The Colorado Avalanche faced adversity early in the season and yet found ways to overcome. Despite losing a rotating host of starting players, the team fought to stay near the top of the standings, earning key wins to keep their season – and their playoff hopes – alive.
Forwards – The Line Combo Carousel
The Avalanche forward line combinations became a jumble only a few weeks into the season as the team lost two of their top-line starters within a couple of games of each other. They have had five forwards missing for a good portion of November, although some of the names have changed. For resiliency, adaptability and persistency, as a whole, they earn an A.
Individually, there’s a wide range covering 17 different players. Since the team is in the playoff hunt despite injuries, don’t expect to see a failing grade.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare – B+ Bellemare has been a pleasant surprise centering the Avalanche fourth line. He has a way of making his linemates better and is opportunistic in pushing the play while not being high risk on the defensive end. He has struggled playing higher in the lineup, which is the only reason he doesn’t have an A.
Andre Burakovsky – B+ Burakovsky seems to be finding the scoring skills many hoped he had but hadn’t realized with the Washington Capitals. He currently leads the Avalanche in game-winning goals. The 24-year-old also seems to be improving the more time he plays on a line with Nathan MacKinnon. It could be something to watch as the injured players return.
Matt Calvert – A Calvert proved he could move up and down the lineup, playing with MacKinnon as well as Bellemare. Equally tough, regardless of position, Calvert has been one of the team’s most consistent performers. He brings his best effort to each game and is unafraid to take on any opponent.
J.T. Compher – C+ He gets a lower grade not because Compher hasn’t played well, but because there’s a good chance there’s more to his game. While he’s done a good job minimizing his penalty minutes, he shows flashes of being a better scorer. His two-way play has been solid.
Joonas Donskoi – B Donskoi has been a good addition to the team, playing some physical hockey and unafraid to challenge opponents for puck possession. Though he seemed to find some chemistry playing on the second line, he has been able to keep up with MacKinnon on the top line and help creating scoring chances.
Tyson Jost – C Like Compher, Jost’s grade is based more on not seeing him play to his potential. Playoff Jost was amazing last season. While he’s been good at times this season, he hasn’t consistently hit last year’s peaks. He definitely looked better when centering a line, though. The Avalanche need to quit playing him at wing. That’s not using his strengths.
Nazem Kadri – B Kadri has been an excellent addition to the team, providing the second line center they have needed for years. With the injury bug in high gear, he’s done a good job adapting to different line combinations and working in different roles. However, he has yet to really look comfortable scoring. Thus, a B.
Vladislav Kamenev – B For a guy who started the season as a healthy scratch, Kamenev has made good use of his limited role once activated. He has the most points (one goal, three assists) of anyone averaging less than 10 minutes a night on the ice. He’s been a solid fourth-line center who positions himself well and seems to be improving as he plays more games. Why the team isn’t using him more is a mystery.
Gabriel Landeskog – Incomplete The injured captain only played in 11 games and seemed to be working on finding his rhythm on the top line. He’s still in a second place for game-winning goals on the team, though, so one hopes he can return sooner rather than later. He’s missed a month of play and his return date is a question mark. Missing him has hurt the team. Maybe the incomplete grade will help motivate him. Until then, the jury is out.
Nathan MacKinnon – A- MacKinnon has accomplished an amazing feat. He has proven to be a powerhouse offensive weapon with several different line combinations. Everyone expected him to excel with Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, but he also learned to adapt when they went down and played impressively with Calvert and Donskoi. He’s worked well with Kadri, too, and his chemistry with Cale Makar is undeniable. He could still stand to improve on his defensive play, thus the A-.
Jayson Megna – C – Megna filled in some roster holes as the injuries racked up. He only averaged 6:43 in ice time over eight appearances, so it’s hard to evaluate his performance. As a Colorado Eagle player, he shines. On the NHL ice, not so much.
Valeri Nichushkin – C+ He was going to get a C- but his play has improved over the last handful of games. Nichushkin brings some much needed size to a team who has lost too many of their bigger bodies to injuries. Yet, he has one less assist than Kamenev while averaging three more minutes per night than him. He doesn’t seem like an upgrade on Kamenev, so his increased usage seems odd.
Matt Nieto – C Nieto has been solid up and down the lineup as he has been moved all over. When he was playing consistently with Bellemare and Calvert, he played better than when the injuries forced line changes. Hopefully, as players get healthy, Nieto can return to a flashier role.
Logan O’Connor – Incomplete Three games for a total of 25:24 in ice time is not sufficient to analyze his game play. He didn’t look bad, though.
Mikko Rantanen – Incomplete Nine games at the start of the season were enough for Rantanen to rack up two game-winning goals, putting him in a second-place tie on the team. However, the top line still seemed to be working on chemistry when he got injured. Hopefully, he will be able to ramp up quickly when he returns. He gets an incomplete because he’s been out for a month, missed training camp, and hadn’t found his groove before the injury.
T.J. Tynan – C+ In eight games, Tynan has not found a way to score. However, he’s playing on the fourth line most of the time, so that’s not saying much. He’s filling in solidly and has been more reliable than Megna.
Colin Wilson – Incomplete He’s only managed to play in nine games and has been dealing with an unspecified injury. He would have gotten a C- for his play as this has not been playoff Wilson. However, lingering/recurring injury issues may be a factor in his play. When he returns, it will be easier to see which Wilson the team has.
Defensemen – A Roller Coaster Blue Line
The Avalanche defense has been erratic as the season has progressed, allowing a lot more shots against recently and making costly errors. However, they are also working with a hodgepodge forward lineup and the next man up in goaltending. As a unit, they are a C. Individually, as with the forwards, there’s more variation.
Mark Barberio – C Barberio has played in seven games, filling in as a third-pairing defenseman. He hasn’t been spectacularly good or bad, but he’s an upgrade on previous blueliners in this role. However, he has struggled to keep pace with the team as it has evolved.
Ian Cole – C This has not been an impressive start to the season for Cole. Since he’s coming back from double hip surgery, it’s hard to evaluate where he’ll end up for the season. Currently, he shows flashes of great, followed by a lot of average, and then a dumb and costly penalty in nearly every game. Playing third-pairing minutes is quite a change for him, though.
Kevin Connauton – Incomplete Connauton played one game with the team on the road while Zadorov was still recovering from surgery on his jaw. He logged a fair amount of time on ice and played an unremarkable game. Unfortunately for him, the Avalanche system doesn’t seem a good fit.
Sameul Girard – B- The whirling tornado has been solid in many facets of the game, but he’s still learning the top-pairing role. One would like to see him making bigger strides but the team has faced some tough competition. His biggest area of improvement has been handling checks and effectively hitting his opponents. Since he’s got a smaller stature, that could bode well for the rest of the season.
Ryan Graves – C+ Graves has a few holes in his game that have created some challenges. However, he’s also played a lot of solid penalty-kill minutes. If he can get better at positioning himself and reading the opposition, he could have good potential. Right now, he’s a work in progress who has been a mixed bag.
Erik Johnson – B Johnson continues to be a stalwart on the blue line. He leads the team in ice time and penalty kill minutes per game. He has been the most consistent player in the defensive zone. However, he has had a couple of games where he hasn’t played his usual top-notch shutdown role, thus the B.
Cale Makar – A- Makar makes stunning plays and erupted as a scoring threat. He’s also been quite effective at carrying the puck into the offensive zone. Makar does tend to make a few mistakes, mostly in the first period of games, that reminds everyone he’s still a rookie. His season start has been so impressive though, the mistakes don’t seem all that important.
Nikita Zadorov – B The team is better when Zadorov is on the ice. He is an interesting combination of good play and occasional “off” moments. He leads the team in both hits and penalty minutes, and does a great job of opening up lanes for the forwards and settling down foes who might otherwise take liberties with his teammates. He’s also tough and committed, something that’s a nice complement to the speedy, skilled defensemen on the team. Added note: his quick return from injury is amazing.
Goaltenders – Consistently Good
Goaltending epitomized the Avalanche’s “Next Man Up” mentality for the first quarter of the season. The team earned wins with four different goaltenders in the month of November, an accomplishment made possible by key injuries to both the starting and backup goaltender. As a four man unit, they earn a B.
Pavel Francouz – B Francouz stepped up and earned four wins and two losses, saving 92% of the shots he faced (13th in the league). His goals against average (GAA) of allowing 2.56 goals per game is 15th in the NHL, one spot ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Murray. Not bad for a backup. He also managed to bounce back quickly from injury, which is refreshing.
Philipp Grubauer – B+ As the starter, Grubauer has made some spectacular saves to keep the team in games when other parts of the team struggled. Yet, his .910 save percentage is 29th in the NHL and his 2.99 GAA puts him 39th in the league. The team’s defensive lapses and injury trouble factor into those statistics, so that’s not a complete picture.
A healthy Grubauer helps give the team a chance to win every night. His seven wins and five losses puts him in a 21st-place tie for games won, with players like Carter Hart and former Av Semyon Varlamov. That’s pretty good company for a guy opening the season as the team’s starter for the first time in his career.
Goaltending Honorable Mentions
Adam Werner made his NHL debut with the team and earned a 40-shot shutout. Being from Sweden, he started playing on North American ice for the first time in his career this season in the AHL. His second appearance was not as glowing, but the whole team struggled in that contest. His 53 saves on 58 shots raises hopes he could have a promising career.
Antoine Bibeau also won a game as a call-up goaltender, as well as coming in to relieve Werner midway through his second matchup. Bibeau was just returning from injury himself and managed to help backstop the Avalanche to a crucial road win in his second appearance in an Avalanche uniform. He only started in two previous NHL games, both in the 2016-17 season.
Coaching and Front Office – Good, but with Questions
The front office picked up excellent players to flush out the forward corps in the offseason. That alone should earn an A. What the coaching staff has done to adapt to a cascade of injuries, creating new line combinations and pairings, is also worthy of an A. However, combined, they earn a B. Why? Because of player usage.
They elected to call-up AHL veterans like Megna, Tynan, and Connauton instead of giving their young prospects a taste of the NHL. Why players like Shane Bowers and Calle Rosen were not given a chance to play raises some questions. They made similar choices with player usage. Using Connauton on the power play when he struggled with the Avalanche’s pace seems confusing, as does using Kamenev for such limited minutes.
The Avalanche used to favor bringing in aging vets and giving them shots at the lineup over allowing young prospects in their system a chance. Some of the concern may just be residual from the old regime. If, however, the team is actually returning to the old mindset, it could spell trouble down the road.
For now, they get a B, with the hope the questionable player usage issue is situational and not a return to past processes. For now, their ability to stay relevant in the standings earns them the benefit of belief. Or at least, hope.
Grading the Future
The Avalanche have shown signs of wearing down, but that may just be the fallout from a long road trip. Players are starting to make their way back from injuries and that’s hopeful. There may be a period of re-adjustment as the lines and pairings change once again, but the experience of being able to win without key players should build confidence this team can contend with anyone.
Grubauer and Francouz already returned to the lineup. Rantanen is practicing in a regular jersey while Landeskog has just started skating. Johnson is practicing in a no-contact jersey and Calvert is moving his way through protocols after taking a puck to the head. As of yet, there’s no timeline on Wilson.
If players return as hoped, the rest of the NHL should be on alert. The Avalanche are coming like – an avalanche. They are young, fast, and confident. A healthy Avalanche team is a group to be reckoned with. Cue the rose-colored glasses.
J.D. has followed the Colorado Avalanche since the days of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. Blessed to cover the team for nearly 5 seasons, 3 of those at other venues, J.D. enjoys working with the Hockey Writers. Proud parent of three humans and two dogs, you can follow all the escapades @JDKpirate.