The Colorado Avalanche enter their final month of regular season play in a great position in the standings and with good momentum. However their path continues to find adversity along the way with Joonas Donskoi, Philipp Grubauer and Bowen Byram on the COVID-19 protocol list and a one-week pause to the schedule. Preparing for the playoffs is a theme that will define the next several weeks after the Avalanche return to the ice.
General Manager Joe Sakic was fairly busy at the trade deadline, picking up old friends Patrik Nemeth and Carl Soderberg in addition to adding Devan Dubnyk and Jonas Johansson for goaltending depth. How would you grade this haul?
Luke: B. Basic and fills the immediate needs of the current roster. Sakic went and got Jonas who has been a solid upgrade over the AHL goalies—maybe there is a longer-term future here? But he is not quite the solid NHL backup they needed. Getting Devan Dubnyk didn’t really fill that need either. Carl Soderberg is interesting because I’m not entirely sure where he will fit, but he counts as bottom-six depth. Patrik Nemeth was a great add. While he might only be a 6sixth defensemen for the Avs, his role will be simple. PK minutes and a steady presence on the bottom pair. Taking away minutes from Toews, Girard and Makar down the stretch will be key to keeping them a little fresher for what we hope is a long playoff push. One thing I think is important to note: Soderberg and Nemeth have both played with the Avs in very recent memory. So getting them up to speed on system tweaks quickly and building chemistry in the room is a low key great thing for this group.
Jackie: A-/B+. First of all, adding four pieces (including Johansson), which only cost the Avalanche draft picks in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds, a cap dump, one expiring ECHL ELC and a D-list prospect, was a masterful use of leveraging value in deals considering other teams blew major assets, including first round picks. I still feel the goaltending desperation could have been avoided with an ounce of foresight, but the Avalanche patched the hole the best they could at this juncture. Nemeth will fill the void left by Erik Johnson’s likely season-ending injury and perform as he always has in that defensive and penalty-killing role. Grabbing Soderberg for essentially nothing may turn out to be a stealthily important move, as he can contribute in many ways and will find himself in a lot larger role than many expect.
Hardev: B+. Like Jackie said, it was a no-brainer to make the moves Sakic did at the cost he got them for. Soderberg is a good depth center that plays a possession style that’ll keep the puck on the stick of the Avs more often than not. I like that he’ll be able to shore up a fourth line that has some relatively inexperienced players on it heading into the playoffs. I’m somewhat surprised they chose Nemeth as the guy they wanted back, but I much prefer him as the extra defenseman over Keaton Middleton. I don’t think Dubnyk is any good, and I’m worried the Avs do and want to extend him. Ditto for Johansson. That said, combined they have a decent chance of out-performing Michael Hutchinson last playoffs. Getting depth in net was crucial.
Tom: I have to go with a C- at best. Adding Nemeth is fine, and bringing back Big Ol’ Carl feels good but likely won’t have a huge impact on the ice. Those two additions were fine, but then Joe went out and wasted a pick on Devan Dubnyk. Only having Johansson made that trade absolutely unnecessary, but neither is a great option as a backup and both will cause the Avalanche to be in trouble if they have to start much in the playoffs—but of the two, Dubnyk has been the inferior goalie over the last two years. He’s been really bad and provides no more confidence in net than J.J.
If I were Sakic, I would have spent that pick on depth somewhere else. Ben Hutton, Erik Gustafsson and Jordie Benn were all traded for less than what the Avs gave up for Dubnyk and all likely would have been more useful depth on the blue line.
All that said, depth is fine, but this is the season for the Avs to go all in. Taylor Hall was just sitting there and got traded for the equivalent of Kiefer Sherwood and a second-round pick. That’s it. Hall now has two goals and a point per game over his last three games in Boston and is a huge reason why the Bruins are on a winning streak. Think whatever you want of Hall’s last few season, but he is proving that he can make an impact on a very good team—and cost relatively little to do so.
How important is winning the Honda West Division or chasing the Presidents’ Trophy? Where does the balance of rest and competitiveness lie?
Luke: Winning the Presidents’ Trophy is important because you have the home advantage throughout the playoffs. In a weird year, getting as many advantages as you can is always welcome. The Avalanche play Los Angeles four times, St. Louis three times, Vegas twice and the Sharks four times, ending the season with four against the Sharks and a pair against the Kings. They will have a very good idea where they stand in the division after the St. Louis and Vegas matchups.
Jackie: Even after a one-week pause, it is easy to say rest is most important heading into the playoffs, but it will be tough to let up if either one of those aforementioned goals are in reach. I’m not sure winning the division would provide the Avalanche with the most advantageous matchup, though. I hope the lineup will allow for a bit of variety to keep all the depth players engaged and fresh, or perhaps even a prospect or two from the AHL could use some NHL minutes prior to the playoffs.
Tom: Winning the West Division is immensely important. Of the 16 teams currently in playoff positions, St. Louis is statistically the worst—by a wide margin. Getting it in the first round would be more preferable than a matchup with the Wild. Beyond the first round, having home ice advantage against Vegas would be a huge help when the two juggernauts meet in the second. Home ice advantage in that series means Jared Bednar has the last change—something he has used very well to exploit matchups with the MacKinnon line. Colorado and Vegas could be the two best teams in the entire NHL, so an advantage like that in a second-round series could make all the difference.
Hardev: I see value in pushing the team to stay in a competitive mode right into the playoffs. Often in the stretch run a team that’s confirmed to be in the spot they’re in will take the foot off the gas and be forced to turn it back on in game one. Keeping that momentum going will be important to starting the playoffs smoothly. Plus, this season there’s a big gap between the top and the rest in the West Division. Getting that team in fourth rather than Minnesota would be huge. Yes, even if that team is St. Louis.
Point projections over the past fortnight. pic.twitter.com/ey4v4lSITc— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) April 16, 2021
The Avalanche are currently on a 19-2-3 run since the ugly 6-2 loss in San Jose on March 1. Who or what has been the most impressive part of their performance?
Luke: The pair of Sam Girard and Devon Toews. They are the best pairing in the NHL right now, posting a 5v5 CF of 63%. They just dominate the other teams’ best players. They’re elite defensively, and they drive offense the other way. It’s been impressive to watch. Now the Avs have that top pair every elite team has, and surprising to me, it doesn’t include the best defensemen on the team, Cale Makar.
Jackie: Everyone has put in an impressive individual performance at some point, but I think what pleases me the most is just how the team controls the game so well. Despite leading a lot of hockey games, the Avalanche still possess the puck and exert their will on opponents. They are hovering around a 60% expected goal share for the season, which would be a historic high.
Hardev: I have to shout out the hot hand at the moment. Andre Burakovsky has five 5v5 goals in the last 10 games, leading the team. Donskoi has also been really good, he’s gotten to the dirty areas and produced some really excellent chances in and around the net. I’ve noticed his ice time going up with more power play time, which I’m a big fan of. I haven’t had any complaints with the coaches’ deployment either. Makar plays half his time with the Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen line, which is exactly what he should be doing. Bednar has done a great job of maximizing that four-man unit, and it’s worked to great effect. Together, they have a 65% shots, expected goals and real goals this season. The rest of the team is holding up their end with 55%-60% shot and goal share with that quartet on the bench.
Tom: Is it a cop out if I say Cale Makar and the MacKinnon line? The difference between now and the earlier parts of the season is that the team’s best players have been playing like the dominant force we know they are. Makar is healthy and making a push for then Norris despite missing time. Up front, Mikko Rantanen has led the NHL in both goals and points since the beginning of March while MacKinnon is just one point behind him.
Despite currently leading the league in multiple measures, such as in points, Corsi For and expected goals percentages, what parts of the game do the Avalanche need to fine tune before the playoffs?
Luke: Taking and killing penalties. Take fewer penalties and your PK improves because you don’t need to kill them. Pretty simple. Lately the PK has been slipping, and it needs to tighten up. Special teams are very important in the playoffs, and you don’t want a repeat of what happened against Dallas last year.
Jackie: The power play drying up is always a big concern in the playoffs, especially since it thwarted the Avalanche in each of their second-round exits. Despite ranking eighth in the league at over 23%, the unit is actually on a 6-for-40 (15%) run over the last 15 games, and the overall figures are propped up by early season success from the second unit. I would still like to see more creativity that utilizes their unique talent on hand.
Tom: I have to agree with Luke and say the penalty kill. The Avs’ powerplay has been very good over the last month of the season, sitting sixth in the NHL over that time. On the flip side, since March 19, the team’s penalty kill is all the way down in 27. If the Avalanche want to make a push for the Cup, they are going to need to kill penalties at a much higher rate.
Hardev: To add onto the penalties point, in the NHL if you take more penalties, you’ll get more power plays. It’s simple. Stupid, but simple. In the playoffs, penalties go down, but the philosophy of even-up calls becomes even more stark. Working on the special teams to limit goals against and maximize goals for will win several games on the road to the Cup. Don’t worry about playing clean, the refs will even it up—that’s how the NHL wants to run things.