As the quarter mark of the season just passed and American thanksgiving is upon us now is a good time to check-in on impressions of the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche squad.
Many of the new additions have stepped up during the injury crisis, who has made the greatest contribution?
Jackie: Does Cale Makar count as a new addition? If not, Andre Burakovsky has filled a void on the power play and with Nathan MacKinnon in particular over the last week scoring six goals and nine total points in his last five games. Consistency may always be a question with Burakovsky but no doubt he’s made an impact recently.
Tom: It’s got to be Burakovsky. He’s on pace to shatter his career high in both goals and points and has filled in perfectly while Rantanen has been out of the lineup. That said, I have also been very pleasantly surprised by Val Nichushkin. After starting training camp as the extra forward, Nichushkin has shown a versatility to fill in a number of roles as needed. He’s been a key part of the special teams and has provided much more of an impact to the team than anyone would have expected.
Scott: Obviously, the answer here is Cale Makar. What a revelation he’s been. Remember Sam Girard? I don’t. He was the elite playmaker on the back-end for Colorado and now he’s been buried by the excitement and production value of the rookie. Sammy G has a third of the points Makar, and he’s one of just five guys on the roster to be in the “minus” — if you’re into tracking that stat. Other than that, Nazem Kadri has provided some solid depth, leadership and stability on an otherwise very young team. He’s also apparently the only forward who can win a face-off on this team.
Luke: Joonas Donskoi. I wasn’t quite sure what we were getting in the former Shark. Maybe at best a guy who could shore up the bottom six, but he has surprised me with his versatility up and down the line up. He has shown he can play with Nate for a time, he had almost instant chemistry with Kadri from camp and seems to find it quickly with others. He added a spark to the second power play unit (four power play goals so far) and he looks to smash his previous career highs in goals. Overall he might be the best/sneakiest signing of the summer.
Which injured Avalanche has been or was missed the most?
Jackie: The Avalanche are still producing goals but Mikko Rantanen’s game breaking talent has been sorely missed. His intelligence and skill is not easy to replace and while Nathan MacKinnon has found some limited success with various wingers over the last 14 games he really needs his linemate back.
Tom: I think it’s got to be the captain. Gabriel Landeskog’s presence on Nathan MacKinnon’s left side is incredibly important and while Nazem Kadri has done an admiral job of filling the hole, moving Naz away from the 2C role has hurt. With Compher forced to RW and Jost playing better on the left, the Avs need Kadri to be a full time center - something that he won’t be until Landeskog is back in the lineup.
Scott: Mikko Rantanen. His large-and-in-charge presence on the top-line, coupled with his knack for point-production has been sorely missed these past few weeks. Obviously, we can’t talk top-line without saying the team misses Landeskog, too. But either way, the game plan that catapulted the Avalanche out of the season’s starting gate has gone to the wayside. That is, hallelujah, the team finally has some scoring depth! And rolling with four lines. Hard to do that when 66 percent of one of your lines is out.
Luke: Matt Calvert. While missing the big guns has forced players to play above and beyond I think the injury to Calvert will be really hard to over come from a player and leader in the room. You heard how Nate and EJ rrallied behind him in their post game interviews. The bottom 6 took a massive hit with him now gone, which is a big strength of this team. Hes a guy who stepped up and produced during this injury plagued part of the season. But like Landy, his voice in the locker room and motor on the ice will be and is missed.
So, Cale Makar is kind of good, isn’t he? Which aspects of his play have been the best and what can he still work to improve?
Jackie: I’ve long been a fan of Cale Makar’s talent, work ethic and character but it’s been his drive and the ability to raise the level of his game when it’s needed the most that’s been the most impressive to me. As crazy as it sounds I believe Makar can become even more involved offensively while still taking care of his own end. He’s just learning how to take advantage of the space he’s created in the NHL and just how aggressive he can be.
Tom: Honestly, I think the one thing that could make Makar’s game even better is if he stops acting like a rookie. You can tell he still defers to others on the team. Even in post game interviews, he talks about how his teammates are the reason he’s been successful. And while being humble and giving support to your teammates is good, something you like to see more of an edge. The best players in the league know they are - they have a little swagger - I think a little more of that is what will be needed to make Makar one of the best players in the league.
Scott: I’ve appreciated Makar’s rising confidence over the past month of the season. To start the year, you could tell he was kind of making safe plays and wasn’t one to carry the puck end-to-end. As the season now progresses, however, you’re starting to see him with the puck on his stick a bit more often — which is what this team needs and wants from him, and it’s one of Makar’s many talents. On the flip side, I’d like to see him settle into more of a defensive role, too. Entering this Thanksgiving week, Makar has only lay 16 hits all season long. For reference, that’s two fewer than Valeri Nichushkin for goodness sake, and four fewer than Nathan MacKinnon. Overall, the team sits tied for fewest hits per game in the NHL, so it’s not just a Cale-issue, rather, it’s a collective team thing.
Luke: We knew he was good, but my God I didn't see this coming. He has started the conversation not only for the Calder, but the Norris and Lady Byng trophies... as a ROOKIE! What I have really enjoyed about his game so far is his skating. There are times when he his skating and he looks like MacKinnon. And that's scary for opponents. His passing is also money. His tape pass to Kadri, in the Vancouver game I believe, looked so easy for him. He has been a joy to watch. I would like to see a little more doing instead of watching in the defensive zone, a little more pushing/hitting guys off the puck as well to break up zone entries. But that will come with time. As Tom said as well - be the man, don’t default, be the stud.
It’s a long season with many games left to go, what is the toughest task that lies ahead for the Avalanche?
Jackie: Hopefully this is the hardship they will endure for the season with the injuries and getting healthy NHL bodies back should help any woes on the ice. But for the Avalanche to truly take the next step they must solve their special teams. The power play is staying afloat at 16th in the league and with 19.8% conversion success but is a woeful 12.2% on the road. And then the penalty kill is 21st with only a 77.5% kill rate. As a team who spends the second least amount of time per game at 5v5 at just over 45 minutes per game, the Avalanche need to figure out how to shore up their deficiencies on special teams.
Tom: Staying healthy? Aside from that, I agree with Jackie that the special teams need to get a lot better if the Avalanche want to stay near the top of the Central.
Scott: As Tom said, health has been the biggest enemy of the state thus far for Colorado. Which, is not their fault, it’s just a tough break — sorry, poor choice of words there, I know. Hopefully when the garrison comes back in full-force, it stays that way. Other than that, special teams, i.e., face-offs, penalty-kill and team defense all need work. The team sits second-to-last in the league in face-off win percentage; penalty kill is among the bottom-third of the NHL’s teams; and the Avs allow an average of 33 shots per game, top-10 in that regard.
Luke: The grind of the next 40 games. The first 20 are done. We have gotten through some injuries, and guys are getting healthy. Got to keep getting points in the mid-part of the season then turn it on for the last 20 going into playoffs. We have seen that where you finish in the standing come playoffs don’t matter as much, but how you come into the playoffs does. Come in hot. We've seen how good this team is when healthy and this team as everything in place to make a special run this year.