Counting Thursday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, the Colorado Avalanche are set to lap the quarter mark of the 2021-22 season, producing several intriguing storylines in the process. In tandem with my fellow Avalanche writers here at The Hockey Writers, we’ve brainstormed several fictional awards to hand out to this year’s squad. Our haul of hardware includes a team MVP, the biggest disappointment and surprise so far, our favourite moments, and what we’re hoping to see through to the mid-point of the season. I implored my colleagues to offer up a quick blurb, but I go into slightly further detail to explain my choice. Without further ado, let’s dig in!
Avalanche Quarter-Season Team MVP
Craig Jones: Nazem Kadri. His importance in the lineup went up a level when MacKinnon was lost and he’s thrived to say the least, making sure the Avalanche can still boast two main scoring lines even with number 29 missing with injury.
Len Vlahos: Let’s make it unanimous – Nazem Kadri. He’s stepped up in a way I honestly didn’t think possible. It’ll be interesting to see how long he can sustain this level of play, and it should be fun to watch him return to Toronto this week.
Marko Zlomislic: No matter the angle at which you observe the Avalanche this season, Nazem Kadri stands alone as the team’s saving grace. According to NHL Injury Viz, Colorado ranks seventh in Cap Hit of Injured Players (CHIP) which is a cumulative total of the per-game cap hit of missing players. MacKinnon (10 games), Devon Toews (nine), and Valeri Nichushkin are the primary culprits here, but Kadri’s 29 points in 19 games ranks fourth in the NHL and represents the most prolific scoring pace of his career. MacKinnon’s return to the lineup pushes Kadri down into a less prominent role, but the team would be treading water without his contributions thus far. This one’s an easy call.
Biggest Avalanche Disappointment of the Season
KC: Samuel Girard. He looked like he took a huge step last season, but he hasn’t been the force that he was for Colorado when Cale Makar and Devon Toews were off the ice last season. All but two of his points came in a three-game flurry, and he hasn’t really shown the jam that he had last season.
CJ: He has not been a huge disappointment, but I was expecting more from Tyson Jost on the scoresheet this season. He’s only posted six points in 18 games so far, which is slightly underwhelming.
LV: Kurtis McDermid. I know he’s a small role player, but I had high hopes that his size and physicality would fill a needed gap in the lineup. In short, they haven’t.
MZ: I’m surprised that none of my colleagues have brought him up, but Darcy Kuemper is undoubtedly the biggest disappointment through the quarter-mark due to the shoes he had to fill (Vezina Trophy nominee Philipp Grubauer), and the cost required to acquire him (Conor Timmins and several draft picks). By MoneyPuck’s estimation, Kuemper ranks 65th out of 79 goalies to have played at least one game in the NHL this season in terms of goals saved above expected, and 52nd when the metric is adjusted to a per-60-minute rate. Of course Grubauer is performing even worse this season (he’s last of the 79 goalies) but being an improvement on the worst-case scenario shouldn’t be a point of honour.
Biggest Avalanche Surprise of the Season
KC: Valeri Nichushkin. He’s only played in nine games, but five goals and eight point in nine games is an almost unheard of rate of production for him. Even while missing half of the team’s games so far, Nichushkin’s on pace for a career year if he keeps going at this pace.
CJ: Jack Johnson. I was expecting him to be terrible after seeing him play for the New York Rangers last season, but he’s become a solid and dependable third-pairing defenseman on a deep blue line unit.
LV: The biggest surprise for me is Bowen Byram. I wasn’t a true believer until this year and he’s forced me to adjust my prior expectations.
MZ: This category was tricky to navigate as there are several worthy candidates depending on your interpretation of what constitutes a surprise. Nichushkin (0.9 points-per-game) and J.T Compher (0.75) are posting career-bests in terms of point production and Byram stepped up admirably in Makar’s early absence, but choosing anyone but Kadri is misguided in my opinion. Forgive my double dipping, but the fact that the chippy center is almost halfway to his career-high of 61 points after only 19 games, experiencing a decline in production in consecutive seasons, and having been slapped with a hefty playoff suspension means his astronomical 125-point pace is an unexpected development to say the least.
Favourite Avalanche Moment of the Season
KC: Rantanen’s hat trick. He’s been good all month, and that was the cap on a great stretch of games that has gone largely under the radar. He’s a force, but is stuck in MacKinnon’s shadow, even when number 29 is out. Hopefully that shows he’s a star in his own right.
CJ: Seeing Peter McNabb ditch the hat for broadcasts. I could listen to him all day. We know of his difficult situation and we are all with him in his battle with cancer.
LV: Nichushkin’s short-handed goal against the Kraken. Not only was it an electric goal, but his start to the year has been a revelation for the short-handed Avalanche.
MZ: Byram’s struggles with injuries has been well-documented, so to see him return from his latest spell on the injury list and score a goal was a feel-good moment for a player bursting with limitless potential. He ranks 14th in the NHL in points-per-60 (P/60) among defensemen to have played a minimum of 100 total minutes, and Colorado dominates shot- (57.3 CF%) and expected goals-share (56.8%) with him on the ice. Injuries robbing players of their peak years is a shame no matter their identity, but it’s even more tragic when a blossoming star sees their career cut short through no fault of their own. He’s been ruled out for Thursday’s game against the Canadiens, but hopefully it’s only a precautionary move.
Avalanche Mid-Season Wishlist
KC: Bo Byram returning. He was a driving force that made you notice him every time he was on the ice before his departure. It’ll be interesting to see the numbers he can put up going forward, and to see if he can stay healthy.
CJ: I am interested in following the continued emergence of Colorado’s prized prospect Alex Newhook, and whether he can cement a place in the team’s top-six forward group.
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MZ: A fully intact Avalanche lineup has been a rare sight so far this season, but with the only regulars on the injured list being Compher, Pavel Francouz, and Ryan Murray, the team is as close to a clean bill of health as ever. They’ve won nine of their last 13 games, and more closely resemble the Presidents’ Trophy juggernauts from last season, scoring four goals in a game 10 times over that same stretch. There are over 60 games left to play in the 2021-22 campaign, and it’s not far-fetched to believe that the Avalanche can return to their prior levels of performance in due time.
Next Avalanche Milestone: Mid-Season Check-In
It’s important to remember that 20 games is an extremely small sample of data, and that much of what has transpired through the first two months of the season could be minor blips on the big-picture radar. The next batch of early awards are scheduled to be handed out at the mid-point of the season, once the Avalanche complete the 41st game on the calendar. Tune in then to see our updated selections, and be sure to share your picks in the comments!
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.