yeo taking over for Hitchcock in St. Louis, he inherited a very talented and balanced roster.  With a more veteran roster, Yeo can deploy any of his lines against the younger and less experienced line combinations of Jared Bednar.  Having talented wingers in both Tarasenko and Schwartz alone will definitely be a challenge that players like Andrighetto and Rantanen have never faced in their young NHL careers.  Going against former linemate Stastny will be a hurdle MacKinnon needs to overcome if he wants to cement himself as the Avalanche’s top center, which is a work in progress for him.  Matt Duchene’s line may fare better against Schenn’s line, but Yeo’s former Wild pupil Kyle Brodziak will certainly provide a challenge for rookie Alexander Kerfoot.

Pietrangelo and Parayko are a formidable top defensive pair, and have steady compliments in Bouwmeester, Robert Bortuzzo, Carl Gunnarsson, and Joel Edmundson.  Yeo has had plenty of time to learn the strengths of his defensive corps, something that his Avalanche counterpart in Jared Bednar is still learning about in players such as Chris Bigras, Anton Lindholm, and Andrei Mironov.  Having that knowledge of where to deploy the blueline corps against the opposition is vital, and outside of Johnson, Zadorov, and Barrie, it’s a bit of a roulette wheel for the Avs.  Yeo can place his defense on the ice and not have the youth “wild card” potentially backfire on him.

Finally, the goaltending.  Allen’s midseason turnaround (with some tutelage from Blues Assistant General Manager Martin Brodeur) seemed to spell the end of his early career ups and downs.  He has settled into his number one position with ease this season and has played very soundly.  While he may not be able to single-handedly outduel Varlamov or Bernier at this stage of his career, he may not have to, given the defense playing in front of him.  Hutton may also enjoy a similar defensive luxury, but the likelihood he will face the Avalanche many times in his career is fairly low unless he is following Allen on a back end of a back-to-back scenario.

Prediction and Conclusion

The Avalanche and the Blues will face off five (5) times this season: three times at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, and twice at Pepsi Center.  If the Avalanche have any hope of winning the season series against the Blues, they have to be able to overcome the spectre of Mike Yeo behind the bench and believe in the tutelage that Coach Bednar and Co. are instilling in this young roster.  They are bound to make mistakes, and the execution won’t be flawless, but I personally don’t see them winning both games here at Pepsi Center (though I would absolutely love to see that).  Wins on the road are critical, and Scottrade Center is a tough arena to play in.  The fans are loud and engaged, and the Avalanche need to get some early road success heading into the second half of the season, where most of the games against the Blues will be played.

Therefore, in this inaugural edition of the Central Chessmatch, I bestow this prediction:

The Avalanche will narrowly lose the season series to the St. Louis Blues: 2-2-1

What are your thoughts, readers?  Sound off in the comments below!

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