Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2023-24 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team throughout the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2023-24 Colorado Avalanche.
2023-24 Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche enter with renewed expectations and a high bar for success. After all, they sit just a year removed from their last Stanley Cup Championship. A disappointing first-round exit last year snubbed their bid at defending that title. However, they still stand firmly amongst other Cup contenders around the league. Last season, they suffered from a lack of scoring depth, most of which departed via free agency after the championship a season earlier. This year, they plan on proving they fixed the problem over the last few months and regain their post atop the NHL.
Colorado began last season by raising their Championship banner after winning the Stanley Cup in 2022. The group of players on the ice from the banner raising looked significantly different from the group that one it, though. Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky left major holes in their top six forward group. Many other depth names changed, too. Perhaps most notably, though, was the absence of captain Gabriel Landeskog.
2022-23 Regular Season
And Landeskog’s absence lingered as a storyline all season long. While Colorado struggled a bit out of the gate, their playoff hopes never really fell into doubt. Initially, the team hoped Landeskog could re-join them sometime in the new year. That never happened, and they eventually announced he wouldn’t return for any action in 2022-23.
Despite the lack of depth, the Avs featured enough elite star power to carry them through. Nathan MacKinnon broke 100 points for the first time in his career, ending with 111. Mikko Rantanen broke the 50-goal plateau himself, finishing with 55. Valeri Nichushkin and Arturi Lehkonen both posted points at the highest rate of their careers, too. And Cale Makar continued succeeding as arguably the best defenceman in the NHL.
2022-23 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Ultimately, Colorado won their division, securing a first round matchup with the wild card Seattle Kraken. What appeared to be a relatively favourable opponent wound up being their undoing, though. Colorado’s top-heavy roster could not overcome Seattle’s ultra-balanced attack and disciplined system play.
Though the series was a nail-biter, Colorado didn’t do enough to emerge on the other side. They lost in seven, and headed to the offseason.
General Manager Chris MacFarland knew he had work to do to get his squad back to the promised land. The short-lived postseason clearly exposed the flaws in their lineup, shining a light on just how big of an issue their lack of scoring depth had become. And instead of retaining pieces from last season, he decided to fully re-tool around his star players.
MacFarland allowed plenty of additional players to walk via free agency this summer, clearly identifying the core of their squad. J.T. Compher, Matthew Nieto, Lars Eller, Evan Rodrigues, and Denis Malgin all departed, creating even more holes on offence. In their place, though, MacFarland added quite a few names.
Ryan Johansen was acquired via trade to fill the void at centre on their second line. Ross Colton and Miles Wood both inked long contracts at reasonable price points to supplement their middle and/or bottom six groups. They also traded Alex Newhook to the Montreal Canadiens, in exchange for Jonathan Drouin. Plus, Joel Kiviranta and Peter Holland received PTOs and will attend their training camp.
Jonathan Drouin – Nathan MacKinnon – Mikko Rantanen
Artturi Lehkonen – Ryan Johansen – Valeri Nichushkin
Miles Wood – Ross Colton – Logan O’Connor
The 2023-24 Colorado Avalanche forward lines hold what feels like an infinite number of realistic combinations to utilize. Lehkonen played great in the past with MacKinnon and Rantanen. Acquiring Johansen gives them an anchor at centre on their second line now, too. Forwards like Drouin, Wood and Colton offer Colorado alternative top six options too, should they prefer to spread out their attack a bit more. Perhaps Drouin fits best on the first line (more on this later). Or, maybe coach Jared Bednar prefers sliding MacKinnon and Rantanen onto separate lines. The options are endless.
One clear omission from the names above though: Gabriel Landeskog. That same injury that kept him out all of 2022-23 will also remove him from the 2023-24 Colorado Avalanche season. The news cuts fans deep, and surely cuts Landeskog and his teammates even deeper. The only silver lining here is that Colorado was able to use his cap money elsewhere, knowing they did not need to maintain space in the event Landeskog could return to play. That stands as only a small benefit, as the team would certainly rather have their Cup-winning captain on the ice than in the press box another year.
Though it looks less dynamic than the top six, plenty of things can move around in the bottom six too. For their 2023-24 training camp, the Colorado Avalanche invited three forwards on PTOs. Between Holland, Kiviranta, and Saku Maenalanen, at least one full-time contract offer looks like a strong possibility.
Wood, Colton, O’Connor and Cogliano make up a strong depth group, especially considering the raw talent in the top six ahead of them. That leaves Meyers and Olofsson as the two with the most to prove in training camp. Between them, the three PTO players, and every other prospect invited to camp competing for the last couple roster spots.
Colorado might just sign one or two of the PTO players to offer a bit more of a buffer in the face of potential injuries down the line. After all, their prospect pool looks a little thin. But hey, that’s often the price of winning Stanley Cups.
Devon Toews – Cale Makar
The biggest departure on the 2023-24 Colorado Avalanche blue line was Erik Johnson. The longtime Avalanche defenceman left via free agency. That said, the team still retained six blueliners who regularly appeared in their lineup over the last few seasons. And more importantly, their top six remains fully intact.
Arguably the best pairing in the entire NHL, Toews and Makar plan to continue making life impossible for their opponents. Byram continues developing beautifully, and he hopes to avoid the injury bug that has plagued his young career to-date. Playing alongside Manson adds grit and defensive prowess, balancing Byram’s offensive talents and abilities nicely.
Incredibly, Girard gets pushed to the third pair due to the team’s wealth of strong defencemen. He very well may play top four minutes, and could flip-flop with either Byram or Manson. A lot will depend on chemistry. One certainty though: Jack Johnson plays on the bottom pair. He’ll battle in training camp for that position, but the Avs showed in the past their willingness to put him in the lineup.
And in fairness to Johnson, he brings a consistent, steady style of play and isn’t asked to perform outside his comfort zone. If Colorado wants a different look there, they’ll move in another piece more than likely. Kurtis MacDermid remains in the fold, as does Brad Hunt. Hunt performed well across the regular season for them last year, but only played 41 seconds in their first round playoff series against Seattle. Meanwhile, MacDermid didn’t even suit up for a playoff game.
Unless some other prospect or AHL player makes a run in camp, the six defencemen look locked in for the Colorado Avalanche in 2023-24. If there’s one position they may still address before the playoff push, a depth defenceman would fit the bill.
Georgiev certainly held up his end of the bargain last year, arriving in Denver with the clear goal of becoming a legit starting goalie in the NHL. His 40 wins more than doubled his previous career high in that category. He set new bests in save percentage (91.8%) and goals against average (2.53) too. Behind him, Francouz returns for his fourth campaign as the Avs’ backup goaltender. Injuries derailed his path in the past, which included losing the entire 2020-21 season. But he performed strong last season in a complimentary role, and hopefully carries that momentum into next year too.
Players to Watch
Drouin played his major junior career alongside MacKinnon with the Halifax Mooseheads, before the linemates both got drafted in the top three selections of the 2013 entry draft. Surely Colorado wants to see what they look like together now, just in case there’s any leftover chemistry waiting to be rekindled.
If that happens successfully, the Avs added a dynamic top-line forward on a contract paying under $1 million annually. His previous career highs are 21 goals and 53 points in a single season. Though that occurred five years ago now, his point production floated around that same pace in recent years. The difference is just that those years were limited in games played, due to both injuries and the Covid-shortened campaigns. If he plays at that level alongside MacKinnon and Rantanen, he’ll be setting new career highs at a whole new level this year.
What Drouin’s success on the Avalanche roster does for the rest of the lineup cannot be overstated. The trickledown effect means Lehkonen becomes a second liner. That helps Johansen in his quest to re-assert himself as a top six centre. It also means Colton and Wood probably wind up in the team’s bottom six. That cleanly rounds out the 2023-24 Colorado Avalanche forward group with way more depth and talent across the lineup than they had a season ago.
The 22-year old defenceman floats under the radar in Colorado for the most part. Because Makar is, well, Cale Makar, the hockey world thinks of him first and foremost when discussing the Avs’ defence. Heck, even Toews gets overlooked sometimes in favour of this year’s EA Sports cover athlete. All that said, Byram has plenty of his own highlights and mind-blowing moments.
The issue for Byram thus far though has been concussions. That leaves a scary thought in the back of everyone’s minds, as brain injuries remain so difficult to predict and prevent. This year marks Byram’s fourth in the NHL, yet he only played 91 regular season games to-date. Thankfully he hasn’t missed time in the postseason and was a major part of the team’s Cup run in 2022, logging 15 points in 20 games.
In just 42 contests last year, Byram still managed 24 points and a double-digit goal total (10). His ice-time ticked up to 21:53 per night, way more than the 18:48 per night he logged a year earlier. Bednar obviously trusts the youngster, and if he can manage a full campaign, he could absolutely contribute 50-60 points.
Prediction for 2023-24 Colorado Avalanche
In the salary cap era, winning the Stanley Cup has become more difficult than ever. Right now, there are at least 10 teams who believe they are legitimate contenders to win it all this season. Even that number is probably too conservative, as one could make an argument for nearly every team to at least qualify for the playoffs. And as the Florida Panthers showed this past season, anything can happen once you’re in.
A lot of teams overestimate their position, but that isn’t the case for Colorado. This team possesses more talent than most teams in the league. That top talent just won the Cup here two years ago, too. And after a layover year where the cap constrained their options, they’ve retooled significantly. Every single flaw was addressed, albeit on paper only thus far. But those solutions will soon be put to the test.
And judging by how Colorado’s decision-making has paid off in the past, it is impossible to count this team out. A return to the Stanley Cup Final sits squarely within the realm of possibility, and predicting this team to hoist the Cup for the second time in three years feels like the right call.
Main Photo: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports