Avalanche

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly from the Avalanche season

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Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Avalanche made great strides this year. After a surprisingly resurgent effort, it’s time to break down the season with an eye towards the offseason in this week’s the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

THE GOOD

1. At the risk of being redundant, the youngest team in the NHL made the first round of the playoffs and took the President’s Trophy winners to six games while missing a healthy number one goaltender, losing their number two goaltender and without their top defenseman. That’s not just good, that’s amazing!

2. Arguably the best story in hockey was the Colorado Avalanche bounce back season, turning from a dismal 47 point season last year to a 95 point season and a postseason berth this year. If the Vegas Golden Knights hadn’t soared from the power of the new franchise rules and played their way through the record books, Colorado’s turnaround would be the story of the year.

It may be to the Avalanche’s advantage the Knights have stolen their thunder, though. While everyone is focusing on Vegas, Colorado can continue to build up a sneaky good team. Let the bright lights stay on the strip while the Avalanche quietly go about the business of building for ongoing success, without all the hoopla. Distraction is a weapon, folks. Hopefully, Sakic & Co. wield it well.

3. Jared Bednar and crew made significant headway this year. A big question coming into the season was whether the players would buy in to his coaching style and strategies. The players answered with a resounding YES – a fun and exciting hockey season ensued. The team played a thrill-seeking and opportunistic brand of hockey which quickly engaged the audience. The players seemed to enjoy competing. In a refreshing change of pace, the Avalanche adapted play between periods and mixed line matchups as needed. So much good it’s almost enough to make one ask where’s the party. At the Pepsi Can, of course.

4. Captain Gabriel Landeskog deserves some HUGE props for the culture change in the locker room. Bednar said he left the locker room to the captain and that appears to be a stroke of genius. The players enjoyed hanging out as well as playing together while competing with each other for starting spots and positions. After last year’s toxic mix, the joy and camaraderie are nothing short of a miracle. Between the shift in the atmosphere, the perfect hair, the shirt off interview, one can hardly wait to see what the cap’ will pull off next. Is walking on water on the agenda for next year? Oh wait, he already skates on water. Maybe water into wine, then?

Oh, and did anyone notice he led the team in scoring during the playoff run? Maybe he will be able to resurrect the faceoff wins next year. How many miracles does he need to perform to nominate him for sainthood?

5. The emergence of Nate the Great this year marks one of the biggest stories of the season. He racked up career-high points, finished fifth in the scoring race (would have been higher if he hadn’t missed games to injury), and pushed the team forward, even when other things weren’t working. But the more subtle changes led to a lot of the more flashy results. MacKinnon learned to switch up his speed, so he wasn’t always barreling down the ice. He changed tempo to shake off attackers, learned to use his shoulders to blow through opponents, and adapted his positioning to protect the puck. With that kind of learning curve, what does next year hold for Nathan MacKinnon?

6. Mikko Rantanen and his 84 points in his second year in the NHL proved to be an interesting – and often overlooked – story as well. The truly crazy thing about Rantanen though, with some tweaking in a couple of areas, he could become an even more dominant scoring machine. He may even learn a few new tricks while competing internationally. It’s tough to predict his ceiling as he keeps improving. Such a difficult problem, a guy is too good and continues to improve.

7. Defenseman Tyson Barrie had arguably his best season in an Avalanche uniform. He hit a career-high for points and assists. But the most impressive change to Barrie’s game came from his improved defensive play. When Erik Johnson went down, Barrie found a new level to his defensive game, surprising nearly everyone. At 26, seeing a veteran continue to evolve his game deserves a ton of credit. And ice cream. Barrie needs blizzards!

8. Defenseman Nikita Zadorov’s season got off to a rocky start but boy did he hit his stride as the season wore on. And his performance in the playoffs, wow. Just wow. Zadorov led the league in regular season hits with 278 (24 more than the next highest player) and ranked seventh in the postseason for the number of hits per game played having logged 28 in the six matchups. His game evolved as he learned when to pinch in and when to stay at home, when to shoot and when to pass. But the most impressive part of his play showed up in the space he made on the ice, as opponents attempted to move around him, rather than through him, creating openings for Avalanche players to skate through. He deserves some big Russian gift baskets, with lots of Vodka – the good kind, not the cheap stuff. And maybe an extension on his contract.

9. Remember the Duchene trade in November and everyone thought Colorado’s season was over? Yeah, good times. Credit Joe Sakic for sticking to his game plan and going younger and faster. He mentioned in his end of year comments a desire to go possibly even younger and faster. That seems a tall order but he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. He will have some money to play with this offseason so it should be exciting to see the front office try to work some magic. Again, this may be the time for prayer. Intense prayer. So they don’t sign some aging vet to a long contract and block the young guns' development.

10. The rookies – all of them – deserve a ton of credit for continuing to improve as the season wore on. Tyson Jost, J.T. Compher, Alexander Kerfoot, Sam Girard, and even Dominic Toninato showed flashes of things to come, and - it looks good, people. Really, really good.

11. Carl Soderberg's return as a shutdown centerman this year was nothing short of astounding. After such a dismal performance last year, many wondered if his better days were behind him but he played with grit, physicality and surprising awareness, earning 37 points this season. Last year, he had 14. ‘Nuff said.

12. Defenseman Patrik Nemeth played a quietly solid defensive game throughout the year. The waiver wire pickup finished the regular season with a +27, on a team that had not a single positive plus/minus player last year. He ranks in fifth in the playoffs this year for blocked shots per game, with 20 over six contests as well as fifth in the regular season for total shots blocked. His consistency helped fill the holes left by injuries and helped anchor the blueline down the stretch. For a waiver wire pickup, he was a steal. All pirates should approve this acquisition.

13. Goaltending bailed this team out a number of times and goaltending by proxy, due to injuries, actually worked. Semyon Varlamov returned and appeared healthy for long stretches but injuries again played a role in his season. He managed a .920 save average, placing him in the middle of the pack for goaltenders. Jonathan Bernier stepped up admirably before injuries struck him as well. He earned a respectable .913 save percentage. Andrew Hammond pulled out a spectacular postseason game with 44 saves and finished with a .939 save average. Colorado allowed the third highest shots against per game during the regular season yet finished 15th in goals allowed. Hard to find enough gift baskets to thank them for their ability to cover those high shot numbers.

THE BAD (but improving)

1. Take a moment to consider how the series against the Nashville Predators might have played out if Nashville was missing P.K. Subban, Ryan Ellis, or Roman Josi instead of the Avalanche missing Erik Johnson. What if Pekka Rinne had played injured or missed the series altogether – like Bernier and Varlamov? It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see Colorado advancing out of the matchup if the Injury Zone hadn’t taken out such key pieces. It’s the kind of ‘bad’ that leaves one hankering after the ‘what ifs’. But it should also bring a great deal of hope for next season, and that is a world of improvement after last year.

2. Losing Varlamov to injury was not good. Having Bernier in the wings was an improvement. Bernier getting injured was really not good. Fortunately, Sakic acquired Andrew Hammond in the Duchene deal so Colorado had a third goaltender to fill the void. But since Spencer Martin hasn’t progressed as hoped, the goaltender pipeline probably needs more attention. It’s a case of ‘a work in progress’. Let’s all hope significant progress is made in the offseason.

THE UGLY (growth opportunities)

1. The number of injuries to key parts of the team revealed the team still needs to work on depth. While they have made huge strides, there is still more to be done. Colorado has eight draft picks this year so the scouting crew better be on the mark and make the selections count. If the team truly wants to go younger and faster, they will need to hit on more of their draft selections than not. Everyone, cross your fingers and say your prayers. Maybe even sacrifice a bucket of fried chicken. Hey, somebody has to take one for the good of the team.

2. Losing Erik Johnson, especially for the postseason, proved the Avalanche could still use some help on the blue line. Even with rookie Sam Girard’s impressive debut, the Avalanche ended up rotating third pairing blueliners and limiting their minutes, putting a strain on the top four. The team could really use another anchor guy or someone who can become an anchor guy. Players like Johnson don’t grow on trees, and maybe newly signed prospect Connor Timmins can become that guy. But it never hurts to have more than one. And stocking the cupboards on the blueline can only help. Look at Nashville, they have quality defensemen galore, and can trade them for key assets.

3. Moving the AHL affiliate out of San Antonio to the Eagles in Loveland marks a huge step forward for working with the young prospects. Changing the development program would help even more. Sharing an affiliate this year was…not ideal. Yeah, let’s go with that. But key players didn’t get the ice time or attention to develop their game. While the shared affiliation created some issues this year, player development at the minor league levels has been an ongoing issue for the Avalanche.

Now is the time to shift how Colorado handles player development. Coach Bednar and his crew need to be able to call up players ready to fill in holes caused by injuries, not spend days or weeks getting them up to speed. One wonders what Colorado could have accomplished if they had done a better job managing and developing the talent at the lower levels. A lot of the hope for the Avalanche’s future hinges on serious shifts in player development. Sometimes change hurts, but it’s better than the pain from stagnation. Will Colorado actually make those changes? Only the Shadow knows.

RECOGNITION

1. Nathan MacKinnon’s season garnered enough notice to become one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy for Most Valuable Player (as determined by the Professional Hockey Writers Association) as well as a finalist for the Ted Lindsay Award (from the NHLPA), the players’ selection for the most outstanding player. It’s amazing what a 97-point season will do for a player.

2. Coach Jared Bednar was named one of the three finalists for the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year. While it’s well-deserved recognition, one may hope Bednar remains a finalist without actually winning. Of the twelve most recent winners after the lockout season, five coaches left their organizations within three years. Only the two most recent winners are with the same teams. If longevity with the team is a goal, Bednar might want to enjoy being a finalist and leave the actual award to someone else.

3. The Avalanche currently have four players who will be playing in the IIHF World Championships – Mikko Rantanen for Finland, Sven Andrighetto for Switzerland, Tyson Jost for Canada, and newly acquired Pavel Francouz for the Czech Republic. Both Gabriel Landeskog and Patrik Nemeth received invitations to join Sweden but declined due to injuries as did Nikita Zadorov who was invited to play for Russia.

WHAT TO WATCH

1.The Stanley Cup playoffs continue to heat up as only eight teams remain.

2.The IHF World Championship will showcase some talent from across the league as well as some up and comers.

3.Keep an eye on who the Avalanche extend. The following players have expiring contracts:

Unrestricted Free Agents – Blake Comeau, Gabriel Bourque, Mark Barberio, Mark Alt, Jonathan Bernier, and Andrew Hammond.

Restricted Free Agents – Matt Nieto, Nail Yakupov, Patrik Nemeth, Duncan Siemens, and Spencer Martin.

4.The Draft will take place June 22-23. The Avalanche have eight picks and a lot of cap room. They may trade, they may sign free agents,  they may try to stock the cupboards with prospects, who knows? But it should be exciting to follow.

The Colorado Avalanche provided a thrilling ride to the postseason in a year full of unexpected fun and excitement. It was sheer joy to watch this team grow and play together. Hopefully, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly helped share that sense of fun in the midst of competition, bringing you some insights and some laughs this year. The offseason will still have plenty of action, so keep alert, savvy?

May you find fair winds and following seas, me hearties!



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