While you might not smell the blood, the Colorado Avalanche most certainly do.
With a new NHL season quickly approaching, the Avalanche have their sights set on much more than a mere playoff berth. Heck, they are not even satisfied with a couple playoff victories.
No, they want to claim the grandfather of them all in the Stanley Cup, and they will go through anyone to obtain it.
These might be (no, are) fighting words when discussing other perennial Western Conference powers, including the likes of the St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights or even the Dallas Stars, the team who usurped the Avalanche in seven games during the 2020 Western Conference Second Round. Make no mistake, though – Colorado has shown the resiliency to bounce back, no matter if you look at the talent or the depth of their roster as a new season rises.
How so, though? Where are the significant strengths of this 2021 Avalanche team? Is the ceiling truly that high? Well, let’s dig into it.
If youth is the market inefficiency teams are harnessing on, well, the Avalanche are capitalizing in spades. Although the 2019-20 regular season was shortened due to COVID-19, five players collected 40 or more points and were all 27 or younger: Nathan MacKinnon (93), Cale Makar (50), Andre Burakovsky (45), Gabriel Landeskog (44) and Mikko Rantanen (41). Even when you take out the production of Makar (we’ll get back to the defenseman and the rest of the blueliners in a second), the forward prowess of Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen make up a top-notch line that is in the midst of their youthful prime. Landeskog, in fact, is the “old man” of the bunch (he is now 28). Then there is Burakovsky, who, in addition to Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi and offseason acquisition Brandon Saad (whose 21 goals during the 2020 season ranked third among all Chicago Blackhawks’ skaters), gives Colorado a surplus of supplementary line combinations at even strength and on the man advantage, should Colorado split up the homegrown trio in Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen.
To keep it short and sweet, Colorado scored a ton last season – even with the usual ups and downs of a NHL season, Colorado averaged 3.37 goals per game during the 2019-20 campaign, which ranked fourth among all NHL teams. Although their 19.1 Power Play Percentage (PP%) ranked 19th, the sheer youth, speed, shot savviness and depth should give Colorado the opportunity to improve on the number. Whatever the weather, Colorado will score. It just remains to be seen as to how much.
Colorado’s forward depth runs deep, but there is potential for an argument to be made that their defensive pairings run even deeper. The obvious star of the bunch comes in the 2020 Calder Memorial Trophy winner in Makar himself, whose 12 goals scored, and 50 total tallied points were the most by any Avalanche rookie defenseman in franchise history (and yes, this includes the Quebec Nordiques). Samuel Girard, Ryan Graves and Ian Cole, meanwhile, reinforce the bolstering young star. While the quartet already have established themselves as steady producers on the defensive (and even offensive) end, former New York Islander Devon Toews and 2019 first-rounder Bowen Byram will also vie for steady minutes while checking and regaining control of the puck when transitioning through all zones of play. While it might take time for the pairings to solidify, Colorado has options. A team can never have enough defensemen, right?
If there was ever a position of the team that was a million-dollar question, well, may I phone a friend? While the combined duo of 29-year-old Philipp Grubauer and 30-year-old Pavel Francouz might not be as youthful as Jordan Binnington or as experienced as Carey Price, they still bring upside. Francouz, during his rookie campaign last season, went 21-7-4 in 34 games played (31 games started) with a 2.41 Goals Against Average (GAA) and .923 Save Percentage (Sv%). Grubauer, despite injury issues last season, went 18-12-4 in 36 games played (36 games started) with a 2.63 GAA and .916 Sv%.
The question, here, is simple. While the duo is certainly good enough for regular-season success, is it the duo needed to hoist the Cup? Francouz went 2-4 in postseason action last season with a .892 Sv%, while Grubauer’s issue will be whether he can hold the health concerns at bay. On paper, it looks like a promising pair, but is it a playoff-caliber pair? That will remain to be seen.
Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar has a complex, but good, problem to have. After all, he has a young and capable offense flanked by a collection of three-dimensional defenders and solid goaltenders. The depth is there, as is the talent. Now comes the postseason success. After making the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three or more consecutive seasons (2017-18 to 2019-20) for the first time since the franchise went postseason dancing for 10 straight seasons (1994-95 to 2005-06), it is time to start making deep runs. Simply making it is no longer enough.
Luckily for the Avalanche, they are just the kind of team to go on a postseason frenzy.