Avalanche Weekly: Byram Bolsters Blue Line, MacKinnon Returns & More

Welcome back to my weekly roundup of the Colorado Avalanche‘s last week of play where I highlight trends and pinpoint potential areas of improvement. The second week of the NHL season saw Colorado set out on a road trip to forget, accruing two out of a possible six points while being outscored 13-7 in three games against the Washington Capitals, Florida Panthers, and Tampa Bay Lightning. In spite of the unsavoury results, there were several positives to take from the week’s schedule. Bowen Byram performed admirably on the team’s first pair, the team can expect some regression from their struggles at even-strength, and Nathan MacKinnon returned to great aplomb. Let’s dig in.

First-Pair Byram Bolsters Blue Line

In an attempt to spark the Avalanche, head coach Jared Bednar pushed burgeoning defenseman Bowen Byram up to the first pair with Cale Makar. In response, Byram delivered offensively while holding his head above water possession-wise in an expanded role, an encouraging outcome for the budding blue-line star. In 49 five-on-five minutes, he tallied two assists and the Avalanche controlled 52% of the xGF share, 57% of the scoring chances (SCF%), and 62% of the high-danger chances with Byram on the ice. Makar’s slow start leaves him at or below 40% on all of those metrics across the past three games, and Byram offers a much-needed uplift on the back-end.

On the season, Byram ranks 44th among all defensemen in xGF% (56%), sixth in SCF% (65%), and 34th in HDCF% (62%), while the team has scored two-thirds of all goals when he plays at five-on-five. All those numbers are to say, Colorado is easily controlling the run of play and accumulating the vast majority of threatening offensive opportunities with the young rearguard confidently patrolling the ice.

Bowen Byram, Colorado Avalanche
Bowen Byram, Colorado Avalanche (Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There’s always a risk when entrusting unseasoned rookies with greater responsibilities, but Byram appears to be anything but fazed thus far. Through the first five games of the season, he is tied for the league lead in five-on-five points (4) among all defensemen, and his 2.88 points-per-60 (P/60) rank fifth in the NHL at his position. Whether Byram can maintain his extraordinary rate of production remains to be seen, but the fourth-overall pick from the 2019 Draft is making good on his appetizing potential – good news for the organization’s fortunes.

Colorado Struggles at Even-Strength

For a team that ranked first in every relevant possession or chance-quality metric at five-on-five last season, the 2021-22 campaign represents an unexpected cratering back to Earth among the mortals. The Avalanche rank 19th in Corsi For % (CF%), 17th in expected goals for share (xGF%), and 10th in high-danger chances (HDCF%), a middling opening to the campaign for a Stanley Cup hopeful. There is no single culprit – a combination of injuries, suspensions, and COVID protocol has sent the beginning of the season into flux – but the start has caused some to tug on their collars.

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This past week was particularly rough for Colorado, as the Eastern Conference powers ran roughshod over the team at even-strength. Against the backdrop of being outscored 9-4 at five-on-five, the team generally conceded 55-60% of the share of shots and scoring chances in the past three games. Having the eighth-worst save percentage (SV%) at five-on-five also does them no favours, as Darcy Kuemper and Jonas Johansson combined for a .891 SV% on this road trip. While the team can except a regression from their early woes, the effort level must be cranked up nonetheless.

Nathan MacKinnon Reborn

The stringent COVID-19 protocols forced MacKinnon to the sidelines for Colorado’s first two games of the season, stripping the team of its most prolific option in attack. The 2020-21 Hart Trophy finalist made his return this week, and reminded the general public of why he is considered one of the most dynamic forwards that the NHL has to offer. The Avalanche superstar tallied five points (one goal, four assists) in three games, and capped his week with an emphatic power play goal against the Lightning.

A sizeable chunk of Colorado’s early struggles can be chalked up to the team’s strategies thrown out of whack without their enterprising scoring machine and zone entry extraordinaire. His absence was mostly felt on the power play, as the Avalanche have the third-worst efficiency (10%) with the man-advantage so far this season. With MacKinnon back in tow, look for the Avalanche to quickly get back in sync and begin their ascent to the top of the standings.

Week Three Preview

It’s too early to deem any upcoming matchup as “must-win”, but the slumping Avalanche are staring at a daunting collection of games this week. They are scheduled to take on three of their main Western Conference competitors in the Vegas Golden Knights (1-3-0), St. Louis Blues (4-0-0), and Minnesota Wild (4-0-0). Positive results in these fixtures will go a long way in rerouting their turbulent start to the season, but extended struggles could see the team fall further astride of the pace. Tune in next week for another edition of Avalanche Weekly – will Colorado make it an upbeat reunion?

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

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