Now, first things first. The easy choice for this would be everyone’s new favourite, Cale Makar. After the small glimpse we got of him in the Colorado Avalanche’s playoff run last season, it’s pretty clear he has the potential to be a dynamic game-changer on the back end come his first regular-season game in the NHL. You don’t trade a guy like Tyson Barrie coming off a career-high 59 points in 78 games played if you don’t have a guy like Makar who can immediately step into the void left behind by his absence. For that reason, and the fact that, as a rookie, it’s less breaking out and more bursting onto the scene, I am going to refrain from talking about him anymore. That being said, let’s take a look at three guys who I believe will have breakout seasons for the Avalanche in 2019-20.
Andre Burakovsky never lived up to his potential with the Washington Capitals. Drafted 23rd overall, he has shown flashes of elite offensive potential. He is a big body (6-foot-2, 198 pounds) who can play with an edge to his game, a very solid skater who is deceptively quick for his size (similar to Mikko Rantanen), and he comes equipped with what at times can be a lethal shot.
His real upside, though, comes from his fantastic hands and puck handling ability, which is what really stands out when you watch him play. From all of that, it sounds like he is quite a steal for just Scott Kosmachuk and two picks in 2020, one in the second round and one in the third. The real problem, though, with Burakovsky has been consistency. Some nights you could have watched a Capitals game and thought he should have been getting first-line minutes alongside Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. But then other nights it’s like he was hardly on the ice, sometimes looking lost like he didn’t belong. Now some would argue a lot of his struggles to this point are due to a lack of opportunity.
But that argument goes both ways in the sense that you need to perform in order to deserve the opportunity. One way or another we will find out this season as he finds himself in a position to play up in the lineup with some very talented players. More than likely he will start the season on a second line consisting of himself, Nazem Kadri, and Tyson Jost. If that group is able to find some sort of chemistry with one another it could give Burakovsky what he’s been wanting his whole career: consistent linemates in a high-minute role. All in all, his acquisition was a very low-risk move for the Avalanche with a lot of potential upside. Giving him an opportunity to play up in the lineup, I believe, will reward the Avalanche and their fans with career highs across the board. My prediction? Twenty-eight goals and 21 assists for 49 points.
It isn’t a coincidence that two-thirds of the players mentioned are part of that new-look second line. Much like Burakovsky, Jost is a player who hasn’t lived up to his potential to this point with the Avalanche. That being said, I believe that is about to change. Drafted 10th overall, he has shown glimpses at the NHL level to afford him such a high draft position. But for the most part, he has been unable to find consistency. He differs from Burakovsky mainly in the sense that he has been afforded opportunities to play up in prominent positions in the lineup. However, he also has seen constant change when it comes to linemates as well as position, whether it be centre or on the wing.
Consistency can be a huge thing for players at the NHL level, and just like Burakovsky, Jost is going to find himself in a position to play with consistent linemates in a top-six role. The addition of Kadri also means that Jost can now continue to focus solely as a winger as opposed to switching positions, and he should, of course, also see minutes on the second power play unit.
To this point in his career, depth scoring has been a huge issue for the Avalanche. Now, for the first time, he will have an opportunity to play with a proven 30-goal scorer in Kadri and a guy who has flashed that potential in Burakovsky. In my opinion, as the other two are most definitely goal scorers, Jost will be required to do a bulk of the playmaking/facilitating of the line. This is not the primary role he has been asked to perform in the past, however, with the talent now around him, I believe it’s a role he will thrive in. With career highs of 12 goals, 16 assists, and 26 points. Just like Burakovsky, those are all career highs I predict Jost will break. Fifteen goals and 38 assists for a total of 53 points seems about right for the young forward.
Phillip Grubauer, now affectionately known as “GRUUUUUU” to Avalanche fans, has quietly been one of the best backups in the NHL since the 2015-16 season. Over that four-year stretch, he has averaged roughly 30 games played, a 2.34 goals-against average GAA), and .920 save percentage (SV%) split across three seasons with the Capitals and last season with the Avalanche. After the 2017-18 season, one in which he hoisted the Stanley Cup with Washington, he felt he deserved an opportunity to be a starter in the NHL and knew he would not get that opportunity playing behind an elite goaltender in Braden Holtby.
As a result, the Avalanche acquired him in what remains, in my opinion, the second-best trade made in general manager Joe Sakic’s tenure with the team. By trading for Grubauer, the Avalanche gave him the chance to earn the starter’s role. They also signed him to a contract extension for three years at a cap hit of roughly $3.3 million. It wasn’t a perfect start to his tenure in Colorado. He spent the majority of the early season backing up Semyon Varlamov, and from Dec. 22 to Feb. 12, he appeared in only eight games (five starts) with a 4.42 GAA, .855 SV%, allowing 28 goals en route to a 1-4-0 record.
The turnaround came on Feb. 23, a 5-0 shutout win against the Nashville Predators in which Grubauer made 38 saves and looked dominant. After that performance, and with Varlamov’s continued struggles, he took over the starting role down the stretch. That stretch was crucial to the Avalanche making the postseason. In his last 13 regular-season games, he posted a record of 9-2-2, a 1.44 GAA, a .956 SV%, and three shutouts to lead Colorado to the second wild card in the Western Conference. His play only elevated in the playoffs where he put up a 7-5 record, with a 2.30 GAA, and a .925 SV%. He led the team to a commanding upset of the Calgary Flames and pushed the San Jose Sharks to the brink in a closely-contested seven-game series.
With his play down the stretch and in the postseason, Grubauer fully solidified himself as the starter going forward. This made Varlamov expendable, which allowed Sakic to let him walk and free up cap space elsewhere down the road. Grubauer is heading into what will now be his first NHL season as a full-time starter and I expect him to continue from where he left off. Not only are the Avalanche much better in front of him now both defensively and offensively, but for the first time in his career, he is the guy, and after his showing in the latter half of last season there is no doubt in my mind he’s earned it. A new career high in games played is an absolute given for the 27-year-old. My prediction? He will start 65 games with a 2.60 GAA and a .920 SV% and become one of the better starting goaltenders in the NHL.