Losing a Vezina Trophy finalist isn’t the only hit the Colorado Avalanche took this offseason. Philipp Grubauer had a career year between the pipes in 2020-21, but two players in front of him who were key to the team’s success are also gone. Veterans Brandon Saad and Joonas Donskoi were an integral part of the Avs’ offense last season, and it’ll be up to a mix of characters to pick up the slack.
Donskoi and Saad combined for 32 goals and 55 points in 220-21. The goals are the most immediate concern, as Donskoi (17) and Saad (15) ranked fifth and sixth on the team, respectively. Only Colorado’s dazzling top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog, and Andre Burakovsky scored more. All four players are returning, but with Donskoi heading to the Seattle Kraken and Saad to the St. Louis Blues, the team’s goal-scoring drops considerably.
Here are three candidates that Colorado needs to fill the gaps left by the veteran departures:
The Known Commodity – Andre Burakovsky
Yes, Burakovsky scored more goals (19) last season than Donskoi and Saad, but the 26-year-old winger could still pick up the slack. His two seasons in Colorado are easily the best of his career, and last season was solid. There are times when he looks like he’s about to blast through to the next level, and that burst should come in 2021-22.
Burakovsky scored 19 goals and 44 points last season – both one shy of career marks — and his 25 assists tied a career-high. Those career-bests were set in his first season in Denver in 2019-20, when he scored 20 goals and 25 assists – both in shortened seasons. With the 82-game slate back in the mix for this season, expect Burakovsky to crush all of those marks.
However, he will have to avoid the long inconsistent stretches that plagued him in the last two seasons. He had a 29-game stretch last season when he scored just five goals, and that included stretches of eight games and seven games when he didn’t light the lamp at all. He had another 17-game stretch in 2019-20 when he scored just a single goal. He’s talented and showed lots of pop playing on the top line. If he can get rid of those long scoreless gaps, he will become a force on the Avalanche. He also scored just one goal in the playoffs last season, and that must change.
If Burakovsky can eclipse the 30-goal mark this season, it will take a lot of pressure off the rest of the squad to replace those precious 32 goals scored by Donskoi and Saad and relieve some of the crushing pressure on the top line to do everything.
The Shiny New Toy – Alex Newhook
There’s a lot of buzz surrounding the 20-year-old Alex Newhook, who is entering his first full campaign in the NHL. He’s widely regarded as one of the team’s potential breakout stars, following a solid performance in the playoffs when he scored his first NHL goal. He is the most likely to step up and replace some of that missing scoring, and conditions are ripe for him to make the jump into the top six, especially if he comes out of the gates flying.
Nazem Kadri clearly isn’t what he used to be, notching his lowest goal and points total since 2011-12 when he only played in 21 games before he was suspended from the playoffs. JT Compher also seemed to regress last season, and Martin Kaut – the team’s first-round pick from 2018 – has managed just 14 scattered NHL games over the last three seasons. Valeri Nichushkin is a fine player but has never been a reliable scorer.
Despite all those question marks, if Newhook can play with the jam he showed in the playoffs, don’t be surprised if he jumps up the depth chart. He only played in six regular-season games last season and tallied three assists. He showed he wasn’t shy in big games, assisting on both goals in a crucial 2-1 Avalanche win over the Vegas Golden Knights that helped Colorado clinch the Presidents’ Trophy.
The skill is there. Newhook racked up six points in six games at the 2021 World Junior Championships. After a stellar career at Boston College, he moved to the Avalanche’s American Hockey League affiliate Colorado Eagles and didn’t miss a beat. He scored five goals and nine points in just eight games before being added to the NHL roster. He had a goal and four assists in 14 games in the regular season and playoffs, and there should be plenty more where that came from.
The Sleeper – Tyson Jost
Last season was the first time since he was drafted 10th overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft that Jost looked comfortable. He took big strides in earning the trust of his coaches, getting more shifts, and boosting his average ice time from under 13 minutes per game a season ago to more than 14 minutes per contest last season. Entering his sixth season, it’s time to become a core contributor; the team believes in him, extending his contract earlier this year.
Jost only scored seven goals and ten assists in 54 games last season but was a driving force of energy on the fourth line. While he spent most of the season firing on the energy line, his efforts allowed head coach Jared Bednar to slide him up to the third line – and the second line for at least a few shifts – without batting an eye. If he can get going quickly, expect even more trust and more minutes.
He’s considered a sleeper because he’s also the biggest question mark. Jost has never scored more than 12 goals or 26 points in a season. However, he’s prone to scoring droughts, and if he wants to make the jump, he cannot start the season as he did last year. He didn’t score in the first 15 games, and after breaking the ice with that first tally on Feb. 27 against the Arizona Coyotes, he didn’t score again until three weeks later on March 20 against the Minnesota Wild.
Jost picked up momentum late, though. He scored four goals over the final six games and notched two goals and two assists through the first six playoff games. He was held off the scoresheet for the four consecutive losses to the Golden Knights, but huge chunks of the Avalanche roster also disappeared in those games, so it’s hard to hold Jost accountable. If he can carry that late momentum into this campaign, he could be the scorer the Avalanche needs and, more importantly, become the player they’ve been waiting for him to become.
Of course, other players have been added to the mix this offseason, and the production that was lost when Saad and Donskoi left the club might be replaced by a player who’s a complete surprise. But these three have the inside track, and their early performance will go a long way in determining if they’re ready to become as important to the Avalanche as those veterans were.
Lifelong storyteller and experienced hockey reporter that has covered everything from major juniors to the NHL. Worked for various newspapers across Minnesota and North Dakota, and now covering the Colorado Avalanche for THW.