Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2020-21, where Last Word on Hockey 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 2020-21 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Colorado Avalanche.
2020-21 Colorado Avalanche
So much went right for the Avs last year. They made the postseason for a third consecutive season under coach Jared Bednar, but fell after a competitive conference semifinals series against the Dallas Stars. Colorado was among the league’s best, but they ran into an extremely hot goaltender and suffered multiple injuries to key contributors. A shorthanded team without both Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz capable of playing goalie was a huge barrier between Colorado and a Conference Finals birth.
The regular season was one of the best in several years. The Avalanche went 42-20-8, which translated to 92 points. That is the third consecutive season they’ve cracked 90 or more points and they show no signs of slowing down. Nathan MacKinnon anchored an offence that was truly dominant in almost every way. The former top selection was a Hart Trophy finalist after scoring 35 goals and 93 points in 69 games. He very well could have cracked the century mark had the season not ended prematurely. He got plenty of help from Calder Trophy winner Cale Makar. The rookie set the world ablaze with 12 goals and 50 points in 57 games. The two are one of the best forward-defenceman combinations in the entire NHL.
Colorado was very active early in the offseason. First, they flipped Nikita Zadorov and Anton Lindholm to the Chicago Blackhawks for Brandon Saad and Dennis Gilbert. The Avs then sent a second-round pick in the next two drafts to the New York Islanders in exchange for Devon Toews. Those are two huge moves that add significant potential to a lineup that was already stacked.
While the trade with the Blackhawks was mostly built around acquiring Saad, Dennis Gilbert is an interesting addition. A gritty third-round pick from the 2015 draft who has size at 6’2″ and should be a good forechecking defender. The same can be said about a second trade with the Islanders that swapped A.J. Greer for Kyle Burroughs. Both trades add some interesting young depth to Colorado’s blueline. The rest of the fall was spent re-signing key bottom-six contributors and filling out spots in the AHL.
Overall, the offseason ended up being not nearly as active as the last offseason, but the moves they did make add versatility and toughness even into the minor leagues. It was a good handful of trades that should produce big results.
There is little doubt that the top two lines might be the best in the NHL this season. MacKinnon has two excellent linemates. Landeskog’s two-way ability adds some physical support on top of scoring ability and Rantanen is absolutely lethal sniping from the side. A full season from all of them could produce career years in terms of points per game given the 56 game season. It’s not unreasonable to expect 50 or more points over the course of 56 games.
It gets scary when a quality two-way centre like Kadri keeps a wing of Burakovsky’s talent and adds Saad’s considerable talent. The former Blackhawk should see a bounce back with new, better linemates that can support his great underlying metrics; Saad never posted a Corsi For below 50 percent despite Chicago’s recent decline. Burakovsky should excel again after scoring a career-high 20 goals and 45 points last year. There is always the potential for some shuffling, but the top combination is familiar with each other and dominant. The second trio has tremendous upside if the chemistry is there. Again, the smaller number of games will dictate results, but 35-45 points for each skater isn’t out of the question.
Teams can’t sleep on the bottom-six either. It’s a solid mix of relatively young players and a few crafty veterans. It’s great when you can deploy less-talented lines and have them contribute in multiple ways. Donskoi bounced around in 2019-20, but still managed to score 16 goals and 33 points in 65 games. Four of those goals came on the power-play despite being on the second unit much of the time. Bellemare joined the Avs during the 2019-20 offseason and proceeded to set a new career-best in points on top of another year with over 50 percent of faceoffs won. Finally, Nichushkin was an afterthought as far as new faces were concerned and yet he excelled as a two-way option. The former top 10 selection essentially saved his career by scoring 14 goals and 27 points in 65 games along with 84 hits. It was impressive enough to earn him Selke Trophy votes.
Ryan Graves – Cale Makar
Devon Toews – Erik Johnson
Extras: Bowen Byram, Conor Timmins
It might not be the best top four in the league, but its potential is massive. Makar is already one of the best young scoring defencemen in the league. His skating and vision are absolutely top-tier and factor heavily into Colorado’s strategy. It certainly doesn’t hurt having a hulking enforcer like Graves at his side. The duo had a 53.05 percent Corsi For and could do just about everything between scoring and checking. It’s hard to know if that chemistry carries forward into 2020-21, but it looks like a fantastic top pairing.
Johnson remains a reliable presence despite the obvious decline. The 32-year-old scored just three goals and 16 points in 59 games. However, he still averaged over 21 minutes of ice time per game, led the team in short-handed ice time, and was top-three in total blocks with 115. The question will be whether Toews or Girard is a better fit next to the veteran. The duo of Girard and Johnson posted a 50.65 Corsi For and has a fairly high ceiling as the 22-year-old Girard continues to grow.
The bottom pairing has room to grow regardless of who is there. Either Girard or Toews would be a boost next to Cole compared to last year’s rotation of Zadorov, Mark Barberio and Kevin Connauton. Girard has more room to grow as a younger skater, but Toews is an interesting acquisition after a breakout campaign last year. There is probably no wrong decision as to who ultimately drops to this pairing.
Cole remains a solid, if unexciting, defender after four goals and 26 points in 65 games. The 31-year-old has a fifth consecutive season with a Corsi For over 50 percent. That, along with respectable physical numbers, gives him a central role on the penalty kill.
There will also be an interesting battle to determine who sticks with the club as the primary extra defenders. Byram is a top prospect coming off multiple outstanding seasons in the WHL while Timmons appeared briefly and looked comfortable in limited action. Both are primed for large roles starting as soon as this year.
Extra: Adam Werner
This is the same duo as what the team deployed last year. It was a very good duo where both goaltenders posted 18 or more victories and top-25 save percentages. Both suffered minor injuries in 2019-20. The depth is less experienced now that Michael Hutchinson is back with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so keeping both healthy for 2020-21 is important in ensuring Colorado reaches its maximum potential.
Players to Watch
Jost is a major breakout candidate based on a few things. For one, it seems as though the team recognizes he isn’t a solution at centre and has smartly moved him to the wing. Second, some of his underlying numbers indicate that the 22-year-old had some bad luck that prevented new career-highs in goals and points. It will help if his spot on the third line remains consistent and he can maintain some presence on the second power-play unit.
This is an important year for the 29-year-old former Washington Capitals netminder. He had one of his best years in his second season with the Avs, but he suffered two injuries during the regular season and failed to make it through the playoffs too. This is the final season of Grubauer’s current contract, so being able to stay on the ice is huge. If he can, his recent seasons seems to indicate a goalie who can excel in Colorado’s current system.
Prediction for 2020-21 Colorado Avalanche
It’s not too bold to expect a Stanley Cup run for the Avs. Randomness will be much higher in 2020-21 in a shorter season, but Colorado’s roster has talent at every spot. There are almost no obvious holes in the lineup barring injury. There are still some very strong teams like the Stars, the Vegas Golden Knights, and so on. However, some of those opponents still have roster decisions to make to get under the cap ceiling. Whatever trades they make could shift the odds in the Avalanche’s favour by significant amounts.