It’s time the Avalanche take that next step
For the second straight season, the Colorado Avalanche are among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Once regarded as a young, up and coming team, they have now graduated to a team fully inside their championship window. Led by superstars like Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar, the Avs are a team that may be looking at their best chance to win a Cup with this core.
After losing to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round of the playoffs, the Avalanche and their fans are expecting more this year and they have the talent to get there.
Storylines to watch
The blueline could be really, really good
The Avalanche had one of (if not the) best defense groups in the NHL last season and while it’s different this year, the blueline has the potential to be even better. Out are Ryan Graves and Patrik Nemeth, in are Ryan Murray and Jack Johnson. While some thing that is a step back, the addition of Murray is one that will likely surprise a lot of fans. The former second overall pick is a low maintenance veteran who can play on both sides and fill in anywhere the coach needs him in the bottom-4. He’s an improvement on Graves and could play a big role for this team – particularly for the first few weeks while Devon Toews is recovering from his offseason surgery.
As well as the new faces, the Avalanche defense group should improve from within. Erik Johnson is healthy for the first time in more than a year. He will bring a huge boost to the penalty kill as well as the veteran group with this team. Johnson has been paired with Bo Byram during the preseason and the hope is that he can provide the same mentor role for the rookie that he did with Sam Girard a few seasons ago.
That is all without mentioning the best young defenseman in the NHL.
Devon Toews – Cale Makar
Sam Girard – Ryan Murray
Bo Byram – Erik Johnson
When healthy, that group of six is incredibly exciting and absolutely one of the best in the NHL.
Scoring depth could be a concern
The Avalanche have the best offensive line in the NHL. MacKinnon, Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog will score goals – a lot of them. The concern is that the Avs don’t have the forward depth to provide much support. With the loss of Brandon Saad and Joonas Donskoi – who were both on pace for more than 25 goals over a normal 82 game schedule last year – Colorado is going to need to find goals from other places this season.
The second line this year is made up of three players who are all in a contract year. Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and Val Nichushkin are all set to become unrestricted free agents next summer so it’s possible that we see a “contract year” bump in production from each of them.
In the bottom-6, the team is going to need a big improvement from a few players in order to account for the necessary offensive production. Tyson Jost has had two very strong years, but it has not been reflected in his goal and assist totals. The hope is that he can see a boost in both counting stats will playing alongside an incredible gifted rookie in Alex Newhook.
Speaking of Alex Newhook, he is one of potentially four or five rookies that could see significant time with the Avalanche this season – something you don’t often say about Stanley Cup contenders. Both drafted in the first round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Newhook and Bo Byram are set to be regulars in the lineup this year and both have the potential to put up Calder worthy seasons.
Along with those two, the team has kept Sampo Ranta and Justin Barron through the entirety of the preseason as both have proven that they are close to being ready for the NHL. Despite only being 19, Barron will likely start the season with the Eagles in the NHL but it’s obvious that the team is very high on him and he could be one of the first call ups when a defender gets injured.
Will the Avalanche be able to get over the hump?
For a team like the Avalanche, the regular season is little more then a tune-up. Baring something catastrophic, the team is going to make the postseason and that’s where the baseline starts. Anything less than a deep run in the playoffs will be deemed a failure for this Avalanche team – for many, it will remain a failure until they get over the hump and make it to the Western Conference Final at a minimum.
Player to watch
For the Avalanche, the most intriguing player going into this season is their new starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper. After the Avs were unable to reach a contract extension with Philipp Grubauer, Joe Sakic was forced to look elsewhere for a new starter and trading for Kuemper is where he landed.
One of the nest goalies in the league when he’s healthy, Kuemper spent last season battling though an injury that saw him play only 27 games for the Arizona Coyotes. In the two seasons prior to that, Kuemper put up some of the best numbers in the league while playing behind a bad team in the dessert. In 2019-20, Kuemper led the NHL with a 75.9% quality start rate while finishing in the top three in goals saved above average (GSAA). He is an incredible goalie, the only question is whether or not he can stay healthy.
The Avalanche know all too well how goalie injuries can sink a season. In the 2020 playoffs, Colorado were forced to play their third, fourth and fifth sting goalies as no one could stay healthy. The team eventually lost to the Dallas Stars in game seven of the second round. It was a run that could have gone a lot further had either Grubauer or Pavel Francouz were stil healthy.
That will be the fear with Kuemper. If he can stay in the net and carry a workload worthy of a high-end NHL starter, the Avalanche are going to win a ton of games. If he is bit by the injury bug yet again, things will get very interesting in Denver.
The Avalanche are favored to win the Western Conference – and for good reason. The team won the President’s Trophy last season and should be in contention to do so again this year. But that’s not the ultimate goal. Anything less than a Stanley Cup will feel like a disappointment for this team.
With that in mind, this is a team that will win the Central handedly and get past that second round hump and make a deeper playoff run than we’ve seen the last three seasons.
Are you ready for to ride with the Avalanche as they make that push for the most coveted prize in hockey? Come join us and subscribe to ESPN+ to catch as much hockey from the 2021-22 NHL season as possible
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