Avalanche Still Poised to Challenge the NHL’s Elite

The Colorado Avalanche experienced a tumultuous offseason in which they watched the enviable forward depth that powered them to last season’s Presidents’ Trophy steadily deplete in free agency. However, that’s not to say that the Avalanche roster is not well-equipped to once again ascend to the NHL’s elite as one of the league’s apex predators, even when accounting for the moves of their main adversaries.

Colorado’s Offseason Rundown

The requirements dictated by the expansion draft, and a cap crunch induced by the substantial contracts for Landeskog and Cale Makar, expedited the departures of several key contributors in Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Joonas Donskoi, and Brandon Saad. Those players collectively accounted for 41 of Colorado’s league-leading 197 goals scored, a whopping 20 percent of their entire offence from last season. The club even grappled with the grim possibility that their captain and entrenched leader Gabriel Landeskog would opt for greener pastures in Seattle

Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen
Colorado Avalanche Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The abrupt reduction in talent, coupled with Joe Sakic’s inability to adequately replace the production of those who have left, incited an eruption of murmurs that Burnaby Joe had lost his golden touch, from myself included. Yet, once the projected lineup is evaluated through a more objective lens, and within the context of the wider NHL landscape, there is less reason for consternation than one might assume by how resoundingly detractors criticized Sakic’s roster construction. 

A Rocky Summer for Fellow Stanley Cup Contenders

For all of the understandable hand-wringing over how the franchise is proceeding with what appears to be a weaker forward group than was iced last season, Colorado’s transactions should not be analyzed devoid of context. The stagnation of the salary cap, combined with the scavengers from the Seattle Kraken, means several of the Avalanche’s peers atop the standings will enter the 2021-22 season with eroded rosters of their own.

While looking at the proportion of goals scored that were subtracted from a given team’s lineup is an admittedly rudimentary method of appraising their overall talent level, it offers a rough overview of the net impact of their offseason activity. I would be remiss if I did not note that each team has several breakout candidates who could be welcome revelations as reinforcements offering similar, if not greater value at a cheaper price point than those they’ve replaced.

For this exercise, I’ve decided to limit my assessments of current forward depth to a select few teams that posses a legitimate claim to the NHL throne, a list that includes, but is not limited to: the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights. Now, before you disparage me in the comments for not bestowing the label of contender upon your favourite team, yes, it is because I hate them. Now, onto the analysis!

Boston Bruins

The Boston Bruins bid adieu to franchise icon David Krejci, as he retired from the NHL, taking his eight goals back with him to his native Czech Republic. While the loss of his meager goal total isn’t cause for concern, the Bruins will sorely miss his incisive playmaking and responsible defensive play. If Sean Kuraly’s four goals are accounted for, the boys from Beantown will have only shed seven percent of their cumulative output from last season.

David Krejci Boston Bruins
David Krejci, Boston Bruins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In response, the Bruins were very active in free agency, adding Nick Foligno, Erik Haula and Tomas Nosek, and their combined 24 goals (14 percent of Boston’s total) to bolster their forward ranks. While the Bruins added more to their roster than Colorado, their baseline total of 164 goals was much lower than that sported by the Avalanche in the 2020-21 campaign, and it’s not unfathomable to suggest that Colorado could make up for that production internally.

Tampa Bay Lightning

First off, it’s astounding that the Lightning can still be considered Cup contenders after the skaters they lost last summer, and it is a testament to their organizational culture of emphasizing development that they can plug in prospects and have them succeed, regardless of their draft pedigree.

Everyone’s favourite cap circumventors (I kid) had their hand forced by a delayed cap crunch as they watched 45 of their 180 total goals (25 percent) leave in free agency or via trade. None of Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson could be retained at the salary they were likely to command, with the Kraken happily snapping up Gourde in the expansion draft as the Lightning’s most prominent instance of a cap casualty.

Yet, the Lightning’s aforementioned prowess at developing serviceable NHL forwards, and the presence of Nikita Kucherov for an entire season, addresses most of their worries. With that in mind, the sheer volume of production lost might be too much to overcome in attempting to emulate the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty and win three championships in a row.

Vegas Golden Knights

Colorado’s direct rivals in the Western Conference and a foe that, after the drubbing in the first game of their playoff series in last year’s postseason, thoroughly manhandled the Avalanche on their way to a berth in the league semifinals, and look to be their main adversary once more this season.

Vegas Golden Knights Alex Tuch Colorado Avalanche Philipp Grubauer
Vegas Golden Knights right wing Alex Tuch and former Colorado Avalanche goaltender Philipp Grubauer (AP Photo/David Becker)

In replacing Tomas Nosek’s eight goals with the incoming Evgenii Dadonov and his 13 tallies for the Ottawa Senators, the Golden Knights managed to offset the loss of scoring while adding another dimension to their relentless attack. Once again, the road to the Cup in the West will likely run through Vegas, setting up another colossal clash between two of the league’s behemoths.

A Forward Group at Their Peak

Even with a handful of notable contributors leaving the Mile High City this past summer, there is still hope that the Avalanche still boast the firepower needed to tangle with the elite in the upper echelon of the NHL, including a group of dynamic forwards who are still in the midst of or entering their physical primes.

Fans could review each club’s offseason transactions and arrive at the conclusion that Colorado did not make out as well as their competition. A significant factor to reflect upon when comparing each team’s future outlook is the development of their key players. Assuming a steady, linear progression for Colorado’s most involved forwards, their growth should be enough to alleviate fears about the Avalanche potentially squandering their best chance to win the Stanley Cup.

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The following table provides a simple overview of the developmental status of the leading contributors for each of the aforementioned franchises. It shows each team’s top five goal scoring forwards from the 2020-21 season, their average age, combined goals scored and exactly how much of the team’s offence was derived from this group. Only forwards still on the roster are counted, although if any new additions qualify, their output will be incorporated.

TeamTop Five ForwardsAverage AgeTotal GoalsPercentage of Team’s Goals in 2020-21
ColoradoMikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri27.410050.8
VegasMax Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Tuch, William Karlsson29.49550
BostonBrad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Craig Smith, Taylor Hall31.29557.9
Tampa BayBrayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Mathieu Joseph28.48245.6
The forward cores of four Cup contenders sorted by total goals scored in 2020-21

The table presents several intriguing findings to ponder but first, some context. Analytical research into aging curves suggests that the peak age for offensive production from forwards is around 24 or 25 (although they generally plateau for a year or two after), which puts the Avalanche in a much more favourable position than their contemporaries. Not only is the average age of the Avalanche’s core the youngest of the four units and closest to the ideal value, their group of five is the most prolific, while simultaneously not comprising a disproportionate proportion of the team’s overall scoring.

Tampa Bay benefits immensely from Kucherov’s return, and his tendency to carve open defences elevates the play of his linemates by serving as the center of gravity during the run of play. However, if Kucherov replaces Mathieu Joseph in the table, the Lightning’s average age increases to 29.2. Their front office and ownership group should be overjoyed that their vaunted core managed to win two Stanley Cups before the salary cap bludgeoned their depth, as they are slowly moving away from their core’s collective zenith.

The Golden Knights look to be one of Colorado’s most vexing roadblocks to a championship, as their balanced scoring complements their primary threats up front, most of whom are still on the right side of 30. As Vegas proved in their most recent postseason matchup, having superstar forwards means very little when the depth cannot provide the crucial support required when a team’s principal threats are neutralized.

Of the four, Boston’s window of contention is in the greatest jeopardy, as their scoring is provided almost entirely by their top line anchored by Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, a pair of stars on the downswing of their careers. A precipitous drop in production from either of the two would spell doom for the Bruins, an occurrence which demands that their summer additions make an immediate impact.

Unfortunately, the chart does not take into account playmaking ability or defensive prowess and it’s entirely possible that a forward not mentioned here provides greater cumulative value than those who do make an appearance. Again, approach this data as a thought experiment rather than a definitive statement of each team’s standing in the NHL’s hierarchy. Nonetheless, analysis of the differing age profiles offers valuable insight.

If the Avalanche can hold onto the majority of their stars and supplement them with any number of the burgeoning prospects in their developmental system, the franchise capitalizes on a vacuum of power wherein this generation’s annual contenders, such as Tampa Bay or Boston, have exited their contention cycle, and the next wave of league powers have yet to clearly establish themselves in the food chain.

An Avalanche of Blossoming Prospects

It’s less than ideal to be heading into a new season with hopes that two rookie forwards can match the output of such established veterans as Donskoi and Saad, but their heralded prospects in Sampo Ranta and Alex Newhook have already shown flashes of tantalizing skill at the collegiate level, and could flourish in sheltered roles behind Colorado’s rampaging triumvirate led by Nathan MacKinnon.

The Avalanche have high hopes for Newhook as the forward from St. John’s scored over a point-per-game over the course of his collegiate career, and tallied nine points in eight AHL games while suiting up for Colorado’s AHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles. 

If the Avalanche are to retain their mantle as the NHL’s most potent attacking unit, Newhook must seamlessly adapt to a top-nine role and bear the brunt of the scoring load further down the lineup. The young center showed enticing flashes of speed and skill during his brief stint in the minors after leaving Boston College, and any positive developmental progress raises the ceiling of the Avalanche attack.

Alex Newhook Avalanche Draft
Alex Newhook, Colorado Avalanche, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Ranta, the hulking winger out of Finland, ran roughshod over the collegiate circuit, with his 19 goals for the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the 2020-21 NCAA season ranking second in the nation behind only Cole Caufield, now of the Montreal Canadiens. He also managed to launch 104 shots on goal in the process, which tied him for eighth in Division I play. The 2018 third-round pick has rocketed up the leaderboards despite being several years younger than his scoring peers, which suggests that he’s ready for a bigger challenge facing tougher competition.

While he is better suited starting the year in the minors and getting further acclimated to professional play, it would not be surprising to see Ranta burst out of the gates if appropriately placed in the NHL lineup, especially as he scored nine points in 16 regular season and playoff games for the Eagles after the consummation of his entry-level deal.

If the pair is tentatively pencilled in for around 15 to 20 goals each, the combined output would help mitigate the repercussions of Colorado’s painful summer exodus. I’m not wholly naive as to believe that they will account for the entirety of the lost production, but such expectations are not without reason.

The Verdict

Look, I’ll give it to you straight. The Avalanche didn’t have the perfect offseason. What allowed Colorado to romp to the league’s best record was their ability to overpower opponents with with repeated waves of ferocious forechecking and a propensity to turn chances against into rapid breakouts in the opposite direction with ease. Without Saad and company, that’ll be slightly more difficult to accomplish with consistency. 

However, a few of Colorado’s rivals for the Cup also fell victim to the financial precariousness brought on by COVID-19 to some degree, and the Kraken rightfully took full advantage of the benefits offered to them throughout the expansion draft process, somewhat levelling the playing field among the NHL’s true contenders.

In any case, the Avalanche can happily gaze upon a collection of riches in attack, with their most impactful forwards being the youngest collection of talent when compared to their most relevant competition. It is more likely that Colorado’s forwards will continue to progress while their rivals are plagued by age-related decline.

Further, the promising duo of Newhook and Ranta will inject even more youthful attacking verve into an already electric lineup and the relative mediocrity of the Central Division means that Colorado won’t face a particularly daunting challenge to their division crown. Will there be some regression this season? Undoubtedly, but I’d like to think that Sakic and head coach Jared Bednar have everything under control. In the end, only time will tell.


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