Avalanche Need More From Defense & Goaltending

There are a lot of issues going on with the Colorado Avalanche through the first ten games of the season. COVID has benched superstars, captains have received suspensions, a number of players have missed time due to injuries, and there haven’t been very many moments where they haven’t looked like Presidents’ Trophy winners from a season ago.

The injuries have been a running story for a few seasons now, and staying healthy is paramount for any team that is viewed as a frontline Stanley Cup contender. There are a number of reasons behind the slow start, but it’s more than just the previously mentioned hurdles and a lack of scoring depth. Some of the major issues with Colorado’s sluggish performance out of the gates are coming at the back.

Defensive Corps Hasn’t Been Good Enough

The Avalanche defense looked like it was going to have a good mix. It boasts a Norris Trophy finalist in Cale Makar, and a future star in Bowen Byram. It has experienced veterans like Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray and two guys coming off breakout seasons in Samuel Girard and Devon Toews. But hockey games aren’t played on paper, and when this season moved to the ice, the Colorado blueliners have slipped.

Cale Makar #8 of the Colorado Avalanche
Cale Makar could return from injury Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks.
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Colorado’s record through 10 games isn’t that much different than it was at the same spot last season. The Avs were 6-3-1 through their first 10 in 2020-21, and were a thrilling Gabriel Landeskog goal away from potentially only having five wins during that stretch. Still, the Avalanche went on to be the highest-scoring team in the league en route to the Presidents’ Trophy.

Injuries have dinged the offense, but not as much as you think. Despite Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen all missing time already, the Avalanche have only six fewer goals this season than it did through 10 games in 2020-21. The difference is the defense. Over that initial 10 games, the Avalanche allowed just 23 goals a season ago, while this season, they’ve allowed 36.

Colorado has also given up three or more goals through eight of the first 10 contests in 2021-22. It took 19 games last season for them to have that many. Injuries have played a big part in the inconsistency. Of the nine defensemen to appear for Colorado this season, only three – Byram, Murray and Erik Johnson – have appeared in all 10 games. The blue line should get a boost soon, as Makar is expected to return from injury soon, and Devon Toews played his first game of the season on Saturday against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Kuemper Hasn’t Emulated Grubauer

On top of the musical chairs that have made up the defensive corps, the Avalanche’s goaltender needs to be sharper, too. It’s very hard to replace a Vezina Trophy finalist, but Darcy Kuemper isn’t off to the best start, either. The Avalanche are finding out that Philipp Grubauer forgave a lot of sins last season, which was a big reason for him finishing third in the voting for the Vezina Trophy.

Darcy Kuemper, Colorado Avalanche
Darcy Kuemper, Colorado Avalanche (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Grubauer left for the Seattle Kraken in free agency, and the Avalanche took a flyer by trading for Kuemper – hoping to get similar results to when they traded for Grubauer in 2018. The early returns aren’t positive. Kuemper’s 2.89 goals-against average is tied for 34th in the NHL, and his .908 save percentage is 35th. Outside of a sparkling performance against the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 30, and a decent performance in the season opener against the hapless Chicago Blackhawks, he has been mediocre at best.

Related: Avalanche’s Kuemper Struggling to Replicate Past Success

This isn’t all Kuemper’s fault, of course. The Avalanche have notoriously ignored goaltender depth for at least dating back to the 2019-20 season, and this season is no different. Jonas Johansson has made just two starts, giving up eight goals in those games. The Avs have also stuck with Pavel Francouz – who hasn’t played in a non-preseason game since Aug. 30, 2020 – through multiple surgeries and chronic injuries. Francouz played in a couple of preseason games earlier this season, but he got hurt again on Oct. 5. He was supposed to miss 3-4 weeks, which would put his timetable for a return to any day now. If he can actually come back and be anywhere close to his form in 2019-20 (2.41 GAA, .923 SV%), the Avalanche would be tickled, and it would take some pressure off of Kuemper, too.

And the Good News?

Of course, there are a lot of games left this season – especially compared to the last two that were shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news is that the Avalanche are starting to get healthy, but the bad news is that this team has shown it can’t stay healthy.

Through 10 games, the top line of MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen has only played 55 minutes together. And they’ve only combined for three goals during those 55 minutes. You don’t have to be a fortune teller to predict that those numbers are going to go up. And guys like Nazem Kadri and J.T. Compher look like they might be more regular contributors than sporadic, which needs to continue.

Bowen Byram, Colorado Avalanche
Bowen Byram has arguably been the best player for the Colorado Avalanche through the first 10 games of the 2021-22 season. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Even though the defense and goaltending need tightening, the silver lining at the back has been Byram’s fantastic start. He has three goals and five assists, putting him third in goals and fifth on the team in points. Add the return of Toews and Makar potentially coming back soon, and it can be argued that the Avalanche can see the light at the end of the injury-riddled tunnel. Colorado appears to be coming out of the woods on that front, but staying healthy for an extended period of time is something the team has to sustain to get back to last season’s level.

Like many coaches have said before, you can’t win a championship in the first month of the season, but you can certainly take yourself out of the conversation. Colorado has the third-fewest points in the standings in the Western Conference, but has also played the fewest games of any team in the conference. It’s certainly too early to panic. The offense will come around – this group is too talented and accomplished not to. But if the defense and goaltending don’t get straightened out, the Avalanche might find themselves struggling to get out of a hole deeper than the one from this 10-game funk.

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