Wednesday night, eight teams took the ice in the NHL season opener. The Capitals held an approximately 74-hour pregame banner-raising ceremony before hanging a touchdown and extra point on the Bruins. Tomas Hertl undressed Cam Fowler and scored sensationally. John Tavares lit the lamp in Toronto, before Auston Matthews scored his second of the game on an overtime winner. The *Canucks* even won! Also, Brad Marchand assaulted Lars Eller on the ice, because Eller broke the code or something and celebrated a goal. Or something.
Overall, the return of hockey was everything it was supposed to be. And tonight, for the first time since April, the Colorado Avalanche will return too.
Here are five reasons why this Avalanche season will be magnificent:
1. The young stars will be one year less young
During the 2017-18 season, the Avalanche had the league’s highest point total by any player born in 1995 (Nathan MacKinnon, 97) and the highest point total by any player born in 1996 (Mikko Rantanen, 84). A literal teenager, Sam Girard, became a reliable staple on the blue-line. Three more guys — Tyson Jost, J.T. Compher, and Alex Kerfoot — were valuable forwards too young to remember when “Who Let The Dogs Out?” came out. Enormous child Nikita Zadorov looks like he’s close to being a top-tier lock-down defender.
The Avalanche have one of the youngest teams in the NHL, but are uncharacteristically experienced for a team of their youth, in large part because of the tire-fire 2016-17 season that led to a number of guys playing perhaps a bit prematurely. This is an Avalanche group that will continue to play together, foster a chemistry, and reap the rewards.
Sam Girard won’t be 162 pounds forever. Most NHL forwards peak in productivity around the age of 24 to 26, so there is plenty of reason to expect another year of aging to help mature this young core.
2. The new German goalie that just had his name engraved in the Stanley Cup
In the interest of full disclosure (and if you follow my Twitter, you know), I am a Capitals fan first and foremost.
With that said, Philipp Grubauer ist eine Ziegelmauer.
Last regular season was an interesting one for the Capitals, as their possession statistics and expected goal output were near the bottom of the league. The team had a number of fundamental issues with their style of play. Former Vezina winner Braden Holtby played himself out of the starting goalie job.
If it wasn’t for Grubauer, the Capitals would not have won the Metropolitan Division.
Here’s a crazy statistic. From November 20 through the end of the regular season last year, Braden Holtby played 39 games behind a struggling defense. He had zero games in which he allowed one goal or fewer. In the same span behind the same team, Grubauer played in 27 games. In thirteen of those games, he allowed one goal or fewer.
Varlamov may still be the Avalanche starter for now, but Grubauer has the talent and track record to suggest that he’s capable of being a premier NHL starter right now.
3. Central Division hockey is the best kind of hockey
This may not be a reason to be excited about the Avalanche, per se, but the Central Division might be the most entertaining division in the league. The Winnipeg Jets play hockey at a million miles per hour and are young and fast. The Nashville Predators have the most organized, puck-moving defensive corps since perhaps the Pronger/Niedermeyer Anaheim Ducks. The St. Louis Blues re-tooled this off-season and have tremendous forward depth. The Dallas Stars play high-event, offensive hockey. The Minnesota Wild are consistent and made the playoffs last season off the heels of a breakout campaign from youngster Eric Staal, who saw his goal total jump from 13 to 28 to 42 the last three seasons. (That’s a joke — but seriously? Eric Staal is scoring 40 goals again?)
As for the Chicago Blackhawks, don’t pay attention. They’re no longer playing the best kind of hockey.
Nashville and Winnipeg are obviously the teams to beat. It won’t be easy for the Avalanche to play competitive hockey against such elite teams, but there is a certain amount of pride that comes with knowing you’re in the top division in the league. Not to mention the Avs will be wearing these sick alternate threads in most of their home divisional games this season.
4. The Ottawa Senators will be hilarious
From the best kind of hockey, to the worst kind of hockey: the Ottawa Senators. For all of the Patrick Stars out there — people living under a rock — here are the key reasons why the demise of the Senators is of absolute interest to the Avalanche this season.
- The Avalanche have the Senators’ first-round draft pick: In November of 2018, the Avalanche traded Matt Duchene to the Senators as part of a three-team trade that netted Colorado Sam Girard, Shane Bowers, Vladislav Kamenev, Andrew Hammond, a 2018 second-round pick, a 2018 third-round pick, and a conditional 2018 first-round pick. That first-rounder was top-10 protected for the 2018 draft. Ottawa ended up picking fourth overall and, being allowed to keep their pick, they selected Brady Tkachuk.
As per the terms of the trade conditions, the Avalanche now have the Senators’ 2019 first-round draft pick, totally unprotected.
- The Senators will be really bad: The Senators were terrible last season and now they will be terrible without the best defenseman in the world, Erik Karlsson. According to Bovada’s sportsbook, Ottawa’s over/under points projection this season is just 71.5, the worst in the NHL.
- Jack Hughes will be really good: If the Senators have the worst record, then the Avalanche will have the best odds at the first-overall pick next summer.
Let’s just leave this here:
5. Nathan MacKinnon
While it’s nice to fantasize about a generational prospect perhaps heading to Colorado, it’s even better to realize there’s already a generational prospect here.
MacKinnon made a tremendous leap from 53 points in 82 games two years ago to 97 points in 74 games last season. His 1.31 points per game were second in the NHL (just a hundredth of a point behind Connor McDavid) and among the highest rates for point production in the last decade. Over his last 38 games of the season, his production jumped to 1.50 points per game. MacKinnon led the league with 12 game-winning goals. He was the reason the Avalanche made it to the playoffs and probably should have won the Hart Trophy.
Perhaps P.K. Subban put it best.
Full quote on what P.K. Subban said about Nathan MacKinnon being worthy of the Hart Trophy: pic.twitter.com/Veesorw2PA— Tracey Myers (@Tramyers_NHL) April 23, 2018
We’ll see what kind of encore MacKinnon and the rest of the Avalanche have planned for the 2018-19 season.