Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and 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 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue with the Colorado Avalanche.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche entered the 2015-16 season without a whole lot of expectations for success. The Avalanche were generally predicted to finish last in the tough Central Division. While the Avalanche were not without their flaws, they also had the daunting task of trying to climb in a division that featured many of the NHL’s elite teams like the Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues. The next tier of teams is also no cake walk with the Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild, and Winnipeg Jets.
The Avalanche also started the season having lost their second big name player in as many years. Ryan O’Reilly, who had one year left on his contract, was traded to the Buffalo Sabres along with forward Jamie McGinn. In return, the Avalanche gained Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, J.T. Compher and a draft pick. The jury is still out on who won this trade. While Grigorenko would make great strides, Zadorov would be misused by (now former) Head Coach Patrick Roy, only seeing 22 games of action at the NHL level. Roy would demote the defenceman twice, seeing him spend the majority of the season with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage. The treatment of Zadorov would be maligned by some in the Avalanche analytics community.
Grigorenko would do his part to help out the offense, setting career highs across the board with six goals, 21 assists, and 27 points in 74 games while accumulating eight penalty minutes. Compher would continue his development with the NCAA’s University of Michigan with 63 points. The Avalanche also acquired Carl Soderberg in the off-season, who would also contribute 12 goals 39 assists for 51 points playing all 82 games for the Avalanche.
When the curtain would fall on the NHL regular season the Avalanche would find themselves out of the playoffs with a 21st overall finish. However, they weren’t dead last in the division and the Avalanche only missed the playoffs by five points. What really hurt the Avalanche was allowing 240 goals while only scoring 216. Part if this was due to a wildly inconsistent season by goaltender Semyon Varlamov and the ineffective defensive system in place by Roy.
The Avalanche entered the 2016 NHL Entry Draft with a system in need of work. Yes, they have some nice prospects in the system like Mikko Rantanen, backup goalie Calvin Pickard, Chris Bigras and the previously mentioned Compher. On the draft floor, Colorado bolstered their prospect pool, adding center Tyson Jost as the 10th overall selection in the first round.
The later rounds would also see them add left winger Cam Morrison (second round, 40th overall), defenceman Josh Anderson (third round, 71st overall), Swedish goaltender Adam Werner (fifth round 131st overall), defenseman Nate Clurman (sixth round, 161st overall), and left winger Travis Barron (seventh round, 191st overall).
NHL Free Agency was quiet for Avalanche fans, as the team signed their restricted free agents while allowing players like Andrew Bodnarchuk, Mikkel Boedker, Nate Guenin and Shawn Matthias to move on in free agency. The Avalanche would make some new additions, their biggest being defenseman Patrick Wiercioch to help bolster their defensive depth. Other signings included Joe Colborne, Fedor Tyutin, and depth forward Ben Smith.
The biggest change in the off-season came as a shock on the 11th of August when, with about a month until NHL training camps open, Roy would resign his position as vice president of hockey operations as well as head coach of the Avalanche. We many never know the reason for the departure; speculation includes that he was not getting the players he wanted from General Manager Joe Sakic. The coaching search was short, with names like San Jose Sharks assistant coach Bob Boughner and Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Kevin Dineen most notably in the mix.
Sakic would however, look to the AHL, as he would hire Jared Bednar to be the next head coach of the Avalanche. Bednar 44, had spent the previous season coaching the Lake Erie Monsters (now Cleveland Monsters) to a Calder Cup championship. He had also won the ECHL’s Kelly Cup coaching the Carolina Stingrays in 2009.
There is a lot to like about this offensive group that will only get better with Mikko Rantanen. Rantanen is ready to turn pro after an AHL campaign where he was dominant, scoring 24 goals and 36 assists to finish ninth in AHL scoring despite only playing 52 games. Not bad for his first year of North American pro hockey.
If Mikhail Grigorenko can keep making strides and Jarome Iginla can keep producing at the same level he did last year, without even mentioning the top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon who combined for 164 points, the Avalanche should score no shortage of goals. Time will tell if that alone will be enough.
The projected line of Andreas Martinsen, John Mitchell, and Cody McLeod may not be flashy but they are still a serviceable fourth line who contribute on the offensive end of the game with out being a significant liability on the defensive end of the puck. The trio combined for 45 points over the course of the regular season, which is a nice contribution to the overall offense.
The most exciting forward in the system for the Avalanche who will likely not see much NHL time this year is A.J. Greer, who will play his first year of professional hockey after playing last season’s MasterCard Memorial Cup runner-up. the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL.
The defense core is starting to come along but still relies too heavily on aging defenceman Francois Beauchemin. While it likely won’t happen this year, continued improvement and trust from the coach for Zadorov should see some of the defensive load taken off of Beauchemin.
A new defensive system put in place by the new head coach should be just what the doctor ordered for Tyson Barrie, who never seemed to fully fit into Roy’s system. With a new coaching staff, he hopefully won’t have to be distracted by constant trade rumors this season.
Fedor Tyutin should add a more veteran presence to the Avalanche’s defensive core. If the Avalanche is going to be successful in the Central Division, this is where they will need to improve most.
Rookie Chris Bigras is close to NHL ready and could push for a spot in the top six. He will be one to watch in training camp.
Last season Semyon Varlamov was a very polarizing figure for Avalanche fans, as he could go from being a hero to goat overnight. His play was wildly inconsistent, something that wasn’t aided a whole lot from his defense core. The fact remains that Varlamov, like the defense core in front of him, needs to be better this season. If Varlamov can find his consistency it will go a long way to getting this team back in the playoffs.
Calvin Pickard is good enough to pick up some of the slack should Varlamov falter but he is not ready to carry the load just yet. Still, he should be able to chew up valuable minutes to make sure Varlamov is not overworked.
Players to Watch
The Avalanche only used Rantanen for nine games of the regular season so as to not burn the first year of his NHL deal. Over the course of those nine games, he was unable to find his way on the scoreboard. After his dominant season in the AHL though there is absolutely zero chance that he does not start the year in an Avalanche uniform and that’s very likely how he will end the season as well.
With a new head coach in Bednar, Zadorov should get another big opportunity to make himself a permanent fixture on the Colorado blueline which desperately needs players to take the next step. Although O’Reilly was likely not returning to the Avalanche it was still a big piece to move to get Zadorov. Avalanche fans are probably still sore from the Kevin Shattenkirk for Erik Johnson trade as the ghosts of regimes past still linger.
Players on the Rise
After having a breakout year in 2015-16, the Avalanche will hope to see more improvement from Grigorenko entering his second full season of NHL hockey. The Avalanche will count on him to continue his development and increase his point totals from last season.
In his short NHL career the young forward has played 218 games with 59 goals and 94 assists for 153 points and he is only 21. After a rough sophomore season that saw him collect 38 points he rebounded last year finishing with 52 points. MacKinnon’s numbers are not bad for a three-year pro but this is a player who still has some growing to do. When it’s all said and done MacKinnon won’t end up as just a great star of the Avalanche but as a superstar in the entire NHL.
Players on the Decline
Father Time continues to catch up to Iginla, who is already long removed from his 50-goal seasons. His offensive numbers continue to drop off even though he still scored a respectable 22 goals and 25 assists playing all 82 games last season. His play on the defensive side of the puck was far less respectable. Iginla will always be one of the greatest players to ever lace up skates but unfortunately, the end comes for us all.
2016-17 Season Predictions
The Avalanche will yet again play in the toughest division in the NHL so climbing into a playoff spot is going to be a tough goal to reach, especially if the Jets are able to have a comeback year. Last year’s playoff teams will continue to do well as it will be difficult to unseat Dallas, Chicago or St. Louis from the top three seeds. The Predators are better but still catchable and the Wild are, pardon the expression, a real wild card. Even as improved as they might be based on the other teams in the division, the Avalanche will continue to move forward in development but finish sixth in the massively difficult Central Division.