Entering 2021 NHL season, the Colorado Avalanche are viewed by most as one of the true contenders to win the Stanley Cup. Las Vegas has the Avs as the betting favorites, and most pundits have them in a group of three or four teams to beat.
While they should be one of the best teams in the league, the Avalanche aren’t without some questions heading into Jan. 13.
Can they stay healthy?
This is a hypothetical that every team faces, but last year injuries derailed Avalanche players more than most—Nathan MacKinnon was really the only high-end player who didn’t miss significant time. With the rest of the top-six missing a couple months each, it was amazing that the Avalanche were as good offensively as they were. Then when the playoffs came around, not only did they lose one of the most important parts of the blue line but both goalies. Michael Hutchinson was fine for a third stringer (one good game, one bad game and one mediocre game), but it’s easy to imagine the Avs getting past Dallas in Game 7 if either Philipp Grubauer or Pavel Francouz were healthy.
Injuries will happen—particularly with such a condensed schedule—but with the added depth to the team, it’s going to be a lot easier for the Avalanche to overcome it this season. That said, the hope is that there isn’t the same kind of carnage as last season.
Where will Brandon Saad and Devon Toews fit in the lineup?
This offseason, Joe Sakic made two major aquisitions—one for both the forward and the defense groups. Saad gives the team another legitimate top-six winger who would fit in well on either of the top two lines. Does Coach Bednar play him on the second line with Nazem Kadri or does he break up the big three and play Saad on with MacKinnon?
As hard as it is to break up the best line in hockey, there is an argument to be made that Saad is actually a better fit to play with MacKinnon than Gabriel Landeskog. Wherever he plays, we know that Bednar likes to mix things up, and Saad will give him an extra opportunity to do so.
As for Toews, he instantly becomes the team’s best left-shooting defenseman, so it makes sense that he would be paired with Cale Makar. With that said, Makar and Ryan Graves worked really well together last season, so Bednar might look to keep the two together. With Samuel Girard and Erik Johnson working perfectly as a tandem over the last two years, that would leave Toews to play with someone like Ian Cole—who has the ability to play both sides—or a youngster like Conor Timmins. It’s likely the coaching staff will switch up the pairings a lot to start, and if that’s the case, Toews’ play could win out and settle him into the 1LD role next to Makar.
Can Ryan Graves repeat the performance from his breakout season?
A byproduct of the Toews decision is where Graves will end up. He scored a lot of goals last season and solidified himself as an everyday NHLer. That said, he was a lot worse when playing with anyone other than Makar. If Graves falls down the lineup, there is a big chance for his play to regress. Playing on the third paring with Ian Cole would not afford him the same opportunities that time with Makar did, and with a new contract, Graves is out to prove last season was not an anomaly.
Can the goalies keep up with the rest of the team?
Last season, both Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz played very well when healthy. Francouz especially was among the best goalies in the league. Repeating that play will be a huge test in 2021. It is always a lot harder for goalies to find their rhythm than skaters, and with a lack of a real preseason, it might take a while for the Avs tandem to find its timing.
With the schedule as condensed as it is, it is going to be more important than ever for teams to have a pair that can equally give the team a chance to win. Assuming we don’t see a sophomore slump from Francouz, the Avalanche will have one of the best pairings in the NHL, but until both prove they can stay healthy, goaltending will always be more of a worry than the rest of the lineup.
How good can the Avalanche actually be?
When the regular season was paused last season, the Avalanche were two points behind St. Louis for first place in the west and second overall in the NHL. That was with significant injuries to just about every important player in the lineup except MacKinnon. What’s scary is that the Avalanche actually improved in the offseason. They brought in a high-end top-six forward and an incredibly underrated top-four defender. Add to that the growthexpected from second-year superstar Cale Makar (yes he’s only going into his second year), and the Avalanche should be even better than the team that finished among the best in the league last year.
The Avs are going to be good. It’s just a matter of how good and how far they can go.