The Colorado Avalanche are days away from starting the new season and it’s time to take a flying leap and issue some preseason awards. It’s fun, it’s only a little serious, and it’s the perfect way to wind down the last few days before the season opener. Without further ado, time to break out the toasts for the winners of the preseason awards that really matter.
Most Intense Player
Nathan MacKinnon runs away with this award hands down. He is the guy who slammed his stick on the ice after not scoring in an INFORMAL PRACTICE.
If anyone thinks the big star has returned this season to rest on his laurels, they haven’t been paying attention. He started informal skates early, worked out all offseason and started training camp yelling at players who weren’t hustling. This guy gives ‘intense’ new meaning. ‘Fierce competitor’ may be more accurate.
He led in team scoring with 99 points during the regular season, his second 90-plus scoring effort in a row, good for seventh-best in the league the past season. He finished second on the team in postseason scoring with 13 points, one behind Mikko Rantanen. And based on his performance so far, does anyone doubt he wants to knock Connor McDavid out of the conversation for the best overall player?
MacKinnon is also a double winner in today’s awards. He’s also the player most likely to get overlooked during awards season. Small market teams just don’t get respect.
Most Playful Player
The award for playful player goes to defenseman Nikita Zadorov. Really, the recognition is for his zest for life, his willingness to embrace a child-like wonder. He’s light-hearted, he’s kind with fans, and he’s able to live in the moment. He doesn’t take things too seriously.
Who could forget his Gladiator pose, arms upraised, asking “Are you not entertained?” as he was being led off the ice.
Zadorov’s spirited nature has occasionally gotten him in trouble for not taking some things seriously enough. He had a couple of rough moments when coach Jared Bednar came on the scene. But Zadorov loves hockey enough to jump through the hoops, once he knows the expectations are enforced.
He’s an interesting conundrum. The same player who won’t hesitate to give a stick to a kid also led the team in hits last year, laying out the “Z-smash” 228 times, for an average of 3.3 hits per game. Who said you couldn’t have fun AND play hockey?
Most Underrated Player
Oddly enough, this award goes to the captain, Gabriel Landeskog. Whether it’s his pretty-boy looks or his general pleasantness, his on-ice performance frequently goes under the radar due to the high-flying numbers of his linemates – MacKinnon and Rantanen. He racked up 75 points last season and only had one season below 50 points in the last six years (in the 48-point season nobody wants to remember).
His value, though, goes beyond his scoring. He is a solid two-way player who unselfishly takes and/or gives a hit to open up the ice for his linemates, dishes off beautifully accurate passes, and deflects pucks into the net like a mad man. His consistently reliable play and his ability to hold a locker room together make him something special (especially after the season that never happened). That alone deserves a medal.
Most Anxiety Inducing Player(s)
This award goes to the four new players – Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, Andre Burakovsky, and Pierre-Eduard Bellemare. While all of the players have NHL caliber skill sets, how they mesh with the team is still a work in progress.
Kadri looked good at training camp but his line is still in flux. Donskoi seems eager to prove he’s worthy of a bigger role and has taken steps to earn it. Burakovsky has shown flashes of speed and skill but his role/line is still a question mark. And Bellemare made two bubble players (A.J. Greer and Logan O’Connor) look impressive early in camp but will his magic work on his final line combination?
In a vacuum, these players look like solid additions. But the Avalanche no longer have Carl Soderbergand Alexander Kerfoot, two important pieces who helped the team advance to the playoffs and held key roles in pushing through to Game 7 of the second round. With Colin Wilson returning from injury, it adds another wrinkle.
The four musketeers could be vital in helping elevate the Avalanche play or they could be talented players without any real chemistry with their teammates. Thus, most anxiety-inducing.
Destined to Be a Dynamic Duo
Goaltenders Philip Grubauer and Pavel Francouz will be the Avalanche’s one-two punch in net. And many analysts have questioned their ability. Both have a history of success without building a huge reputation on the national stage. They are almost undercover. Dare we say – masked?
To the average person who hasn’t really paid attention to the Avalanche, they look like everyday guys. But to devout followers of the team, they could be superheroes. Can anyone question Grubauer’s amazing leg save in Game 4 of the Calgary Flames playoff series? Or his incredible play to help the team get into the playoffs?
How about his solid work throughout the postseason? Only three goaltenders had more playoff wins and he finished in fifth place* (among goaltenders who played in more than one postseason contest) in saves and goals against average (GAA). Not bad for his first playoff run as a starter. But to outsiders, he’s just a regular millionaire playboy. It’s okay, superheroes thrive with a secret identity.
But what’s a superhero without a sidekick?
Pavel Francouz backstopped the upstart Czech Republic national team before joining the Colorado Eagles last year. He finished his first AHL season tied for fifth place in save percentage (SV%), earned the AHL MVP (most valuable player) of the Week down the stretch, and all while learning how to adapt to playing on North American ice. He also played in relief for two NHL games where he averaged a .943 SV%, stopping 33 of 35 shots on goal. Both games the starting goaltender had a SV% below .800 before Francouz took over the crease.
Could Grubauer and Francouz be the Avalanche version of Batman and Robin? Cap and Bucky? Cable and Deadpool? Only time will tell. Tune into the regular season, same bat-time, same bat (radio)-channel.
The Smarty-Pants Boy Band Line
The Avalanche have been blessed to have some young, good-looking college guys on the team in recent years. For the past couple years, forward Alexander Kerfoot headed up the intelligent, skilled trio who occasionally skated together. But, alas, Kerfoot left the group, leaving his remaining line mates – J.T. Compher and Tyson Jost – in need of a replacement.
It didn’t take long before videos of Jost and new acquisition, defenseman Cale Makar, filled the Avalanche social media timeline. Yes, indeed. Kerfoot’s new successor on the smarty-pants boy band line is none other than Mr. Makar. While he won’t actually be skating on the same line, the off-ice combo looks destined to inflame fandom.
Yes, Makar’s hair does resemble actual kale, but his rosy cheeks match Compher’s ginger hair and the impish smile gives Jost some competition. And like both, he played hockey in college, skating for UMass. Expect throngs of teen girls lining the ice with cutesy placards and a boatload of social media videos. It’s enough to drive everyone else to drink. Thus, the name – smarty-pants boy band line. It lives!
Least Flustered Av
Determining the award for person most likely to appear calm, cool, and collected is actually neck-and-neck this year. The term ‘calm’ is an understatement. Both top candidates are so cool under pressure, they must have ice water running through their veins.
One could make a pretty substantial argument that the GM who outwaited all of his critics to trade Matt Duchene for an embarrassment of riches and who held out on signing star Mikko Rantanen to a Toronto Maple Leafs’ bankrupting contract – the inimitable Joe Sakic – deserves this award.
However, coach Bednar is the current frontrunner. He’s managed to weather enough youth-oriented mistakes to make one’s head spin, questionable officiating that impacted high-stake games, locker-room dramas, an irate MacKinnon, an unruly Zadorov, and disruptive personnel changes – all while never appearing to break a sweat.
Did he break the plexiglass Patrick Roy-style when an opposing coach harassed his players? No. But make no mistake, Bednar’s steely-eyed glares communicate everything important without a word being spoken. Maybe he’s part android – without the emotion chip. Or maybe he’s the Terminator. It’s hard to tell. Either way, there’s no doubt he’s proven to be unflappable, a trait essential for a dynamic young team with great aspirations.
Gift Baskets for All
And that rounds out the preseason awards – the ones that should be handed out but aren’t. Maybe someday they will get a gift basket.
The Avalanche home opener is right around the corner when the real festivities begin. Whether the team proves to be superheroes or not, they are poised for an exciting season, with plenty on the line. Until then, count your blessings. The Avalanche are finally contenders.