The Colorado Avalanche finished the first half of the season with 47 points, which puts them on pace for 94 points this season. What are the expectations now for this season and how have they changed? Where do you see the Avalanche finishing now?
Tom: When the season started, I picked the Avalanche to finish outside of the bottom-5 in the league and many said I was too optimistic. What’s changed? I think they’re better than even the most high-end expectations. I still don’t think they’re a playoff team, but I think that the Avs will finish in the 85-90 point range and somewhere around 10th in the conference.
Isaac Greenwood: I honestly didn’t expect them to be that much better from last year, probably among the worst 7 or so teams in the league. I was shocked to see them in the playoff conversation as of late, but I’m cautious about this for a few reasons. First off they just came off of a long homestand, and have a tough five-game road trip coming up. I’m also worried about their competition. The top three teams in the Central look untouchable as far as their placement, and Dallas looks like they’ll maintain the top wild-card spot. That leaves one spot, and my guess is that Anaheim snags it. They’re finally healthy and sit in a weaker division. As for the Avalanche, I think they will cool off a bit and just miss the playoffs.
Cat Silverman: I was expecting a small step forward - a good portion of their historic lows last year was bad luck, as much as they struggled in other areas - but I didn’t expect much of a step forward, especially when the team seemed poised to lose both Duchene and Pickard by the start of the year. Instead, they finally look like the team that Jared Bednar was supposed to have coached last year. I don’t think they’re quite playoff material, and if they do make it it’s going to be good luck more than anything. But if this is the direction they trend in the post-Roy era, that’s a lot to look forward to in two, maybe three years. Their playoff run a few years ago was an anomaly; the way they’re playing right now, it’s reasonable to believe that future playoff appearances will be an expectation.
Jackie: The expectation to follow the youth movement plan and to continue building from within shouldn't change regardless of where the Avs sit in the standings. However after a better than hoped for first half, it would feel a bit of a let down to finish the second half without the same signs of progress and quite frankly, fun. The Avs have a tendency to cycle through bottoming out, surge with some unexpected new energy and momentum and then regress, regress until bottoming out again. The test will be how they handle improvement and build on it without getting ahead of themselves and undermining any progress. A .500 record is an attainable goal to finish the season and a good place to build on moving forward.
Eric Sylvester: I had exactly two criteria for a successful season going into October: 1) Trade Matt Duchene, and 2) Don’t get fleeced in the Matt Duchene trade. The Avalanche traded Matt Duchene. They didn’t get fleeced. The rest of this season, to me, is gravy. But I also recognize that this is a team that is very much in the playoff conversation, so re-examining the expectations for the team is warranted. However, I agree with the rest of the staff: this is a young, promising team that doesn’t show the consistency needed for a playoff run. 10th in the conference seems about right. I see a lot to be excited about for the future, though, which is a feeling I’ve missed tremendously.
What or who has been the biggest surprise thus far?
Tom: Another one of my predictions this summer was that we would see a breakout season from Nathan MacKinnon - we are definitely seeing that. At the same time, what he has been doing is utterly mind-blowing and I’m surprised that at 22-years old MacKinnon has turned into a legitimate Hart Trophy contender.
As of Sunday, MacKinnon’s 44 primary points led the NHL. I thought we would see a big jump in production and that Nathan MacKinnon was going to be very good this season, I am pretty surprised he has been THIS good.
Isaac: There is a lot to choose from. I’ll have to go with Kerfoot, who came in already looking like a bonafide NHLer. I had no idea who he even was before the preseason, and boom, give him a point streak or two and he’s in the Calder conversation.
Cat: In a way, Jonathan Bernier. After his struggles his final year in Toronto and his limited role in Anaheim last year, I was worried he’d find himself in another slump. Especially, based on his 2015-16 season, if the team started off where they left things at the end of last season. He hasn’t been amazing, but he’s come up huge on a few occasions when the team needed him most. At this pace, I think he could be someone who could stick around a little while.
Jackie: Mikko Rantanen keeping up a point per game pace with 41 points and is in top 20 league scoring has been understandably overshadowed by what MacKinnon has done in the first half of the season but Mikko deserves recognition in his own right. He also leads the team in Corsi For with 51.78%. Nikita Zadorov has had a strong couple months after a slow start, he's beginning to chip in points, plays against top competition and leads the team defense with CF 50.89%. Both are young players taking a step, while expected they would improve, the degree they've progressed is a pleasant surprise.
Sylvester: The return on the Matt Duchene trade. Once it became clear that the Avalanche were going to begin the NHL season with Duchene on the roster, I immediately lowered my expectations for the deal. But, give Sakic credit where credit is due: when the entire hockey world was screaming at him to make a move, he waited. And the Avalanche were rewarded with Sam Girard, who has had an immediate impact on the blue line, Vladislav Kamenev, and Shane Bowers, two forwards I’m very bullish on long-term, and three draft picks over the next couple of seasons. And without Duchene, players like MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Kerfoot have filled that hole in production. It’s hard to find any way to say that the Avalanche didn’t win this trade.
The Avalanche have made a lot of gains in half a season but where do they need to focus on improving in the second half?
Tom: Depth. This is a team that relies on their top guys to carry the load every night. Erik Johnson is among the time-on-ice leaders in the NHL, Blake Comeau is 5th in the league in PK ice time and nearly everything the offense accomplishes seems to run through Nathan MacKinnon. If the Avs want to keep winning and make some real noise in the second half, they are going to need more help from the depth guys so that their stars don’t burn out.
Isaac: Goaltending hasn’t been great. Consistency seems to be the main problem for both Bernier and Varlamov, although recently it’s looked significantly better. Hopefully, that’s a trend that continues.
Cat: Nothing more to add to what Isaac said. While the goaltending is miles above last year, that’s not really a ringing endorsement - and it’s still ways behind where most quality playoffs teams are. That needs to change.
Jackie: Finding consistency and goals on the road. The Avs have generally been a good road team but average at home. This season they've really taken advantage at home, which is great, but they'll need to work on improving their 7-9-2 road record. Their power play has gone through big slumps and needs to improve from just 12% success on the road as well.
Sylvester: Trading Matt Duchene. Just kidding. Goaltending.
Keep an eye out for part two where we discuss the rookies and how then team is dealing with injuries.