Despite a COVID-shortened campaign, Colorado Avalanche fans had enough fun to make it feel like an entire season. With tons of exciting talent and the President’s Trophy in hand, the Colorado season ended badly, once again failing to get out of the second round of the playoffs. This year, it was against the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
The offseason was a tough one for the Avs. They got worse as a whole, but they still got the likes of Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. They re-signed captain Gabriel Landeskog and rising star Cale Makar. However, they lost Philipp Grubauer, Brandon Saad, Joonas Donskoi, Ryan Graves, and Conor Timmins, among others. They countered by acquiring Darcy Kuemper, Mikhail Maltsev, and Darren Helm. In other words, nothing splashy, but they’ve got some depth pieces.
The signal from Joe Sakic is Colorado wants to run it back with their top guys and let some of the young guys in the system play. The big names here are Alex Newhook and Bowen Byram. They will play a significant role in how far the team can go this year and how big of a step back they take this season.
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This is going to be interesting. The team is still home to arguably the best top line in the sport with MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog. Beyond that, there are questions. While it seems the left-wing spot would be a good spot to put Newhook next to Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky, that may not be the plan as the organization seems to want to use him as a center in the future.
The bottom six has two guys firmly planted in the lineup in Tyson Jost and Valeri Nichushkin. Those two put together a great season playing on the same line playing great defense. However, you’re going to need to put a goal scorer next to them to get production from that line. Maybe they stick with J.T. Compher, or perhaps a Shane Bowers or Martin Kaut could fill that role. As for the fourth line, who knows? Opening night looks likely to be Logan O’Connor paired with Helm and Maltsev. Any of those guys could be replaced throughout the season. Bowers and Kaut are the top candidates, and possibly some Kiefer Sherwood and Sampo Ranta sightings could also be in the mix.
It’s hard not to be excited about this defense. There’s Makar, but Samuel Girard and Devon Toews had fantastic seasons last year, making for an exciting top-three. Behind them are question marks. Byram will be a part of the group, but where? They could put him next to Makar on the top pair, the second line with Toews, or use Erik Johnson as a mentor for him. However, Johnson only appeared in four games last season and has had injury issues in recent years. If he can stay healthy, the Avalanche could sport the best two of the best defensive pairings in the league.
The acquisition of Ryan Murray brings a solid third-pairing defender if he can stay on the ice. While that should be the end of the discussion, there’s a lot of injury risk here. With Johnson and Murray missing extensive amounts of time and another defender just missing some games here and there, the depth gets complicated. They acquired Kurtis MacDermid this offseason, but he’s graded as one of the worst defenders in the league. There are also talks of him moving to forward. Behind him, you’ve got Jacob MacDonald and Dennis Gilbert. The prospect group doesn’t look great currently. They have Justin Barron, but he seems like he’ll need a year in the AHL, and Nathan Clurman is also up and coming but not ready yet.
The loss of Philipp Grubauer is a big one. The Vezina Trophy candidate couldn’t reach an agreement with the team and signed with the Seattle Kraken. The Avs then acquired Kuemper from the Coyotes to fill his spot. One-for-one, the acquisition appears to be an upgrade. Kuemper has been behind some bad defenses in Arizona and will come to one of the best defenses in the league. That should take a load off of him not having to face 40 shots a night. However, he does come with some injury risks.
Behind him is the return of Pavel Francouz. Franky missed the entire season last year with a hip injury, so it’s fair to ask how healthy he is and how much you’ll be able to get out of him. If he can stay healthy, the Avalanche have a really good group at goaltender. Behind him, they have Jonas Johansson, who mostly showed well last year. They also have prospects Trent Miner and Justus Annunen coming up but are not ready for the NHL yet.
The Avs lost several key pieces to their President’s Trophy run last year. They’ve got five spots that can be put in any number of spots on offense and three spots that are in question, depending on defensive health. As far as who to look for as big names, it’s the rookies and the longest-tenured Av to provide stability.
Byram got his first opportunity in the NHL fresh after the WJC’s and looked solid. Thanks to injury, he was only able to play in 19 games. He has a ton of potential and showed quite a bit of it last season. Surprisingly, despite having an extensive offensive repertoire, it was his defense that shined. He looked good on the back end, and his skating ability made up for the defensive lapses he had. He can ultimately play anywhere in the lineup. Eventually, one would hope for him to take a top pairing role, but that will depend on where Johnson and Toews fit into the lineup. Regardless, he can see time on the penalty kill and maybe the power play if injuries mount up. He is an exciting prospect, and has a huge opportunity to take a prominent role.
Where Newhook fits into the lineup is anyone’s guess. The hope for this year is to slot him in on the second line, as he would be a nice fit with scorers Kadri and Burakovsky. Newhook saw games at the end of last season (including playoffs), and showed well. He flashed a couple of times, but you’d like to see more from him with regards to consistency. If he can also become a reliable defender, that’s a huge win and makes one feel even better about him going forward. He could also start at third or fourth center in order to get that development at the center spot. That appears to be where the team wants him to end up.
Former Calder winner. EJ might be the biggest piece to all of this. He’s the longest-tenured Av, and his leadership is paramount to the team in the locker room. We cannot forget that he is a good player, too. It’s reasonable to ask what he’s got left as an effective player, but he’s better than the depth pieces, regardless. He can pair with Girard on the second pairing or be used as a mentor with Byram. If he can play, he can raise the ceiling of this group.
Biggest Question Facing the Avalanche
What do the depth spots look like? Losing guys like Donskoi and Saad in your middle six are significant losses. The entire bottom line could look different. What’s going to happen at forward? Not only the who’s playing with free-agent signings but the growing prospect pool looking ready to go in the NHL too. Defensively, they have their guys, though Toews will miss some time at the start of the season after shoulder surgery (per Jared Bednar). Which spots they’ll play in the lineup is yet to be seen and who’s healthy is a big question.
The simple answer: Championship or bust. This team is constructed to win a championship and has the talent to do so. Those are the goals and expectations. After years of not making it past the second round, the Avalanche has to move past that. That said, patience pays. There are a bunch of new pieces, or at least players in new roles. The team will need some time to jell, but Colorado is absolutely on the trajectory to do so… anything less may cause a shake-up next year.
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