Heading into 2022, the Colorado Avalanche maneuvered around potholes caused by numerous injuries to key players and the frustrating machinations of COVID protocol, to lead the Central Division in points percentage. Despite their early success, several players on the roster are looking towards the new year as an opportunity to improve their on-ice performance. Whether it’s because new arrivals haven’t come as advertised or established talents have struggled to match their usual productive output, these three players have something to prove and are looking to bounce back in the second half of the 2021-22 season.
Tabbing Nathan MacKinnon, with 24 points in 17 games, as a bounce-back candidate appears illogical at first glance, but the superstar forward has struggled immensely to convert in front of the net this year.
Despite sitting fifth in points-per-game among skaters to have played in 10 games this season, MacKinnon’s reduced shot rate and chance-creation is a cause for concern. He’s only attempting 10.8 shots per-60 (he’s averaged at least 12 in the three previous seasons) and is seeing his quality of chances dip as a result from 1.18 individual expected goals per-60 last year, to 1.03 in 2021-22. Yet, an uncharacteristically poor shooting percentage (SH%) of 4.55% – the lowest of his career – suggests his goal-scoring touch should return in short order, even while firing fewer attempts on goal.
MacKinnon’s injury troubles have hampered his explosiveness but regardless of the underlying issues, he’s struggled to hit top gear through the first part of the campaign. If the Avalanche are to exceed the lofty expectations placed upon them by much of the hockey world, MacKinnon needs to experience a return to the MVP-caliber play he’s demonstrated in the past. Considering his commitment to optimizing his on-ice performance, it’s a bet many are willing to place.
The departure of one of Colorado’s primary defensive workhorses in blueliner Ryan Graves (second in penalty kill ice-time last season) meant replacing his presence landed atop Joe Sakic’s list of priorities this past offseason. He nabbed free agent Ryan Murray as a worthy substitute but the former second-overall pick has yet to make his mark.
The injury-prone defenseman has only played in 17 games this season, his campaign stalling after suffering a lower-body injury at the end of November. While recognizing Murray’s identity as a defensive specialist, he hasn’t offered much at the other end of the ice, only accruing four assists in the process.
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If he made good on his prior reputation, that lack of production could be ignored. Unfortunately, Murray’s struggles are also extending to his supposed area of expertise. The Avalanche concede more shot attempts with him on the ice at five-on-five (48.2% Corsi for – CF%), and he treads water in the chance quality department (50.9% expected goals for – xGF%). Murray appears set to return in the near future and the hope is he’ll rediscover the key to his previously dependable defensive contributions.
If there’s anyone on the Avalanche roster who needed a reset, it’s Darcy Kuemper. After joining last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners in a trade to replace the outgoing Philipp Grubauer, expectations were high for the man now backstopping the presumptive Stanley Cup favourites. A rocky adjustment to a new system amidst a storm of injuries and COVID-related absences meant the Avalanche trotted out a new lineup every night, contributing to Kuemper’s wobbly play in net.
The former Arizona Coyotes’ goalie boasts a record of 13-5-0 but has allowed 1.8 goals more than expected while mirroring the unremarkable .907 save percentage (SV%) he posted last season in the desert. That Colorado is actually a strong defensive team makes those results all the more worrying (sixth in expected goals against per-60-minutes at five-on-five), and Avalanche management can’t be pleased with the yielded returns on their goaltending investment.
Fortunately, it appears as though Kuemper is becoming more comfortable in his new surroundings, settling into a groove as the season has progressed. Since the beginning of December, Kuemper has won all four of his scheduled starts while posting a more dependable .922 SV% in that time. If the Avalanche are to make good on their burgeoning potential, they need Kuemper to maintain that level of play throughout 2022.
2022 Is the Year of Redemption for the Avalanche
After three consecutive defeats in the second round of the playoffs, the Avalanche have redemption on their minds. Their enviable core of talent has made Colorado the NHL’s most successful regular-season team by points percentage over the past three seasons. Now, they look to deliver on their undeniable Stanley Cup potential and claim the third championship in franchise history. So, does 2022 bring more of the same, or is it finally the year of the Avalanche?
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Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.