Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2021-22, 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 2021-22 Stanley Cup pick. Today the series continues with the 2020-21 Colorado Avalanche.
2021-22 Colorado Avalanche
Avalanche fans, you could say, have been spoiled in recent years. However, their fanbase would disagree. Sure, they became annual Cup Contenders over the past few seasons. But as of yet, things haven’t culminated in a championship.
Last season, General Manager Joe Sakic acquired some major pieces to push for a Stanley Cup victory. Sakic, aware of the salary cap crunch on the horizon, went all-in. The team successfully retained most of its key contributors from the season prior. Then, Sakic added experience and skill in Brandon Saad and Devon Toews. They loaded up further at the trade deadline too, picking up familiar faces in Patrik Nemeth and Carl Soderberg, as well as goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Add all those pieces to a team already boasting top-end talent with Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, and Philipp Grubauer…needless to say, this was a “Cup or bust” kind of season.
Unfortunately, the team went bust. Despite all the talent, all the reinforcements added, and all the determination they had to go deeper into the postseason, the Avalanche couldn’t do it. They fell out of the playoff race in the second round for a second consecutive season, this time in a six-game series against the Vegas Golden Knights. To add insult to injury, Colorado held a 2-0 series lead before dropping four consecutive contests to lose in six.
Remember that salary cap crunch Sakic had on his radar? Well, it hit in a big way this summer. The Avalanche dealt defenceman Ryan Graves to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Mikhail Maltsev and a second-round pick (which they used to draft Sean Behrens at 61st overall) ahead of the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. The fear there was losing Graves, considered a valuable asset, for nothing in expansion. Instead, the Kraken took Donskoi, marking the end of his tenure in Colorado.
On the other side of the expansion draft, the Avs’ cap situation really took its toll. Makar received a six-year deal worth $9 million annually. The contract should be worth every penny, as Makar remains one of the most prolific young stars in the game today. However, that ate up $9 million the Avs spent elsewhere in previous seasons. Landeskog also received a pay boost, signing an eight-year deal worth $7 million annually. This handcuffed the team’s flexibility, resulting in the exodus of a handful of key contributors.
Players Who Won’t Be Part of the 2021-22 Colorado Avalanche
Grubauer signed with the Kraken on the opening day of free agency. To replace him, Sakic dealt Conor Timmins to the Arizona Coyotes for Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper arrives on a significantly shorter and cheaper contract than Grubauer received from Seattle. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Sheldon Dries, Nemeth, Saad, and Kyle Burroughs all signed elsewhere as well. Matt Calvert retired after a season marred by concussion issues, too. Plus, Dubnyk and Soderberg remain unrestricted free agents.
The New Faces
To offset some of these departures, Sakic added a bunch of depth pieces and is crossing his fingers for some internal development of prospects to fill some roles. Darren Helm signed a low-cost one-year contract in Colorado, which will be his first season not in a Detroit Red Wings uniform. Ryan Murray, Roland McKeown, and Jordan Gross agreed to a one-year deal too. They help replace the defensive depth lost in Timmons, Graves and Nemeth’s departures.
Despite all the shuffling this summer, one thing remains clear when looking at the 2021-22 Colorado Avalanche roster. This team is still stacked. Sure, the faces leaving will be missed. But Sakic and head coach Jared Bednar still own plenty of options to push this team over the hump.
Gabriel Landeskog – Nathan MacKinnon – Mikko Rantanen
Alex Newhook – Nazem Kadri – Andre Burakovsky
Mikhail Maltsev – Darren Helm – Logan O’Connor
Extras: Artem Anisimov, Kiefer Sherwood
Boy, it sure helps when your first line is this first line. The Landeskog – MacKinnon – Rantanen trio became one of the best lines in all of hockey a couple of seasons ago. That doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon.
What is changing, though, is the Avs’ second line. Without Saad or Donskoi to plug in alongside Kadri and Burakovsky, the team holds one open spot in its top-six group. Maybe Compher gets that spot; maybe Nichushkin. The most interesting option, though, is young gun Alex Newhook. The 20-year-old entered the league as the Avs’ first-round pick back in 2019. However, he received his first taste of NHL action last season, posting three assists in six contests. He scored his first NHL goal in the team’s first-round matchup with the St. Louis Blues, too. Though inexperienced, he plays a fast-paced, highly-skilled style of game. That fits in tremendously with Colorado’s identity.
The depth pieces in Colorado is where the offseason changes are most noticeable. That being said, this third line of Compher, Jost and Nichushkin features three returning players. All three of them play major utility roles for Colorado. If the top six struggles to score, usually one of these three faces is the first to get mixed in to shake things up. When the team is on the penalty kill, these three forwards receive the most ice time. They contribute on both ends of the ice, thanks in large part to their unwavering effort and hard work.
Taking Bellemare’s fourth-line centre role will be Helm. He’ll likely take over the special teams minutes Bellemare used to occupy as well. O’Connor plays a high-intensity, high-energy style of game and became a lineup mainstay when healthy because of it. Maltsev, acquired in exchange for Graves, is good enough to play in the Avs lineup but might begin the season here on the fourth line. He could wind up slotting in on that spot occupied by Newhook in the top six, or perhaps on the third line too, should he perform to his potential. If he doesn’t, then maybe Artem Anisimov stays with the team past his PTO offer. That, or returning depth forward Sherwood can hold down a fourth-line role as well.
Devon Toews – Cale Makar
Samuel Girard – Erik Johnson
Bowen Byram – Ryan Murray
Well, again we see just how awesome it is to have some of the best players in the NHL on your roster. In Makar and Toews, the Avs might have two future Norris Trophy winners. And Girard would play on the top pairing for most other teams in the league. Johnson missed basically all of 2020-21 with injury, but if he returns to form, this is arguably the best top four in the NHL today. The 2021-22 Colorado Avalanche look great here.
The Avs will probably play around a lot here throughout the season. If Johnson can’t quite play at the level he could two seasons ago, maybe he winds up on this pairing. But for now, Byram and Murray figure to round out the Avs lineup next season.
Behind these six though, the Avalanche remain in good hands. MacDermid, a large-bodied defender, figures to slot in when the Avs want a physical presence. The Colorado Avalanche may use him on forward in 2021-22 too, per Sakic. And MacDonald could be the dark horse here as well; he looked fantastic in his limited sample size from last year and could earn a bigger share of the pie. There’s plenty of competition and security in the face of injury with these players on the backend. (In other words: don’t be surprised when Jack Johnson gets released from his PTO…)
Losing Grubauer stung the Avs’ fanbase, undoubtedly. However, Kuemper enters as a very viable replacement. The only concern with him is his injury history, as he hasn’t appeared in 30+ games since 2018-19. That being said, he carried a .920 save percentage across four seasons with the Coyotes. He found ways to win and steal games, pretty consistently too. The Avs won’t expose him to nearly the workload he faced in Arizona.
Pavel Francouz missed all of last year with injury, so there are question marks around his return. Colorado re-signed Joonas Johansson to provide depth at the position should anything go awry. A smark move, considering that the injury bug seems to plague the team’s top two goalies.
Players to Watch
Picking two “Players to Watch” with Colorado is extremely difficult. Slapping MacKinnon and Makar here would be very acceptable too, but they seem too obvious. Everyone in their right mind is aware of those two guys, and teams will have no shortage of game film highlighting the superstars before facing Colorado all season long. But beyond these two, the two players below are primed to feature as major contributors and keys to success for the Colorado Avalanche in 2021-22:
As mentioned above, Kuemper struggled with injury at various points across his career. In Arizona, that became a regular occurrence. However, the Avalanche play a vastly superior systems game to the Coyotes, with way more responsibility. Kuemper received All-Star, Hart and Vezina ballots over his tenure in Arizona, despite facing the high volume of high-quality scoring chances. His 2.43 goals-against-average is sure to shrink in Colorado, where he’ll face far fewer shots on a nightly basis. In short: combining what Kuemper is capable of, with a far better team, should equate to excellent team defence and goal prevention. Kuemper could become a Vezina winner by the season’s end.
Byram enters his sophomore season after struggling with injuries that limited him to 19 contests last year. A former 4th overall draft pick from 2019, Byram hasn’t even begun to scratch the ceiling of his potential. He might nose his way into the top four, a tough ask considering the elite talent in those spots currently. If there’s one thing the Avs do well though, it’s to develop its prospects. Byram hopes to follow the same path as Makar and Girard before him. If he does, the sky is the limit.
Prediction for the 2021-22 Colorado Avalanche
The league returns to its standard 82-game format for 2021-22, and the Avalanche can benefit from it. Not in the regular season, but in the playoffs. This last year, the division set up forced Colorado into a second-round matchup against Vegas, despite the fact that the teams ranked first and second overall in the entire NHL.
Though Colorado lost some key pieces, they own enough high-end talent to keep them in the conversation for a Stanley Cup. And somehow, their depth really doesn’t appear to be any weaker. Getting Johnson and Francouz back from injury certainly helps, but so does the fast development of its prospects in Newhook and Byram. Sakic moved money around like an expert and has his team poised for a Cup run. It’s Cup-or-bust all over again, and in 2021-22 the Colorado Avalanche should wind up raising the Cup.
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