At the start of the season, if you had told fans of the Colorado Avalanche that their team would go into the All-Star break holding onto one of the Wild Card spots in the Western Conference, they’d probably be happy with it. That said, the way the Avs got there is far less than ideal and if things don’t change soon, it’s going to be a longer than expected offseason in Denver.
There are still 32 games left in the season so there’s plenty of time to right the ship.
Our writers take a look at how the second half of the season will go for the Avalanche and what we anticipate the team will do to get things back on track.
You’ll notice some fresh, new, smarter (?) people in the group.
Are you worried that the Avalanche won’t be able to turn things around after the break?
Tom: Not particularly. By all accounts, the Avalanche are prepared to bring in some outside help over the next month. A small shakeup or two could be all it takes to get things stabilized.
Adrian: Normally with three players in the All-Star game this question wouldn’t scare me. However, this year I am worried that the most recent part of the season is a clearer depiction of where we stand. The Avs haven’t been able to beat bad teams let alone good ones over the last 15 games and as the season wears on, teams are only going to play harder and harder. Especially, in a close and competitive Western Conference. With 33 games remaining on the schedule, the Avs need to get back to winning 2 of 3 games in my opinion in order to truly turn this season around. The key is to remain competitive going into the final weeks of the season. Which is a sad statement considering how the season started. Now the team is grasping for air.
Chris: Call me an optimist, but I think the Avs have just got the short end of the stick over the past month. The results in terms of getting a point or two have proven elusive, but the frustrating part in watching them is that they really have been the aggressor in most of these games they are losing and outplaying their opponent. The first game against Chicago stands out in my mind. It seemed like the entire game was played in the Chicago zone and one or two bad things happen and its game over. The Calgary game was similar. The effort I feel is there, but they have had a bad stretch of things not going their way.
Now do I feel like we caught some teams off guard to start the season and them not taking the Avs as serious as they should? I do. Teams do research, adjust and adapt and that’s what has happened over the past month. So now it is time for the Avalanche to adjust and adapt back and make a run. When Joe Sakic hired Bednar he wanted not only a coach but a teacher, now is the time to prove that.
Cat: I think their improvement is going to hinge largely on their goaltending and depth scoring — which, really, were the two biggest questions coming into the season. Clearly, nothing has changed.
We’ve seen Carl Soderberg returning to form, but Tyson Jost lacked enough consistency to stay in the NHL lineup, period. The goaltending has seen some impressive numbers for small stretches, but then started a free-fall in December and hasn’t pulled itself out yet. For whatever hate Jonathan Bernier has gotten over the years, it’s hard not to miss the way he stabilized things during Varlamov’s injuries and low dips last season.
In theory, getting a break will give the team’s less-star-studded parts of the lineup a chance to really get some rest and prepare for a strong push down the back half of the season. The goaltending has been inconsistent enough, though, that it’s hard to be truly confident.
Hardev: Tom’s right. Not that the team is going to finish last, but that they’ll be picking first in the draft. Those two things mean the same thing, right?
Jokes aside, yes, they will be fine. Once the Avs return on Feb 2nd, it’ll be a 32-game sprint to the finish for all the teams looking to get into the playoffs (or to the bottom for their best chance at a #1 pick). The Avs are a young and hungry team, I see no reason why they won’t be able to turn on the jets they in the first few months of the season for the final run to the line. They’re a fast team run on confidence and motivation. After a week off, they should be fresh and ready to go.
A Trade Deadline acquisition couldn’t hurt, either. ;)
What has most impressed you so far this season?
Tom: It has to be Big Ol’ Carl. He’s already at his career high for goals (17) and has been the only player that has been able to provide consistent support for the top line. The coaches are rewarding him by putting more talented wingers on his line and it’s paying off. This is the Carl Soderberg the Avs thought they were getting when they signed him to the big contract a few years ago.
Adrian: Landeskog appears to be hitting his stride as a disciplined captain. Early in his career Landy was known for taking silly frustration penalties that hurt his team. Now he is showing maturity leading to his most prolific season. Not to mention his ability to redirect the puck has been outstanding and so fun to watch in slow motion.
Dan: Big Ol’ Carl Soderberg has been having a solid season and is showing that hockey players can (like fine wine) get better with age. I’ve been most impressed with his hustle and work ethic, providing a good example for the younger players on the team.
Chris: This might be the easy answer, but that first line. It’s been a while since Avs fans can say they have the “best” at something, and this line has been exactly that. Mikko Rantanen might have had to quietest 84 point season in history last year, so it should be no surprise that he is getting more of the spotlight this year, which is a good thing for MacKinnon as he is not to sole focal point of the opposition. They have been sensational to watch and every time they are out on the ice they can make something happen. It is must see TV.
Hardev: Can I say the coaching staff? Not in the traditional x’s and o’s sense, but in their ability to modernize and manage their players. The Avs training staff have done a really good job of managing the team’s injuries and not needing to rush players back. Banged up players have been getting regular days off for “maintenance” and have been sitting games if they’re not fully healthy.
Another thing I think the team has done well is have players under contract that allows the team to provide rest to their players. Like him or not, Philipp Grubauer has been really helpful to Semyon Varlamov in terms of giving the team a higher-end backup that can start for stretches. His season hasn’t been great, but his body of work suggests these next few years of him on the roster will be better, and that’s what counts.
The moving of the AHL team from San Antonio to Colorado was also a great move. It has made bringing players up and down a lot easier, and has allowed the front office to see their prospects and players much more closely. Along with moving the team closer, the Avs have also made sure there are several players at each position capable of moving up from the AHL to the NHL and back without waivers for any reason the team needs. Pavel Francouz, Anton Lindholm, Sheldon Dries, AJ Greer, and Logan O’Connor have all spent time with the big club. That’s impressive to me.
What has been the biggest disappointment so far this season?
Tom: Goaltending. There’s no hiding it, the goalies simply haven't been good enough this season. When the Avs acquired Philipp Grubauer last summer, he was supposed to provide stability behind the oft-injured Semyon Varlamov - unfortunately that hasn’t come. While Varlamov has been bad this season, Grubauer has been worse. By all accounts Pavel Francouz has been good for the Eagles this season, but it’s hard to rely on a 28-year old rookie with a handful of periods in the NHL as your goalie of the future. The organization might need to re-work their entire goaltending depth chart this offseason.
Adrian: It’s seems as though the idea of a bright and hopeful future for young Tyson Jost has been unrealistic, at least this season. I know the Avs sent him down to get more playing time and to find some comfortability in his game, but given he started the year as the second line center, you can’t help but view this as regression.
Chris: For the sake of saying something other than goaltending, when this team makes it to overtime you can basically chalk up an L. An abysmal 1-8 record so far in overtime is head scratching considering the open ice talent on the Avs, and if my memory serves me correctly these games are over rather quickly in the extra time. 3-3 has it challenges and the Avs haven’t figured out the right combination of players to get them the extra point. You can only say ‘well at least we got one’ so many times. If they miss out on the playoffs we will be able to look directly at this record and attribute not getting that extra point one or two more times as to why they are home watching the post season.
Cat: The goaltending, no question. Varlamov has been effective at times but is likely going to at least consider free agency, and Philipp Grubauer still hasn’t shown he’s gotten adjusted to his new team. It’s concerning for anyone hoping the team can take a big step forward in the coming years.
Should the Avalanche be Buyers or Sellers at the deadline?
Tom: Why not both? Joe Sakic is going to bring in a new forward before the deadline - it’s just a matter of when, not if. He might even bring in two.
At the same time, we shouldn’t be surprised if he sells off a guy like Colin Wilson. Wilson is the kind of player that contending teams would pay too much for at the deadline. It’s easy to see the Avs getting a 2nd or 3rd rounder for him, especially if they retain a portion of his remaining salary.
If the team falls out of the playoff picture, there will be a call to sell on Varlamov and Nemeth, but the simple fact of the matter is that there likely isn’t a market for either player. Maybe you could squeeze a conditional late pick out of someone who is desperate for depth.
Adrian: I think now is the time to move on from Varlamov. He has regressed to a solid backup in my opinion. Fans were told going into the season that we now had two starting goaltenders. It’s looking more like we have none at all. We need to unload Varly for something before his contract expires and we are left with nothing. The ultimate question is whether anyone is willing to buy a struggling, aging, injury prone keeper.
Dan: It is time to cut the ties with Varlamov prior to his contract expiration at the end of this season. The only consistency we can expect from him at this point is that he’ll miss a few games from his recurring groin injury. I have a feeling we end up trading Tyson Barrie for a more defensive-minded D-man, although I’d prefer the Avs keep him.
Chris: I think the time is now for the Avs to make some moves in my opinion. If the playoffs were to start as of this discussion the Avs would be in, and if you are in that position you need to make a couple adjustments to make sure you keep that position. The NHL playoffs, more than any other sports post season, is a wide open wild west. We have seen any and everything happen so do what you need to in order to get in and see what happens. Also, take into account their recent play, they are trending in the opposite direction and a way to stop that is to add new blood. You get that player from a non-competing team that is now thrown into the playoff mix and their best play might rise to the top. The Avs need a pick me up, and getting a new piece or two to the puzzle might solve that.
Cat: They have a month left to evaluate where they are in the standings. For now I’d say neither, but if it looks like another Western Conference team is pulling ahead in the Wild Card race now is the time to move on from Varlamov. He’s crucial for a playoff push, but if that’s not happening it’s worth seeing what you can get on the market.
Hardev: Both. Sell your pending UFAs like Colin Wilson, Patrik Nemeth (who’s a scratch), and maybe even Semyon Varlamov if the team has no plans to re-sign him. While doing that, buy young players like Andre Burakovsky or Jesse Puljujarvi who can help the team now and in the future. If he a player like Burakovsky is available, why wait? On the net, if you take out players like Wilson and Nemeth, but bring in a Burakovsky or Puljujarvi, the team will be better and more prepared for the playoffs. That said, if the return for a Wilson or Nemeth is ridiculously low, I can’t hurt to keep them. A missed 5th-round pick in exchange for a little bit better play in the playoffs is something I’d be willing to do just for that morale factor with the team. You don’t want your guys to think you’re giving up on them when they technically have a chance at the Cup.
Will they make the playoffs?
Tom: I have a bad feeling. At the start of the season, I thought the Avalanche would fall just shy of the final Wild Card spot in the west, so I’m going to hold to that prediction. I hope I’m wrong.
Adrian: In today’s league you need solid goaltending in order to steal a few during the homestretch of the season. I don’t know that the Avalanche have the stopping power to survive a surge from some fringe squads. We will either end up in a wild card spot or just out of one.
Dan: IF we’re going to make the playoffs, we need to start beating our division rivals rather than rely on obtaining a wildcard spot since the Central Division is weaker than previous years. Similar to last year, a tight race will come down to the final half-dozen games or so. I have a feeling we’re going to barely miss out, with Dallas and a Pacific Division team taking the two wildcard spots.
Chris: I would be contradicting myself if I started this discussion by saying I’m the optimist and that they can turn it around only to say I don’t think they will make the post season. So with that in mind, I think they can pull it off. There is too much talent in that top line and the 2nd line is starting to produce a little more as well. I have no doubt all that will continue. What needs to turn around immediately is the goal tending. If the Avs can make some good trades by the deadline and the goal tending can improve, there is no reason this team can’t make it to the playoffs again. Do I see another 10-game winning streak to help along the way? I don’t think anyone can predict a 10-game streak, but this team could easily run off five or six in a row to put some of these questions to rest. But they need to beat the teams they should be beating (looking at you Ottawa)
Cat: On the last day before the All-Star Break, the Avalanche were locked in a fierce battle with three Pacific Division teams for the second Wild Card spot. A win from any of the other three teams after Colorado’s loss would have pushed them to the outside looking in — and while those teams were Anaheim (who took just 13 shots on goal), Vancouver (who got absolutely bodied by the Carolina Hurricanes of all teams), and Arizona (who only lost by virtue of an overturned goal in the final three minutes, but are running on fumes with more injuries than anyone), it should worry Colorado that they’re sitting on a similar record to teams of that caliber.
If Arizona starts to get healthy they make a valid case for elbowing them out of the way, and Colorado will need to get better goaltending to make the playoffs. Can’t give a yes or a no here; I’m a hard ‘maybe’.
Hardev: Yes. I have both my eyes on the Arizona Coyotes to make a late-season push, but at the same time, I don’t have much faith that the Dallas Stars will be a team to be reckoned with late in the season. Going through the rest of the competition, Vancouver is going to have some fun, but I don’t see them having the juice to do anything special. Anaheim and Edmonton are literal piles of turds so I don’t see much from them. St. Louis somehow has an outside chance, but the odds are too long for me to believe in them. On the net, I think they’re in.