The mainstream hockey media market is bullish on the Avalanche this year. While there were expectations from fans and management to repeat and improve a year ago, generally the league wasn’t convinced they were for real. The Avs really haven’t had any major pre-season expectations in the cap era so trying to gauge what effects that’s going to have is new territory for fans and those of us who try to write about the team. Right now, the best thing to say is it’s nice to have a good team again.
I respect those that put great thought and effort into making season predictions. I don’t put much into it because at the end of the season it mostly comes down to injuries (random), goaltending (sort of random) and then things like scoring chances, defense and scoring goals of course. I usually go optimistic because why the hell not. No reason the Avs can’t break through 100 points, win the Central and ultimately the Cup this year. They probably won’t but I’d rather be right about projecting a dominant season than a disappointing one.
Instead of straight up predictions I’ll take a look at some key areas and address strengths along with concerns.
The place to begin is with who left and who joined and there’s been a significant amount of turnover. Gone are Soderberg (AZ), Kerfoot (TOR), Andrighetto (KHL), Barrie (TOR), Nemeth (DET) and Varlamov (NYI). Throw Brassard in if you like even though he was a short-timer and useless. Replacing them are Kadri (TOR), Donskoi (SJS), Burakovsky (WAS), Bellemare (VGK), Nichushkin (DAL), Connauton (AZ), Rosen (TOR), Makar and Francouz. The biggest upgrade is Kadri over Carl, the rest are probably a net even. It’s an older and more experienced lineup which the coaches like I’m sure but won’t make much difference from last year. Francouz in for Varly has the potential for being the biggest downgrade but it’s not exactly a role for role deal.
Scoring & Offense
Last season was actually 3 seasons in one. In the first 27 games the Avs were absolutely amazing with shot rates and shooting percentage to match. The second 27 games they couldn’t hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle and they closed out the year with what seems like the realistic representation of what the team can do. The key here is that ignoring the first 54 games gives the best impression so don’t use full-season numbers if you want to make a case for projections.
The good news is that using the latter third of last year as a guide should give the Avs adequate scoring at 5v5 as long as the personnel moves are a net neutral or positive. Here is a big reason why:
Landeskog – MacKinnon – Rantanen
??? – Kadri – Donskoi
Last year the top 6 goal scorers at 5v5 put up 84, 51 by the 3-Headed Monster alone. Kadri had 13 and Donskoi 11 playing 3rd line minutes for their former clubs. It remains to be seen who climbs into that final spot, safe to say no one has made a solid case for it in pre-season. Burakovsky has been in freefall since the first week, Jost is always that guy that the staff tries out in different situations but never sticks with and Colin Wilson has been injured as usual all camp. Jost and Wilson’s goal rates were nearly identical last year. Burakovsky’s was much higher in a 4th line role in Washington. Best case for everyone is if Jost can stick there and finally carve out a consistent niche for himself. Bottom line, there are 5 guys that can play a top 6 scoring role (up from 3½ last year) and at least 3 that can slot in there for the time being. Unlike the past few seasons we don’t begin this one wondering what role each line has. So that’s pretty sweet.
The bad news for scoring is that the Avs PP is still a question mark. The lineups have been highly AHL/prospect flavored but 2 goals in 25 opportunities is still dreadful. Unblocked shot rates are better and expected goal rate is in line with last year (not great) so this could be a shooting percentage thing but until it produces results I’ll remain skeptical. Nazem Kadri’s goal in the final game vs Dallas does give hope because passing into the middle and actually creating a scoring chance is one of the main flaws from last season that needed to be fixed.
I’m not sure this is scoring or coaching or strategy or what but the Avs failure rate in overtime last season was alarming. They were 3-12 with 4 games leading to a shootout. They gained 24 points in 19 opportunities (28.5 points would be “.500” in this case) so they left a bunch on the table. Even being average would have made clinching easier so that’s another area we should keep an eye on. In pre-season they were 0-0 with some shootout points. Better, I guess. Neither game has video available so hard to say if tactically they’ve made improvements.
This is the area of the Avs game I worry about least. Both Jared Bednar and obviously Nolan Pratt come from a defensive coaching background so it’s what they know and focus on first. They had a major hiccup in the middle third of last season and took entirely too long to make the necessary changes that worked pretty much instantaneously, which is concerning, but I’m sure they learned from it. Other than being stubborn the coaching staff tends to have a positive effect on how Colorado plays in the neutral and d-zones.
Losing Ian Cole for a month or two isn’t a big deal. His style fits late season better than early season and honestly was a neutral influence on play at best. A bigger concern is starting 3 rookie defensemen on opening night if that indeed is the plan. Makar has already shown he’s quite special but still hasn’t played a regular season game. Timmins won a spot in camp, which is rare, now he’s got to prove he belongs. Ryan Graves was a surprise after playing 26 games last year then getting gradually phased out of the lineup in March. The dynamic of having all three dressed at once is intriguing.
The penalty kill was very disappointing last year but finished strong. It’s a system thing, they were very passive and that hurt in many ways. Once they went back to the more aggressive style from 17-18 things got back to normal. As overrated as the Avs power play is, the PK is probably underrated by the same amount.
The Avs goaltending setup seems to be the flaw most are pointing too as what will make or break the season. It always is but I don’t see a lot to be pessimistic about. Philipp Grubauer hasn’t been a true starter for a whole season before so there’s no track record for comparison but he ground out a fantastic stretch in the final month and was good enough in the playoffs. Pavel Francouz was promoted from the AHL but he was one of the top goalies there and has had plenty of success internationally. This guy is good and should be looked on as a positive. Behind those two we have Adam Werner, who was one of the top goalies in Sweden last season, and journeyman Antoine Bibeau who was acquired in the idiotic Nicolas Meloche trade. While there’s not a lot of NHL experience there it’s a fine stable.
Keys to the Season
….the early season at least. For the first little while these are the things I’m keeping an eye on:
– Can Mikko step right in and dominate?
– Where does Andre Burakovsky end up and with whom?
– How does having 3 rookies on the blueline affect the team?
– Did anyone actually fix the horrendous power play we witnessed in the 2nd round loss to San Jose?
– Besides the 3-headed monster and Kadri, who’s going to score the rest of the goals?
– This isn’t a big doubt but how will Grubi handle starting a season as the #1 goaltender?
– Will Jared Bednar continue his infinite patience strategy or will he act quickly when plans aren’t working out on the ice?
– If the power play continues to disappoint will they make a hard decision to upgrade Ray Bennett inside the season?
These are the issues I’m tracking to open the year. As usual I’ll be doing the Breaking Down recaps, including the first 2 games for sure. Depending on the schedule I’ll be switching to a wider view for a Breaking Down on weekly basis rather than just game-by-game. There were too many times last year when larger sample issues surprised me because I was focusing on the games individually. I think it benefits both of us to keep a slightly longer view with this team.
The Avs are back and the season begins tonight. Go!