The Colorado Avalanche enter the upcoming season battling for respect. Yes, they made the playoffs last season but that hasn’t improved speculation on the upcoming season. Of 17 NHL.com panelists, only five thought the Avalanche would make the postseason, and that was as a wild card team. Of course, at the beginning of last season, most expected the Avalanche to improve their point total but still remain cellar dwellers, which didn’t happen.
Colorado merely used the negative expectations to feed their competitive fire and bounced back from a dismal 48-point campaign of 2016-17 to earn 95 points in the 2017-18 season, nearly doubling their point total.
The Avalanche start this season with an even greater hunger for success and a bit of a chip on their shoulder
“I still think we are trying to prove ourselves,” said Nathan MacKinnon at the start of training camp.
Entering the 2018-19 season, the Avalanche intend to build on last season’s success and push for a deeper playoff run. The team must have a few key things happen. The players need to stay healthy, particularly in the anchor positions. Also, Colorado should improve their secondary scoring. Plus, the Avalanche need to ice a better defensive unit. And the final key for the Avalanche – whether they can keep pace within the Central Division. Most of the other division rivals added key pieces to their rosters so the Avalanche will need to keep pressing.
2017-18 Record: 43-30-9, 95 points (4th in the Central, 8th in the Western Conference, 17th in the NHL)
Key Roster Additions
- Philipp Grubauer
- Ian Cole
- Matt Calvert
- Pavel Francouz
Key Roster Losses
- Jonathan Bernier
- Andrew Hammond
- Blake Comeau
- Nail Yakupov
- Patrik Nemeth – 1 year
- Matt Nieto – 2 years
- Mark Barberio – 2 years
- Mark Alt – 2 years
2018 NHL Entry Draft
- Martin Kaut (1st round, 16th pick)
- Justus Annunen (3rd round, 64th pick)
- Sampo Ranta (3rd round, 78th pick)
- Tyler Weiss (4th round, 109th pick)
- Brandon Saigeon (5th round, 140th pick)
- Danila Zhuravlyov (5th round, 146th pick)
- Nikolai Kovalenko (6th round, 171st pick)
- Shamil Shmakov (7th round, 202nd pick)
The Avalanche didn’t make any substantial changes to their NHL coaching staff or to the front office. However, they did extend coach Bednar for an additional year.
The big changes for the Avalanche all stem from the reorganization of their development model. At the end of last season, the Avalanche ended their AHL partnership with the San Antonio Rampage and promoted their ECHL partner Colorado Eagles to the AHL. The Avalanche added the Utah Grizzlies as their new ECHL partner.
— Colorado Eagles (@ColoradoEagles) September 30, 2018
The changes continued with the AHL coaching staff. At the end of the season, the Avalanche released AHL coach Eric Veilleux, promoted the Eagles coaching staff to the AHL along with their team, acquired Greg Cronin to head up the Eagles coaching staff and said goodbye to Director of Player Development David Oliver. They have not yet hired Oliver’s replacement.
The promotion of the Eagles coaching staff could be key for improving the Avalanche’s player development. Aaron Schneekloth, now the Eagles’ assistant coach, along with his staff, led the ECHL Eagles to back-to-back Kelly Cup victories. They bring a successful track record to what has been a weak spot in the Avalanche system while Cronin brings a wealth of experience dealing with all aspects of player progression from juniors all the way to the NHL. While the Eagles will need time to adjust to being in the AHL, the players development should benefit from the closer proximity to the Avalanche and to a coach who intends to keep an eye on promising players.
Projected Lines: Forwards
Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen
Colin Wilson-Tyson Jost-Alexander Kerfoot
Matt Calvert-J.T. Compher-Sven Andrighetto/Sheldon Dries
Matt Nieto-Carl Soderberg-Gabriel Bourque
An injury to Andrighetto (which will sideline him for up to four weeks) opened up a roster spot. Sheldon Dries will likely take the slot in the short term but will be hard pressed to keep the role from a healthy Andrighetto. Also, the Soderberg line may see some changes depending on how long it takes for Vladislav Kamenev to recover from his hip issue. Soderberg generally takes some pretty tough time on the ice so the big question is whether Nieto and Bourque can keep up with him or if the Avalanche will need to come up with another solution.
The real key for a successful season may very well rest with how well Jost, Kerfoot and Compher progress. They are entering their second NHL year and the team really needs them to step up. Assuming they continue to build on last year’s progress, these three could provide the secondary scoring the Avalanche need.
Anyone who is expecting MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen to back off their play from last year hasn’t been paying attention. All three came into camp with a chip on their shoulder. MacKinnon was snubbed for the Hart Trophy, Rantanen was overlooked for the best sophomore performance in the NHL and Landeskog was underrated for his ability to repair a toxic locker room and bring the team together. All three recognize the challenges before them this season and prepared in the offseason to overcome them. The difference? The young guns have a year of NHL experience under their belt so they can help carry more of the load.
Projected Pairings: Defense
Erik Johnson-Sam Girard
Nikita Zadorov-Tyson Barrie
Ian Cole-Patrik Nemeth/Mark Barberio
The Avalanche will be running with seven defensemen to start the season. With Zadorov and Nemeth coming back from offseason shoulder surgeries, the staff may switch out the pairing combinations a bit to ease them back into the lineup. In the preseason games, Barberio played some very solid defense with good transitions out of their own zone so he may have won the initial starting spot on the final pairing.
Heading into the offseason, there were a lot of expectations surrounding Conor Timmins when he signed his entry level contract. Due to his lingering concussion symptoms, he wasn’t a full participant in camp and when he’s finally cleared for full practice, Timmins will need time to get into game shape. Expect him to play for quite a while with the Eagles before making the jump to the NHL.
The other story to watch this season concerns Tyson Barrie. The high scoring defenseman is in the second to last year of his contract and will likely want a substantial salary increase. His last contract went all the way through the arbitration process before being resolved minutes before the ruling was due to be released.
With some seriously skilled prospects in the wings, the Avalanche may look at moving Barrie before the trade deadline. Expect the Avalanche to listen to offers. Depending on how the team performs, this could be Barrie’s last year in Colorado.
Between the Pipes
Neither goaltender played exceptionally well in the preseason although that should change once the regular season starts. Initially, Varlamov ought to have the starting spot.
Coach Bednar made it clear, though, that he will put the best player on the ice – regardless of position, opening the door for Grubauer to win the starting role over the course of the season. In an ideal world, both goaltenders rise to the competition and perform admirably.
Because Varlamov has battled injuries and the Avalanche were forced to go four deep in their goaltending pipeline last year, the team may have another option up their sleeves. Colorado picked up Czech goaltender Pavel Francouz in the offseason. He played the most consistently solid preseason game in net and appeared to win a call-up opportunity should one arise. Francouz will start the season with the Eagles but he could be a sleeper candidate on the goaltending front.
If Grubauer shows he can handle the daily grind of the starting role, Varlamov may end up on the trade block. He is in the final year of his contract and with the team focus on younger players, he could be attractive trade bait for some additional young talent.
First Players in Line for a Call-Up
The forward puzzle is rather interesting for the Avalanche. They had a number of intriguing prospects compete in the preseason. Bednar stated he intends to keep the young players skating and will likely move them up and down between the AHL and NHL depending on the team’s needs at the time. Expect to see Dries and Logan O’Connor in that movement carousel along with Kamenev and first round pick Kaut. Kaut is young and has a lot to learn but he impressed both coaching staff and NHL players with his skill and hockey sense. Kaut also fills a need as a speedy and talented wing. However, he is still getting adjusted to playing on the small North American ice so he is likely to be a more consistent call-up later in the year.
The Avalanche staff really liked Ryan Graves, a defenseman acquired last year in a trade. Of the younger players, he probably has the best chance of getting moved up to the NHL should a longer-term need arise. He is not waiver exempt, though, so the team is not likely to recall him for only a game or two as they would be unwilling to risk losing him to waivers later. That distinction will likely go to Mark Alt, who stepped into an injury riddled defensive corps near the season’s end and brought a dependable, if uninspired, shutdown presence. Of the promising rookies, Sergei Boikov stood out from the pack. He played a solid defensive role as well as showed good hockey sense. Boikov also proved he knew when to pinch in and help the offense. If the team goes with a rookie defenseman, Boikov is the one to watch.
The Avalanche should be able to contend for a playoff spot this season, assuming key players like Johnson and MacKinnon stay healthy and the goaltending tandem perform up to their potential. Injuries were the team’s biggest opponent last season and they are already impacting the starting lineup. However, the Avalanche are deep enough they can weather the normal bumps and grinds of an NHL season as long as most of the wounded are from role players. Losing their number one forward, defenseman or goaltender would prove much more problematic.
The acquisition of Cole over the summer adds some additional talent to the blue line. And Girard, with a year of NHL experience under his belt, should be even better. Both the goaltenders and the defensive corps should be an upgrade over last year.
The team will improve or regress mostly based on how the second-year players perform. Both Jost and Kerfoot looked good in the preseason and Compher played a solid two-way center role. When Andrighetto gets healthy, the Avalanche will have the luxury of tweaking line combinations to maximize complimentary skillsets, something that has been missing in the past few years. Instead of plugging holes, the team can start working on developing chemistry between players. All of the changes should improve secondary scoring and lift some of the load off the MacKinnon line.
The final hurdle for the Avalanche making the postseason may be the competition within their own division. Colorado saw a lot of their division foes beef up their teams in the offseason. Yet, some of the same flaws remain on their rivals as last year. Aside from the Winnipeg Jets and the Nashville Predators – who should be as challenging as last year – the rest of the division should be up for grabs. The Minnesota Wild run the oldest forwards in the NHL while the Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues made changes without serious upgrades (no, the addition of Ryan O’Reilly isn’t going to catapult the Blues to NHL dominance),
The Avalanche continue to be one of the younger teams in their division and should make huge strides this year in building a solid core without sacrificing their commitment to growing younger and faster. The coaching staff will be entering their second NHL season working together and knowing the players. And Colorado has developed a quality pipeline, with their AHL affiliate close by and lots of eyes on it. The Avalanche learned a lot of lessons from last year and they are motivated to establish themselves as consistent postseason competitors. There is a lot to be excited about this year as the Avalanche prove they are worthy of respect.
2018-19 Record Prediction: 45-29-8, 98 points (3rd in the Central Division, 6th in the Western Conference, 10th in the NHL)