Avalanche Weekly: A Slow Start From Depth Forwards

Avalanche Weekly is a series from Colorado Avalanche contributors for THW where we recap the team’s performance from the past week and tackle some notable storylines from said games. These pieces will be more opinion-based rather than simply recapping the games and publishing the hard facts. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

In this inaugaral edition of Avalanche Weekly to kick off the 2020-21 season, I will be taking a look at the team’s trip to California where they played a pair of games against the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks, respectively.

The Avalanche split both of their two-game sets with the Kings and the Ducks, winning one game and losing one game against each team. With an even 3-3-0 record and the surprising early emergence of the Minnesota Wild, the Avalanche currently sit at fourth place in the West Division behind the St. Louis Blues, the Wild, and the Vegas Golden Knights.

It’s obviously a little bit of a disappointing start for a team that’s expected to compete with the Golden Knights and the Blues for the top spot in the division, but they are only six games into a 56-game season. Let’s take a look at what went right and what went wrong for the Avalanche last week.

A Week in California

As I said, the Avalanche split each of their two-game sets with the Kings and the Ducks. The Kings games came first, with the Avs coming away with a 3-2 victory against Los Angeles in the first game last Tuesday.

Colorado the better team for the first 40 minutes. Brandon Saad scored his first goal in an Avalanche uniform after he was met with a wide open net on a rebound off of Cal Petersen. Devon Toews and Mikko Rantanen added power-play goals in the second period after the Kings took four penalties in a row. Nathan MacKinnon also reached a milestone, collecting his 500th career point on Rantanen’s goal.

The Kings began to push back a little bit in the third period, with Andreas Athanasiou scoring seven minutes into the final frame and Adrian Kempe adding a power-play goal with just under six minutes to go. But goaltender Philipp Grubauer shut the door when he had to and the Avalanche were able to come away with the victory.

While the Kings aren’t expected to be a playoff contender in this division, that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to try and win hockey games. And when you play teams back-to-back like this, it makes the pro scouting easier for the coaching staff. Alas, the Kings came back strong against Colorado on Thursday and took home a 4-2 win.

The Avalanche were the better team out of the gate, with Rantanen opening the scoring four minutes into the game and MacKinnon adding some insurance with less than a minute left on the power play. However, just as Los Angeles did the game before, Colorado started to get sloppy with penalties in the second period and the Kings capitalized. A pair of power-play goals from Drew Doughty and Gabriel Vilardi put the Kings right back into the game.

The Avalanche and Kings went tooth-and-nail at each other in the third period until Kempe redirected a pass from Anze Kopitar past Hunter Miska with just under four minutes to go in the game. Blake Lizotte iced the game with an empty netter and that was that. You could argue that Colorado was the better team 5-on-5, but their penalty kill looked sloppy and the Kings made them pay for it. The 2019 fourth-overall pick Bowen Byram made his NHL debut and tallied one shot on goal.

Moving on to the Ducks games, the Avalanche made the trip southeast to Orange County the next day and secured a 3-2 overtime win. Joonas Donskoi opened the scoring on the power play, but the Ducks did their best to kill the momentum with a marker from Hampus Lindholm less than a minute into the second period.

Rantanen stayed red-hot with his third goal in as many games six minutes into the third period, with thanks to Byram who collected the primary assist for his first NHL point. Byram showed off his mobility at the point and carried the puck down to the goal line before finding Rantanen in front. The serotonin didn’t last long, however, as Adam Henrique scored just over a minute later to tie the game at two.

The Avalanche would get the last laugh, though, as captain Gabriel Landeskog would ice the game for his team on a relentless effort in overtime. It was a high-energy game from start to finish for both teams, but Philipp Grubauer was the star of the show, making 36 saves, which was good for a .947 save percentage.

In a game the Ducks arguably should have won on Friday, the script was flipped in Sunday’s bout and the Avalanche had the misfortune of running into a hot goalie, resulting in a 3-1 loss. The game was pretty tame from start to finish, with neither team able to capitalize on a combined seven power-play opportunities. Jakob Silfverberg opened the scoring less than a minute into the game and Rickard Rakell added to the lead midway through the second period.

The Avalanche would get one back, as who else but Rantanen would make things interesting with just shy of five minutes left in the game. But in the end, John Gibson stood tall when his team needed him to and the Avs’ simply couldn’t figure him out beyond the Rantanen goal. Lindholm would finalize the game with an empty netter and secure the bag for the Ducks.

Rantanen Red Hot to Start the Season

Let me just pick up right where I left off. Rantanen has been on an absolute tear to start the season. In seven games so far, he has five goals and two assists, with four of his five goals coming in the past four games. Three of those goals came at even strength.

So far this season, Rantanen’s averaged 20:08 of ice time, sitting at third among forwards behind only MacKinnon and Landeskog. This is obviously expected. And for an Avalanche team that hasn’t seen too much scoring help from their depth players, you could argue that Rantanen’s hot start is one of the primary reasons the team is sitting at .500 and not any lower.

To go along with his goal scoring pace, Rantanen is second among forwards in Corsi, carrying a rating of 61.3% behind only Landeskog. This also doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody, seeing that the top three best possession forwards are none other than the top line of Rantanen, Landeskog, and MacKinnon.

All in all, it’s hard to say much about Rantanen’s performance to start the year, seeing that we’re only seven games in. He obviously won’t keep up this disgusting pace, but he’s been one of the hottest forwards for the burgundy and blue this year and somehow continues to get better every year. Plus, as somebody who has him in fantasy hockey, it’s hard to not rave about him.

Depth Forwards Off to a Slow Start

Now that I’ve taken off my rose-coloured goggles talking about Rantanen, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are some issues to be taken care of over the next stretch of games. One of the biggest ones is the severe lack of offensive production from pretty much any forward not on the top line.

MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog are carrying the mail so far with eight, seven, and five points respectively. Andre Burakovsky missed three games with an upper-body injury but has three points in those three games, so he isn’t an issue. And to be fair, the Avalanche are getting a decent amount of help from the back end. Makar and Samuel Girard each have five points so far, and newly acquired Toews has four.

But after those guys, there’s a severe drop off. And I’m primarily looking at Nazem Kadri and Brandon Saad here. Saad scored his first goal for the Avalanche in last Tuesday’s game against Los Angeles, but that’s all he’s been able to muster so far. Kadri, meanwhile, only has two points through six games and saw a demotion to the third line in favour of J.T. Compher on Sunday night in Anaheim.

Nazem Kadri Colorado Avalanche
Nazem Kadri is one of many depth forwards off to a slow start (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Other forwards off to a slow start include Compher (zero goals, one assist), Valeri Nichushkin (zero goals, zero assists), and Tyson Jost (zero goals, zero assists). It’s obviously far too early to consider this a legitimate concern, but some of these guys will have to step up if the Avalanche want to be atop the West Division like so many projected them to be. It’s entirely possible that these players are simply still finding their legs with the lack of preseason games, but at the same time, it’s a 56-game season and time won’t be on their side when it comes to finding their offense.

Top Performers of the Week

Mikko Rantanen – 4 goals, 1 assist
Nathan MacKinnon – 1 goal, 4 assists
Gabriel Landeskog – 1 goal, 2 assists

The Week Ahead

Jan. 26 vs. San Jose Sharks
Jan. 28 vs. San Jose Sharks
Jan. 30 at Minnesota Wild
Jan. 31 at Minnesota Wild

All stats from Hockey Reference