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Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 Colorado Avalanche

Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2014-15, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season andPuck Drop Preview offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2014-15 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page.  Today is the 2014-2015 Colorado Avalanche.

Last Season:

There are very few teams, if any, who surprised more people with the way they played last season than the Colorado Avalanche. For one, the team was playing in the best division in hockey, alongside teams such as the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, Cup favourite St. Louis Blues, and very talented Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars. Not only did the Avalanche make the playoffs, they won this division.

They played so well that a first round playoff exit against the Minnesota Wild, something that most surrounding the organization would have taken in a second, seemed like a letdown. Especially considering the team had a 2-0 series lead after the first couple of games in Denver.

But if one thought all of this would make this team difficult to potentially underestimate again, they haven’t been paying attention. Such is usually the case when a young and unproven team overachieves, most people think it was a flash in the pan and that this team is primed for mediocrity again next season. The numbers game also draws heavily into the equation, as puck possession statistics would suggest that the team’s success won’t be sustainable next season.

A lot of this had to do with the play of Semyon Varlamov, the MVP of Colorado’s return to grace. The Russian goaltender had by far the best season of his career, going 41-14-6 with a GAA of 2.41 and a stunning save percentage of .927. All of this saw him finish second in the Vezina Trophy voting, earning 9 first place votes.

It was another goalie, in this case former, who was the architect behind it all, even if the plans weren’t exactly built to a conventional scale. Patrick Roy made his long awaited coaching debut last year with the Avalanche, and it was absolute worth the wait. Between his team’s performance and a couple of signature Roy dustups, the legendary former Avalanche and Canadien grabbed no shortage of headlines.

It was the youth that the Avalanche have been cultivating for the past couple of years that grabbed the remainder of them. The biggest focus was on Nathan MacKinnon, who easily claimed the Calder Trophy. With 24 goals and 63 points, MacKinnon distinguished himself as the most promising Avalanche player amongst an incredibly talented crop. At times, as was displayed perhaps most obviously in Game 2 against Minnesota, MacKinnon proved he is well on his way to becoming a generational talent.

A large part of MacKinnon’s breakout was the fact that he played beside team captain Gabriel Landeskog, another player who came into his own this past season. The shortened season of 2012-13 certainly wasn’t the best for Landeskog, who quickly fell off of his own Calder Trophy form from the season prior. But a year later he was leading the way with significantly more confidence both as a player and a leader.

The third and oldest member of Colorado’s trio of elite talent, at only 23, hardly saw his growth stunted either. Despite not playing with the aforementioned two, Matt Duchene led the team in scoring as he also made strides in his own game. Having him miss the majority of the series with Minnesota was easily the biggest blow the team suffered.

Where the team didn’t flourish so exuberantly, and where most of the concern for the immediate future is generated, is the defense. In 2013-14 the Colorado Avalanche mostly won despite their defense, not because of it. In a lot of ways it was the main reason the team saw so little of the puck during the year. While the backline does have names like Tyson Barrie, Erik Johnson, and Jan Hejda, none of them truly resemble the league’s best blueliners, with Barrie coming the closest.

There isn’t too much after that either, as a team who won their Stanley Cups in the backs of defencemen like Adam Foote, Rob Blake and Ray Bourque, currently stand pretty thin in that same category. The team’s upcoming prospects in this position don’t seem to be quite as talented as once predicted either.

But if nothing else, the Colorado Avalanche gave a telling glimpse into the positive results that will be coming down the line for the organization if it continues its current course. There are holes still, but the Avalanche are also faring a lot better than the majority of rebuilding teams around the NHL.

Puck Drop Preview: 2014-15 Colorado Avalanche

Offseason Changes:

The Avalanche hardly did much to follow up their big season with more positivity with their offseason moves. This was always going to be the case, as there was very little chance Paul Stastny was going to stay with the team. That is not an asset which is easy to replace, especially with the limited options available in NHL free agency.

While Stastny was head and shoulders the biggest loss that the Avalanche suffered, he was far from the only piece that departed. P.A Parenteau may not be amongst the central offensive figures for Colorado, but he was definitely an important piece. He was dealt in exchange for Daniel Briere, hardly a like for like move at this stage in both careers.

In terms of overall defensive depth, the team also lost a couple of pieces. Nobody is arguing that Cory Sarich, Matt Hunwick or Andre Benoit are massive losses for the team, but losing the three of them at once certainly adds up.

To address this, the team brought in Brad Stuart, Zach Redmond and Bruno Gervais. Stuart is the stand out in this regard, and will help in terms of minute management on the back end. Having a steady veteran presence can never be a bad thing. The other two are hardly big improvements on the aforementioned names.

Offensively, Jarome Iginla has taken his quest to win a Stanley Cup to Denver. But his attempt to play Bourque in this instance is unlikely to succeed. At this point in his career, Iginla is likely to bring more to the Avalanche in terms of leadership than they team is going to bring to him results wise.

Projected Lineup:

Ryan O’Reilly- Matt Duchene- Jarome Iginla

Gabriel Landeskog- Nathan MacKinnon- Alex Tanguay

Jamie McGinn- John Mitchell- Danny Briere  

Cody McLoed- Marc-Andre Cliche- Max Talbot

There has been a lot of talk about splitting up Landeskog and MacKinnon but at this point, considering how last season went, it would be counterproductive. Despite MacKinnon’s potential, Duchene is still the number one center on this team and deserves top line minutes, as well as Iginla. Alex Tanguay isn’t a great option at top six wing, but may still have the talent to skate with his young line-mates if he can stay healthy. The third line is actually fairly decent for the Avalanche, who will need it to produce. After that, it gets a little worrying at the bottom of the lineup is reached, especially considering injuries. There is a ton of talent in the Avalanche forward group but their also isn’t very much depth.

Jan Hejda- Erik Johnson

Brad Stuart- Tyson Barrie

Nate Guenin- Nick Holden

A large amount of Colorado’s defensive structure will depend of newly acquired Stuart being able to play anchor to Barrie. If he can do this correctly, and Barrie is able to play decently free flowing hockey, then things might turn out alright. Other than that, Hejda and Johnson aren’t exactly an inspiring top pairing, but they will do for the time being. Same goes for Guenin and Holden.

Semyon Varlamov

Reto Berra

There are few, if any, players on this team under more pressure than Semyon Varlamov. The man credited with last season’s success will have to play in an almost equally impressive fashion this season if the team is to repeat, or even come adequately close to their success. In Reto Berra Colorado have acquired a goaltender who showed flashes in Calgary, and will provide a decent backup option.

Players to Watch:

  • Tyson Barrie
  • Ryan O’Reilly

On a Colorado defense that gets an extensively bad reputation as a result of being in such stark contrast with a stellar offense, Barrie stands out as a notable name for the right reasons. Barrie joined several of his age group peers in having a breakout season as an offensive defenseman in the NHL. 13 goals and 38 points is hardly anything to scoff at in 64 games, PK Subban and Drew Doughty both had 10.

Ryan O’Reilly could be considered a player on the rise, but he may already be nearing his statistical peak. At 23 years of age, 28 goals and 64 points is an incredible output for him. Just don’t expect that to increase significantly in a hurry, even if he is playing with some elite talents. Needless to say though, O’Reilly is an exciting player who absolutely deserves the attention he is getting. Also the money, as he signed a two-year, $12 million deal this summer.

Players on the Rise:

  • Nathan MacKinnon
  • Jamie McGinn
  • Gabriel Landeskog

It’s almost scary to have MacKinnon on this list, especially considering the huge jump he took in his initial NHL season. But he is too good for the sophomore slump, and will only move in a forward direction from here. His point totals can now be expected to near the range of 30 goals and mid-70s in points. Hardly a humble beginning for the youngster, but there is no reason to be. He will continue to prove that he is only a step or two away from being one of the league’s best already.

Jamie McGinn has started to attract some attention, which is hard to do on this team. After a couple of disappointing years when he first joined the Avalanche, McGinn had a bounce back year and the best of his career this past season. With 19 goals and 38 points he was a reliable offensive threat from the third line who brought plenty of size and energy. He will be required to do this once again next year, and don’t expect him to disappoint.

As aforementioned, Landeskog took great strides as a hockey player last season in tandem with his team’s improvement. His statistics may not improve exponentially this season, but expect it to be a crucial learning year for the Avalanche captain. In Iginla, the young Swede has a perfect mentor who has experience as being one of the most respected leaders in NHL history. What happens on the ice shouldn’t be all that bad either.

Players on the Decline:

  • Semyon Varlamov
  • Daniel Briere
  • Jerome Iginla

Varlamov might seem like a surprise addition to this list, but this is no slight to his talent. The Avalanche goalie is undoubtedly in the upper tier of goaltenders in this league, and next season will prove no different. But at the same time, it’s hard to see him repeating the incredible year he had for the team, even if they once again require his brilliance. For that reason he joins this list of players who will not quite live up to their previous performance.

The Briere trade may have been the most surprising offseason move for the Avalanche in that it didn’t make much sense. Likely, it was to get Parenteau off the books for future years. But in terms of the player that has been returned, Briere rarely made an impact for the Canadiens during the regular season last year. His signature playoff abilities have been well documented, but weren’t really on full show either.

Maybe, just maybe, Tanguay deserves a spot on this list instead of Iginla. But it is hard to qualify his potential output next season as a decline considering he has rarely played as of late due to injury. Instead, Iginla may finally show his age in 2014-15 alongside a team with a backbone of quick and energetic players. He may still get close to 30 while playing with Duchene, but expect a decreased point total.

2014-15 Season Expectations:

Going into last season, the Colorado Avalanche were hardly a team on very many people’s radars in terms of intrigue. This season, that has completely changed. Not only will people be tuning in to watch the team’s young talent, they will be doing so to watch a battle unfold. This battle will take place between two off-ice parties in the hockey community: the advanced stats community versus traditionalists.

It has become an old story that the Avalanche do not have very good possession numbers, and are statistically overachieving. People will be quick to point to another example of this, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who came crashing back down to the ground in 2013-14. Many have statistically predicted that this very same thing will happen to the Avalanche.

Optically it doesn’t appear all that much better. The fact that the two most notable Avalanche offseason acquisitions are likely on the decline is a telling fact. Add in Brad Stuart and all of them are on the wrong side of 30. Sure, this team could use some veteran leadership. But they also could have used a lot more blueline help.

The team’s depth could quickly be thrown into flux if one of Duchene, Landeskog or MacKinnon suffers an injury, there just isn’t all that much in terms of replacement.

Believe the hype around this team’s decline. While making the playoffs is certainly not out of the question for the Avalanche, it will be significantly more difficult. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen at all.


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