With the season in the books it’s time to take a look back at what went right and how so. We’ve asked the trusty BR staff to give the players grades and broken the team into three groups: Players that returned from the lost season of ’17, the Rookies and then a catchall category of new acquisitions and players that weren’t on the Avs for more than half of last year. This week we are looking at the fine gentlemen that went through hell and returned last Fall to drive the team forward.
full staff grade breakdown below
The Top Line
Shortly after returning from Sweden, Coach Bednar put Landy, Mack & Mikko together and the results were fantastic. In 2017, these 3 combined for 124 points and they nearly doubled that this season with 243. A 1st line that averages right around 3 points per game makes all A’s completely justified. Each player came back from the Summer determined to better themselves and push the team, that’s probably the most important part.
Mack ended 2017 in 81st place in NHL scoring and there were real questions as to whether he was cut out to be a top center in the league. He is, and showed it this year with nominations for both the Lindsey and Hart trophies, recognizing that he put the Avs on his back and made everyone better.
Mikko’s rookie campaign was actually pretty stout but he was far from Calder Trophy conversations. He ended up tied for 4th in rookie goals but the 18 assists were concerning, although assists in general were tough to find that season. This year he had more assists on the PP (23) than all last year and established himself as a top scorer in the league finishing tied for 16th overall.
The Captain always takes the brunt of fans criticism in a poor season. Couple that with Landy’s least productive year as a pro, finishing 221st in NHL scoring, and the situation looked dire. Gabe has a lot of subtlety to his game that doesn’t show up on the scoresheet every night which stat-grazers don’t appreciate. This year he was both subtle and strong, finishing 62nd in points and leading the Avs in playoff scoring. One criticism of his game has been taking “dumb” penalties and that was way down this year, only 37 minutes total and by far his Lady Byngiest season to date. It’s almost like being on a better team meant he didn’t have to commit fouls all the time to make up for everyone else’s screwups.
Along with Blake Comeau’s famous back pass on a breakaway, Carl Soderberg’s 14 points summed up the Avs malaise perfectly at the end of last year. He was healthy scratched, played 4th line time and generally wasn’t engaged at all. The worry didn’t dissipate when he was again a scratch on opening night. Matt Nieto was also scratched for several games after an early 3 penalty night. The messages from the coaching staff were received and over the first couple of months the trio morphed into the top penalty killers on one of the league’s best units and a reasonable shut-down line with some offense. While the top line almost doubled their year-over-year production, Carl’s line more than doubled theirs going from 45 points to 97. Soderberg went from 14 points to 37, Nieto from 11 to 26 and Blake Comeau went from 7th on the Avalanche with 20 points to 34 points, which was… 7th on the Avalanche.
A lot of fans gripe about this line but 37 goals at even strength is stout and while they weren’t an elite shutdown line they did afford the staff opportunities to get better matchups for Mack’s line and the rookies. Having Carl’s line be dependable was part of what made it possible to go with so many young players this year and that should pay off bigtime down the road. Our staff gave them B’s, which is appropriate.
Mainstream press seemed dumbfounded that the Avs would return 4 defensemen from a team that had a 48 point season, but that’s a little misleading. Big Z and EJ missed large sections of last year and Barbs was a waiver claim midway through. Those 3 plus Barrie played 49 more games this year than last and while still short of all playing 82 (which never happens) by 69 games, the improvement was noticeable. All received B’s from the staff.
Tyson Barrie is polarizing to say the least. Maybe his best attribute is creating chaos on the ice which makes it tough for opposing coaches to counter. Sometimes that chaos reaches into the Avs side and that sticks in people’s minds. Barrie was 4th in points on the Avs both this year and last, 38 points in ’17 raising to an underappreciated 57 for this campaign. He ended up just behind Erik Karlsson in points per game for defensemen. The struggles come when he’s asked to step into the #1 role when EJ’s out but he’s miles better than he used to be.
EJ was enjoying a healthy season until mid-February when a shoulder injury sidelined him for a month. After returning miraculously, he played 6 games then broke his kneecap. That’s still 16 more games than he played last year when he missed almost half with a broken leg. When he’s in the lineup he takes pressure off everyone and can play with anyone. Rather than any stat, that’s probably the biggest effect EJ has. The Avs didn’t crumble this year when he was out but I think it was very important that he was playing nightly for the first two-thirds of the season.
Big Z had some highs and lows this year, getting benched back for several games in a row back in the Fall to becoming close to a #1 D in Johnson’s absence late in the year. He doubled his game totals since the trade from Buffalo and not only scored his first goal for the Avs he ended up with 7 plus another in the playoffs. I’m not sure we know his ceiling yet but the most positive thing to take from the season is that his floor got much higher.
Barbs took on a more defensive role early in the season, which was a bit of a surprise. It took a while but he handled it fine and continued scoring at the same pace he did with the Avs last year, this time with little or no PP minutes. Even with the waiver pick-up stigma he’s a great example of how a team can fill in organizational gaps without sacrificing the future.
Varly’s future was a huge question mark after exiting last season midway through to have major hip surgeries. Last year he started 23 games, won 6 of them while posting an .898 Sv%. This year, despite missing time twice with injuries, he started 47 games, won 24 with a .920 Sv%. Before a collision knocked him out for the season he had played 24 games in 50 days. The staff gave him a B but if you look at that stretch run, maybe that should be higher.
Full staff grades:
Next week we’ll tackle the Avs contingent of 9 rookies.