THREE BIG QUESTIONS FACING YOUR 2013-2014 COLORADO AVALANCHE
1. What can we expect from Patrick Roy as an NHL head coach?
Effort. Effort. Effort. Or at least that's what coach Roy has preached to the media coming into his first season behind an NHL bench. Roy's training camp was a difficult one, he hosted long practice sessions an emphasis on breakout and transition play all while expecting hard skating whistle to whistle and hard stops at the end of every shooting chance. The Roy power play, though it hasn't scored much yet, seems like a massive upgrade over Sacco's system and has players moving the puck constantly and shooting from all areas of the ice (instead of focusing everything around the point). Through five preseason games it looks like players are still making an adjustment to Roy's new systems, in particular on the forecheck and the breakout.
While Roy has said all the right things, and shown the fans some reasons to hope in the preseason so far, there is a lot of work left to do and not much room for Roy to struggle out of the gate. It remains to be seen how Roy will balance ice time and matchups for his top three, offensively geared lines, and even more curious, how he will handle defensive assignments without a true top pairing (one of the biggest struggles for Joe Sacco's coaching staff).
While no one has said it explicitly, interviews with some Avs, Paul Stastny in particular, suggest that by the end of his tenure, Joe Sacco had lost the faith of the Avalanche locker room. One of the biggest changes we'll see this year is that while Sacco often seemed flat and apathetic behind the bench and during interviews, Roy is nothing if not expressive. The new Avalanche bench boss moves constantly along his bench and whistles at his players louder than the referees, his interviews, meanwhile, are candid and passionate. When he was in the league, Patrick Roy had a hot temper, and while he claims those days are behind him, it's hard to believe that Roy wont show some fire in the locker room after a bad loss. Will this young team respond to Roy? Or will his Hall of Fame status and big personality undermine their confidence on the ice? It's hard to say. So while there's no doubt that Patrick Roy has the passion to be a great coach, there is some question as to whether he can translate that drive into an on ice product that can compete at least 82 times a year.
2. Can Varlamov cement his role as a No. 1 goaltender?
This is perhaps, the biggest question facing Avalanche fans as we approach opening night. There are lots of reasons why Semyon Varlamov should have an outstanding breakout season this year: 1) he's working with an all-time great in Patrick Roy, 2) for the first time with the Avalanche he has a full time goalie coach, 3) that goalie coach happens to be the esteemed Francois Allaire, 4) it's a contract year, and 5) he's fighting for the starting job for on the Russian Olympic team. There is however, one big and very scary reason that he might struggle once again: he's not as talented as we thought he was when we traded a 1st and two 2nd round picks for him. Would Varly look better with a better team in front of him? Of course he would, but the fact is, good goalies steal games even if the team has a bad night, and Varlamov hasn't done enough of that to cement his position in Avalanche territory. The young net minder has shown some flashes in this preseason, with a strong training camp and a steal of a game in Anaheim, but he was absolutely lit up in Dallas last night and still looks shaky in many ways. On nights when Varlamov is good, he's very good, but once one bad goal finds the back of the net, more usually follow.
3. How will MacKinnon perform as an NHL rookie?
Some fans began to bite their nails a bit when Nathan MacKinnon didn't light up training camp like a man on fire. Turns out the number one pick has been battling with some growing pains, in the form of a hip flexor injury, which likely slowed him down a bit. In his first preseason game since the injury, MacKinnon showed more of the jump that put him at the top the Avalanche draft board, but there's no question that the rookie has plenty of learning left to do. It's important to remember that MacKinnon is months younger than Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly were when they played their first NHL games and almost a full year younger than Gabriel Landeskog at his debut. So yes, physical and mental maturity could be a bit of an issue at the beginning of this season, but there is no doubt that the kid is an immense talent. MacKinnon sees the ice well and handles the puck effortlessly. He possesses the fastest shot the Avs have seen in years, he plays a responsible game in his own end, and he has the speed to beat most NHL defensemen. Perhaps most striking about MacKinnon for his age is how strong he is on his skates and how he uses that superior skating ability to shield the puck from defenders with his body.
MacKinnon will spend the year living with veteran J.S. Giguere, who will no doubt help the rookie to build good habits and adjust to the rigorous travel of an 82 game NHL season. He will get a softer introduction to the NHL than Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog did. He's playing for a better team than either of those rookies, and he'll start on the third line, against softer competition than the Avs former top picks. So what can we expect from the rookie centerman? 20 goals and 50 points certainly isn't out of the question, especially if he continues to play with line-mate PA Parenteau, but a lot will depend on how much ice time and power play time Patrick Roy gives to the third line center.