Now that the six-game exhibition slate is behind us and final roster decisions have been made now it is time for the Colorado Avalanche to embark on the 2021-22 season. It is another season with high expectation but new challenges in what hopefully leads to a longer playoff run.
What was the most interesting unexpected storyline from training camp and preseason?
Evan: The development of Justin Barron has been remarkable from camp and preseason. It was expected that Barron would be out of the first team in order to develop further, but he surprised a lot of people, fighting for an opening night roster spot. While he just missed out and was a part of the final cuts of preseason, he will likely be a seventh or eight defender option for the Avs this season. Nonetheless, Avs fans should be excited and hopeful that Barron will get some NHL time later this season.
Jackie: Justin Barron did make for a fun last preseason game taking on the role of Cale Makar but it just never felt like a real plan. If Barron put himself in position for a callup I hope that’s what was gleaned from his audition. For me the fact that Sampo Ranta made the opening night lineup was the biggest surprise to me. I enjoyed his aggressive style using his strengths which are size, speed and shot though the preseason and agree with the coaching staff’s affection for Ranta’s type of game. He got a taste in the playoffs so the organization’s interest in him is hardly noteworthy but the fact that it’s actually coming to fruition is a pleasant development. We’ll see how long it lasts though, they’ve given brief auditions to players ticketed for the minors before.
Luke: With how Maltsev played in the two broadcasted games we saw, I was kind of surprised when he was held out of the final preseason game, then sent down to the Eagles. It sounded like he improved through out camp, was finding his groove in the faceoff dot and learning the PK system. He was a player they targeted in a trade, so him not making it was a surprise. Until something sticks, the bottom-6 will be train of trial and error, with the coaching staff trying out different combos and players over the next few weeks, to see who forms chemistry quickly. So I expect Maltsev to be called up fairly quickly, where I expect he takes the role of 4C.
Tom: Justin Barron is the answer. No one expected him to be an NHLer this season but he nearly forced the team’s hand. Had health issues not caused him to miss most of his draft season, he would have been a top-5 pick in the draft. Now he’s showing why. Barron will be in the NHL sooner than most thought and we should expect him to be a key part of any success the team has over the next few years.
Who do the Avalanche need an exceptional performance from in the upcoming season the most?
Evan: The easy answer for me here is Darcy Kuemper. If Kuemper can perform, this team will go far. Of course the loss of Phillip Grubauer was an unexpected turn for Avs fans and they had to give up a good amount to get Kuemper from Arizona. He will be playing for an extension as well, as he is only on a one-year deal and will be a UFA come July. With Kuemper holding down the fort behind a mix of young and veteran defensemen, the Avs should make a deep playoff run.
Jackie: The Avalanche are going to need someone to step up and fill the holes vacated by Brandon Saad and Joonas Donskoi because on paper it looks like those needs were not addressed. I’m skeptical that Val Nichushkin, Tyson Jost and JT Compher are just suddenly going to score more and counting on Alex Newhook and Sampo Ranta to fill the void would be lovely but nothing anyone should bet on. Truly though Compher needs to find his game again and prove why he’s worth a $3.5M salary. Having to stash him on the fourth line hurts every line and not to mention the opportunity cost of keeping him around at that price tag.
Luke: Piggy backing off of what Jackie said, the Avalanche need someone in the bottom six to be the guy. The guy I’m looking at is Tyson Jost. He’s got a new contract, he finished the season as a 0.4 point per game player in the 2nd half. Its time for him to either be that guy, the guy who was scoring, finding the net, been a shutdown defensive center and not the guy who had 3 points in 24 game to start the year. We were all looking at the Avs to make a run at Blake Coleman for his defense capabilities, its time for Jost to be that guy for the Avs. If he continues on that pace, the Avalanche will be a much deeper and complete team than people realize.
Tom: I agree with Evan that Kuemper is a guy who just have a strong season for this Avs team to reach their potential. That said, I am going to go with Ryan Murray. He is a guy that when healthy can play a strong defensive game and bring leadership to a young group. He will be incredibly valuable to the Avs because his style of play allows him to adapt to whatever role the team needs. To start the season, he will likely help fill some of the holes left by the absence of Devon Toews and as the season goes on, he’ll be a safety valve when others miss time. He can play on the PP if Makar or Girard miss some time, he can also play as the top Pk guy if something happens to Erik Johnson. Murray will play both sides through the season and will provide the coaches with a safety valve when needed.
Name your prediction for surprise player?
Evan: I don’t know if this classifies as a surprise, but I’m going to go with Alex Newhook. As we know, he entered the Avs lineup late in the season and got his first career goal in Game 3 of the playoffs versus St. Louis. While he will be a bottom six guy for now, don’t be surprised if Newhook’s creativity, speed and style earns him some chances on the second line come the end of the season.
Jackie: It seems like it’s still a surprise to some folks just how good Mikko Rantanen is. After leading the team in both points and goals last season and earning 10th place in votes for the Hart Trophy Rantanen is ready to ascend to superstar status. If preseason was any indication Rantanen should come out of the gate flying.
Luke: Its a contract year, he’s entering UFA, and Andre Burakovsky loves preforming in those years. I think he will have a career year and really elevate that 2nd line and 2nd PP unit with it. He’s as close as a non core member can be. If Newhook makes his way on to that 2nd line and they can start forming some chemistry, it will be really hard to watch this 30 plus goal scorer leave in UFA if the Avalanche can’t come to a deal. I can see Burakovsky having that 35 and 35 season.
Tom: If I hadn’t said Ryan Murray in the last answer, I would have here, so I’m going to go with Tyson Jost. For many, he had a breakout season last year (though for other fans that came a year earlier), and this is the year that he’s going to have a breakout form an offensive production perspective. He’s going to set career highs in both goals and assists and will add that secondary scoring the team is looking for.
Where will the Avalanche finish in the standings?
Evan: Top of the Central is where the Avs will finish, no question about it. The Central Division has weakened from where it was three to four years ago and the Avs should take care of business. It’s more of a concern as to how far the Avs will go in the playoffs and perform against other teams in the West like the Vegas Golden Knights once again. That is what I think more people will be looking at, along with whether or not they finish top of the Western Conference.
Jackie: After a relatively easy regular season last year I anticipate some more hurdles along the way. The Avalanche should be in the mix for the division crown but I think they fall just short and end up the second seed. While the entire Western Conference is experiencing a downtrend the Central Division is a lot better than the temporary West Division was.
Luke: With this team not being as deep as last year, still lots of question marks around the bottom 6 and other teams in the central improving. I think the Avalanche will slip to 2nd in the Central, behind the Winnipeg Jets and 4th in the West, behind a very deep Vegas team and a much improved Edmonton Oilers team.
Tom: If Kuemper stays healthy, I think the Avs win the Central with ease. While the teams in the incredibly deep Eastern Conference beat up on eachother, it will be Vegas and Colorado who compete for the President’s Trophy once again.
That said, Kuemper misses significant time, all bets are off.