As the Colorado Avalanche skate into the heart of their preseason matchups, some stories are moving to the forefront. Training camp laid the foundation for watching the player usage, but there are some key issues to be addressed before the regular season starts. The first piece in the three-part series on the Avalanche roster will cover the forward positions, which could see a substantial shakeup.
1. Will the Nathan MacKinnon Line Get Scoring Help?
Last year, the forward line combination of Nathan MacKinnon-Gabriel Landeskog-Mikko Rantanen dominated the Avalanche’s scoring. But the team never really developed another consistent scoring threat.
The Avalanche ranked 10th among all NHL teams in scoring, with 255 goals potted over the course of the regular season. Of those 255 goals scored, the ‘9’ line scored 93 of those goals, with the remainder spread out among the team. Nathan MacKinnon racked up a career high 97 points alone. The next closest forward, outside of the three leaders, was Alexander Kerfoot who notched 19 goals, 20 fewer than MacKinnon. Kerfoot also shuffled through linemates throughout the season, so the Avalanche really lacked a quality ‘one-two’ forward punch.
This year, the Avalanche are working on finding the right chemistry to form a second quality scoring line. It’s a tall order, as they were unsuccessful in finding the right formula last year. But this season brings a few extra pieces to consider. There are a handful of newcomers who could bring the necessary spark to ignite a stronger second line.
During training camp, the Avalanche rolled out a line of Matt Calvert-J.T. Compher-Logan O’Connor. Over the course of camp, the threesome looked to be developing a comfort level with each other which could turn into something special. Calvert was acquired during free agency, and O’Connor was signed to an entry-level contract this past spring. The coaching staff appears to be keeping a close eye on O’Connor.
Another line worth following consists of Tyson Jost-Martin Kaut-Alexander Kerfoot. Kaut is the 18-year old first round draft pick and is a long shot to make the team. But Jost and Kerfoot would benefit from being paired with a guy who doesn’t mind being a nuisance in front of the net and doesn’t hesitate to shoot. Kaut has those abilities, so the question becomes can he catch up to the speed of the NHL game in time for this season? He’s an outlier to make the club, but Kaut could prove to be the right piece to create another dangerous scoring threat.
2. Who Will Be Carl Soderberg’s Linemates?
One of the more subtle stories from last season concerned the resurgence of Carl Soderberg. Soderberg, an under-appreciated key to the forward corps, took a lot of the heavy workload last year. He averaged 17:21 in average ice time per game and logged a huge amount of minutes on the penalty kill. The only forwards with more ice time were Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen — the forwards who got the lion’s share of power play time. Soderberg took the second highest number of face-offs and proved to be the solid defensive center the young group needed.
Soderberg played on a line with Blake Comeau and Matt Nieto, anchoring the ‘third’ line, although they frequently took the tough face-offs. But Blake Comeau is gone and a number of young players are expected to improve their game. So who will be Soderberg’s wingmen now? If past experience is any indication, this question needs to be answered sooner rather than later. While Soderberg’s limited vision hasn’t hampered his abilities, in the past he has benefited from having more playing time with his linemates.
During training camp, Soderberg often lined up with Matt Nieto and Gabriel Bourque. But Bourque seems fairly limited in his role, mostly relegated to fourth line minutes and the penalty kill. While Comeau was effective on the penalty kill, he also helped match up against some of the top lines in the NHL, something that Bourque would be hard pressed to replicate. The real question becomes whether the younger crew can up their game to push Soderberg down to the fourth line. Second-year skaters like Kerfoot or Compher could be likely candidates, should they find solid linemates. Otherwise, one of them could end up taking Comeau’s and/or Nieto’s former role on the wings.
Either way, it’s one of the more interesting, though overlooked, stories to watch in the preseason.
3. Will a Rookie Forward Make the Avalanche Roster?
The Avalanche have very few open roster slots. In fact, with their offseason acquisition of Calvert, Colorado already has 12 veteran forwards. That makes for slim pickings for the young rookies. They not only need to play their best hockey, they will need to play better than someone who has more NHL experience.
There are a couple of veteran players who could be fighting to maintain a spot on the opening night lineup. Bourque, as previously discussed, seems relegated to fourth line minutes. However, whoever wants to take his place will need to show some serious penalty kill skills, one of Bourque’s unique strengths.
Another veteran who could be vulnerable is Colin Wilson. He came to the Avalanche last year battling an injury and seemed to get injured again every time he started contributing. He looked solid if unimpressive during training camp, so beating him out for a starting position could be a tough order.
The other veterans to surpass could include Matt Nieto and Calvert. However, both players signed contracts with the Avalanche in the offseason, so pushing them out of the lineup could be a challenge.
Two key rookies to watch for time and usage are Vladislav Kamenev and Logan O’Connor. Kamenev showed well in the AHL last year but was injured in his first appearance for the Avalanche, missing over half the season. This past week the coaching staff stated Kamenev will have to earn his starting spot, a caution he should take seriously.
While Kamenev got a warning shot, the staff have continued to laud the praises of O’Connor, the former DU Pioneer. O’Connor looked effective in camp but his strength shines in actual game play. He shows good ice awareness, solid positioning and quick reflexes, and he’s good at re-directing shots back on net. It’s a skill the Avalanche need and he may very well earn a roster spot.
The outlier for making the team is Martin Kaut. While he played in the Czech leagues, the NHL is stronger and faster. Kaut showed flashes of skill during camp as he adjusted to the speed of the game, fighting to catch up to how rapidly decisions need to be made. Kaut did improve with each practice, though. The Avalanche also had him playing with some of their more skilled skaters, so the organization is giving him every chance to make the team. He could be a dark horse candidate for a roster spot.
The Avalanche forward corps could see a lot of shifting between now and the start of the season. While the MacKinnon line looks to be set, all the others are up for grabs. The competition should be exciting to watch over the next couple weeks. Either way, the Avalanche should come out of camp with a better combination of skaters. Hopefully, they will find another scoring line as well as solid line combinations. There’s a lot on the line for the forwards, making them a key story in the preseason.