Not too long ago, an NHL club’s road trip through California resembled a death march.
The Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks were a breed of their own in the Pacific Division. Each team was capable of going deep into the postseason, particularly the Kings. Their heavy, physical play helped them grind teams into a pulp as they took home both the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cups. Jonathan Quick held down their net with elite goaltending as Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter headlined a group of skaters that would almost never relinquish the puck.
The Ducks and Sharks were no slouches, either. The Ducks had Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, two of the best scorers in the early-2010s NHL landscape. The organization always drafted well, especially defensemen, and they won the Pacific Division consistently. The Sharks had Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Brent Burns, and many other All-Star caliber players in their lineup seemingly for decades. While they never won the Cup, they gave teams hell when any dared enter the “Shark Tank”.
Times have changed. Great players age, new ones become harder to find, and suddenly, good teams become bad. The Kings have made the playoffs once in the last four years, and the Ducks have only once in the last three. In that appearance, they were obliterated by the Sharks, who finally faced their collapse last season. Each team appears at least a few years away from being competitive again.
The Colorado Avalanche could be beneficiaries of the California cataclysm taking place. On Jan.19, the Avs will begin a six-game road trip through the Golden State that will last nearly through the end of January. There will be two games each against the beleaguered Sharks, Kings and Ducks. No better time will present itself for the Avalanche to find a consistent way to win and build momentum while the season is still young.
The opening-night loss to the Blues left a bitter taste in Colorado’s mouth and they responded with an 8-0 thrashing of St. Louis two nights later. Because there was no preseason, this road trip gives the organization to get a better pulse on the roster’s capabilities. Are they more of the mistake-prone team from the season opener, or more of the scoring machine from the second game?
It’s probably somewhere in the middle, but the next six games should help the Avs establish a consistent identity and hopefully propel them closer to consistently playing like Cup contenders. There are a couple of questions that should become clearer as they travel along the Pacific coastline.
How Does Pavel Francouz Look Post-Injury?
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar has stated Philipp Grubauer is likely to start around 60% of games this season, leaving 40% for backup Pavel Francouz. Colorado will need consistency from both in order to be at their best as a team. Grubauer played both opening games for the Avs, meaning it is very likely Francouz will see action in a game or two in California.
Francouz had an impressive rookie campaign, but will have to face a potential sophomore slump this year as well as returning from an injury that hampered his play and then removed him from the playoffs in August. The Czech goaltender incurred a hip injury, and for an athletic goalie like him, diminished movement could be a great detriment to his success. Francouz did well in training camp and appears to be at full capacity. The next couple of weeks should give him the chance to get show he’s ready to get back in between the crease.
What Is the Solution to the Avs’ Defensive Puzzle?
Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Now that Erik Johnson and Bowen Byram are reporting for duty, Colorado has to balance playing their many capable defensemen as well as make sure Byram has a chance to show his ability. Right now, Johnson and Byram are the eighth and ninth defenseman on the depth chart, behind the six blueliners who have seen game action so far, plus offseason acquisition Dennis Gilbert. Johnson is likely to play right away, while Bednar has stated that Byram will receive time on this road trip.
That leaves a lot of personnel for Bednar to juggle in the early part of the season. Veteran Ian Cole struggled in the series against St. Louis, and may find himself on the outside looking in on the top six. Ryan Graves also had a few gaffes of his own, but will likely have a longer leash as the younger guy. Johnson, Byram and even Gilbert will their chances to make their way into the lineup, while those already in it will have their chances to defend their positions. The season is young and nothing is set in stone.
The Kings, Sharks and Ducks all still have talented players that can stretch opposing defenses. The key for Coach Bednar and the Avalanche over the next six games should be to find the best combinations possible on the back end against those players.
A road trip through California may no longer be a death march, but it will still be a challenge. Every night in the NHL is a challenge, so just because the California clubs are no longer at their former heights, it does not mean the Avs should let up on the gas pedal. If anything, this is their chance to kick their team up a gear as the season begins to progress. The Avalanche are headed to Hollywood. This show is just getting started.