Dear Santa: Avalanche’s 2021 Christmas Wish List

We’re only a few days from the joys of another Christmas morning, but it’s not too late for the NHL’s 32 franchises to place some last minute requests for the North Pole’s head honcho. Compared to the beginning of the 2021-22 season, the Colorado Avalanche are in a much better position of wading through a tense Western Conference playoff race. Head coach Jared Bednar’s men have emerged victorious in seven of their last 10 games, and are tied for first in the Central Division by points percentage, an inspired accomplishment given the noticeable disarray that has defined the first third of Colorado’s season. With that, here are three things that the Avalanche are hoping to find stuffed in their stockings this Christmas.

A Clean Bill of Health Tops Colorado’s Wish List

The Avalanche’s most pressing concerns are no secret, just take a look at their depleted lineup card on any given night. Colorado’s roster has seen little consistency, with everyone from their indelible core of superstars to their rotating cast of supporting grunts missing significant chunks of the season to this point. According to NHL Injury Viz, the Avalanche have suffered the fifth-highest total man-games lost due to injury or illness as determined by combining each absent player’s per-game cap charge.

Although Devon Toews (11 games missed), Nathan MacKinnon (10), and Valeri Nichushkin (9) are the main culprits in terms of length of absence and relative cap hit, the damage isn’t limited to that trio. Key contributors in Bowen Byram (14), Cale Makar (4), and captain Gabriel Landeskog (5), have all missed varying degrees of time due to lingering injury problems and the inflexible bureaucracy of COVID protocol.

Devon Toews Colorado Avalanche
Devon Toews, Colorado Avalanche (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Beyond the obvious negatives of having your players injured, the team’s dominant performances with a rarely complete roster only exacerbates the frustrations felt by the Avalanche staff. If they’re challenging for the divisional lead with a hobbled lineup, what are they possibly capable of at full-strength?

A New and Improved Penalty Kill

It’s extremely rare that any team is an invincible behemoth, especially with the restraints imposed upon roster construction in the salary cap era. As such, the Avalanche are no exception, with their porous penalty kill schemes (28th in the NHL) giving them fits as they are forced to try and out-score their recurring problems on a fairly regular basis.

Not only does Colorado allow an inordinately high rate of shot attempts (29th in the NHL) when down a man, they’re struggling to limit the quality of conceded chances as well (27th in expected goals against per-60-minutes). Since their goaltenders uninspired performances in the crease have failed to bail them out, they’ve been exposed as carrying an exploitable weakness in a frighteningly vulnerable penalty kill. Now, if they were a more disciplined outfit their penalty kill issues could be dismissed rather quickly, but the fact that they get whistled for an above-average number of penalties is a dangerous game to play with their demons.

Related: Big Questions Surround Avalanche Goaltending

Considering how crucial postseason success is this year for the burgeoning Avalanche, they might want to select priority shipping with this wish list pick. The playoffs are a cruel and unforgiving beast, and its important to avoid unnecessarily tempting fate when the stakes are so high.

Nathan MacKinnon Regaining His Scoring Touch

Simply looking at MacKinnon’s raw point totals doesn’t accurately present his season to date, considering his 24 points through 17 games represents a blistering 115-point pace over 82 games. Of those 24 points, a measly three are a product of his goal scoring, unexplored depths for an on-ice magician who has not scored at less than a 34-goal pace since 2016-17. Although the Avalanche are not hurting for offense (their 4.22 goals-per-game is more than half a goal-per-game higher than the next-best team), their attack could reach unprecedented levels with MacKinnon firing on all cylinders.

Nathan MacKinnon Colorado Avalanche
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Even as Colorado’s attacking talisman is in the midst of the worst finishing slump of his career – his 4.5 shooting percentage (SH%) is less than half his career average of 9.8% – he’s bound to revert to his MVP-caliber level at some point. For context, if MacKinnon shot at his career norm to this point, he’s due for about six goals to his name which doubles his current season total. If you only take into account his post-breakout campaigns (i.e. 2017-18 and onward), he should have scored on around 14% of his 66 shots on goal this season, giving him 9 tallies in this theoretical exercise.

The interplay of recurring injuries and a revolving door of line-mates has undoubtedly figured into MacKinnon’s (relatively) frustrating start, suggesting that an empty injury list benefits the Avalanche more extensively than simply affording them more warm bodies to ice. Does Santa do two-for-one deals by any chance?

Can Santa Deliver for the Avalanche?

Given the weighty stature of Colorado’s short- and long-term goals of consistent Stanley Cup contention, seeing any number of their wishes be fulfilled goes a long way in ensuring the Avalanche don’t crumble under the pressure. Fortunately, two of their three most prioritized wish list wants have been sidetracked by plain bad luck, suggesting that their polarizing misfortune can (and should) settle into more familiar consistency as the season wears on. In the grand scheme of things, the greatest gift of all is a prompt, and safe return to NHL play for the players and anyone employed within the hockey industry. Is that too much to ask?

Data courtesy of Hockey Reference, and Natural Stat Trick. Data accurate as of December 21, 2021.

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