Top 5 Avalanche Storylines to Follow in Race to 2023 Playoffs

With the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline finally in the rear-view, the league’s collective attention has shifted to the lead-up to the 2023 Playoffs and how the postseason seeding will shake out for Round One.

The Colorado Avalanche opted to improve around the margins rather than make a big splash at the deadline as they look to defend their 2022 Stanley Cup championship. The Eastern Conference superpowers engaged in an enthralling arms race, with most of the Western Conference making modest improvements, if at all.

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There is just over a month remaining before the last day of the regular season (April 13) and the Avalanche will face no shortage of storylines as the 2022-23 campaign draws to a close. Let’s dive into five of the most interesting narratives that are set to define the Avalanche’s season.

Can the Avalanche Get Healthy Before the Playoffs?

The underlining storyline of the Avalanche’s season has been injuries. According to NHL Injury Viz, they rank fifth in the NHL by Cap Hit of Injured Players (CHIP) this season, a metric that represents the cumulative per-game cap hits of a player absent due to injury or illness over the course of an entire campaign.

Although Gabriel Landeskog has missed the entire season so far (63 missed games), Bowen Byram (38), Josh Manson (36), Valeri Nichushkin (29), Cale Makar (13), and Nathan MacKinnon (11) have also faced extended absences. Losing so many key contributors to injury is a massive hurdle to overcome for any team, let alone one coming off of one of the most dominant performances in the salary cap era.

Jared Bednar Colorado Avalanche
Jared Bednar, Head Coach of the Colorado Avalanche (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Head coach Jared Bednar recently provided injury updates for a number of players, including a sobering assessment of Landeskog’s recovery timeline. Beyond the captain’s continued absence, Manson and Erik Johnson remain week-to-week with the team also hopeful that Darren Helm and Pavel Francouz will return at some point this season.

Even with the aforementioned injury concerns and the offseason departures of key playoff contributors in Andre Burakovsky and Nazem Kadri, the Avalanche likely consider themselves one of the best teams in the West when healthy.

That “when” is doing a lot of heavy lifting though, and could have wide-ranging ramifications on the Avalanche’s fortunes in the regular season and beyond. It’s likely the difference between an inspired Stanley Cup defence and an underwhelming first-round exit, representing quite the spectrum of outcomes.

Will Nathan MacKinnon Finally Hit 100 Points?

In a more lighthearted storyline, MacKinnon is on pace to hit 100 points in a season for the first time in his career, currently boasting 77 points in 52 games with 19 games left in the regular season.

If it weren’t for a rash of untimely injuries over the years, MacKinnon would likely have multiple 100-point campaigns to his name. In the five seasons from 2017-18 to 2021-22, the superstar center scored at a 100-point pace or greater on four of five occasions, including falling one point shy in 2018-19 when he featured in all 82 games.

Nathan MacKinnon Colorado Avalanche
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

MacKinnon’s scoring rate of 1.48 points per game (P/G) this season prorates to 121 points over a full 82-game campaign. If he maintains that pace over the rest of the regular season, he’d tally 28 points in 19 games which takes him to 105 points in 71 appearances. If 100 points flat is the goal, it seems like a foregone conclusion that MacKinnon accrues the 23 points needed to hit the century mark.

Since he produced at a 1.35 P/G clip between 2019-20 and 2021-22 and has elevated his output this season, meeting the required 1.21 P/G rate appears to be very achievable. Only Connor McDavid has scored more than MacKinnon’s 43 points in 28 games since the start of 2023, an average of 1.54 P/G over that span. Lock this one in, health permitting.

Where Do the Avalanche Finish in the Standings?

Despite the avalanche of injuries, the Avalanche find themselves in a comfortable position heading into the stretch run of the regular season. Let’s take a quick look at the state of the playoff race in the Western Conference.

Colorado sits third in the Central Division with a record of 35-22-6 (76 points) and holds a one-point lead on the Winnipeg Jets (fourth place in the division) with two games in hand. The Avalanche are five and seven points back of the Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars respectively in the Central, with two games in hand on both clubs. The Wild received bad news in regards to superstar Kirill Kaprizov, but could still prove to be a tough out over the final month and change.

The Calgary Flames are the team on the outskirts looking in, currently four points back of the Jets for the final wildcard spot in the West with 66 games played to Winnipeg’s 65.

The Nashville Predators are six points back of the Jets with three games in hand, and could pull within four points of the Avalanche with a win in their next game, also putting them level on games played.

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Fortunately, the Avalanche are in prime position to make a last-ditch assault on the division and conference crowns. According to Tankathon’s strength-of-schedule model, the Avalanche have the weakest remaining schedule in the NHL.

Ten of their final 19 games come against teams ranked 23rd or lower in the league standings, including multiple games against the Arizona Coyotes (three), San Jose Sharks (two), and Anaheim Ducks (two). Five of their remaining games come against teams currently ahead of them in the overall standings, only one of which (Toronto Maple Leafs) is top-five in the NHL.

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Considering the strength of their schedule and the slight gap they’ve forged in the wildcard chase, clinching a playoff spot should be all but assured. The question now is whether they can overtake the Wild and Stars, who face the 23rd- and 27th-weakest schedules to end the year.

The Avalanche are slated to see both once more before the season is up, attaching great significance to those matchups in the coming weeks. They could be the difference between taking on a strong Central foe or facing one of the inconsistent Jets, Flames, or Predators. One seems more appealing than the other.

Will Makar Win His Second-Consecutive Norris Trophy?

With Erik Karlsson putting up an offensive season for the ages and Adam Fox once again providing immense all-around value, it appears as though Makar’s Norris Trophy defence will be unsuccessful.

It’s not for the lack of trying, however, with Makar sitting ninth in scoring by a defenseman (51 points in 50 games) despite playing 10 or more games than the rest of those in the top 10. His P/G of 1.02 ranks fourth at his position and he leads all blueliners in average time on ice (ATOI) with 26:41 per game, including 2:50 per game on the penalty kill.

Cale Makar Colorado Avalanche
Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

When healthy, Makar has been his typical self: a one-man breakout machine capable of dicing up opposing defences across all three zones. Unfortunately, the Avalanche’s numerous injuries have also robbed him of several of his reliable offensive weapons, which are partially responsible for his slightly diminished point totals.

Although an easier slate of opponents could lead to a significant scoring outburst in the final month of the season, Makar’s star contemporaries may have already built too large of a lead to overcome. He should garner plenty of votes and find himself in the top five when all is said and done, but a second Norris win likely has to wait until 2023-24 judging by recent comments from anonymous members of the voting bloc.

Who Is the Avalanche’s Second-Line Center in the Playoffs?

As the Avalanche decided to forgo recruiting big-name reinforcements at the trade deadline, the second-line center debate is likely over (for now). Through a combination of off-season changes, early-season injuries, and beating out his teammates for the role, 27-year-old J.T. Compher was handed an extended audition for the second-line pivot spot.

Apart from Mikko Rantanen, MacKinnon, and Artturi Lehkonen, no other Avalanche forward has played more often in all situations this season than Compher. He ranks third among Avalanche forwards in average even-strength ice time, fifth in average powerplay usage, and sits first in shorthanded deployment.

J.T. Compher Colorado Avalanche
J.T. Compher, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Compher has repaid the Avalanche’s faith in him this season by setting career-highs in both assists (29) and points (42), and his first 50-point campaign is well within reach.

Kadri’s injury during last year’s playoff run necessitated that Compher take his spot on the second line where he scored several important goals on their way to the Stanley Cup. He’s performed under pressure and hasn’t looked out of place beside the Avalanche’s superstar forwards.

Landing one of Ryan O’Reilly, Bo Horvat, or Dylan Larkin would have significantly bolstered the Avalanche’s attack, but Compher has earned his coach’s trust. Expect him to line up as the second-line center come playoff time.

Avalanche Set for Exciting Finish to 2022-23 Regular Season

Although injuries have made the season more difficult to navigate, the Avalanche are well-positioned to defend their Stanely Cup title. They haven’t been the rampaging machine that eviscerated the proverbial monkeys off their backs last season, but finally meeting expectations should allow them to play with greater freedom this time around.

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Assuming relatively full health, there are few teams in the West who can match Colorado’s firepower, and even fewer boasting the playoff experience that helps clubs maintain composure in high-pressure situations. With more fortunate injury luck and favourable postseason match-ups, claiming a second-consecutive championship is within the realm of possibility.

Say what you want about the staleness of the current playoff format, but there’s no denying that the final few weeks of the regular season should be exciting – buckle up.

Data courtesy of Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick, and the NHL.