With the first nine games in the books on this early 2022-23 Colorado Avalanche season, we take time to reflect on the start and the upcoming trip to Finland for the NHL Global Series and a pair of games against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Which Avalanche player has had the most impressive first month?
Evan: Is there any other answer than Valeri Nichushkin? The train has been steaming along, leading the league in points and goals scored. When his new contract was signed and announced to the world, there was some speculation about it being a larger number than some expected. As time has gone on - even in the first year of his contract - it’s already looking like it’s paying off. He’s one of the several gems that Joe Sakic has dug out of the mine and utilized to win a Cup last year and keep the window open for an extended period of time. Hopefully, he can return from injury sooner rather than later to keep up his form.
Jackie: Nuke has had an incredible start and led the league in points and goals before sitting out the last two games with injury but he’s also been part of the second-line struggles at 5v5 with five of his seven goals scored on the power play. I’d give my vote to the 5v5 monster Bowen Byram who picked up where he left off from the playoffs and even had to fill in on the top pair for Devon Toews for a weekend without any decline in play. He’s leading the defense in goals, second with five total points, and has been probably the most consistent Av through the first nine games of the season.
Jacob: Nuke is the correct answer but there are some other players who deserve a mention. Nathan MacKinnon is only two points behind Nichushkin while averaging over a point per game, demonstrating how MVP candidates can get lost under the burden of large expectations. Mikko Rantanen is also averaging over a point per game, as he and MacKinnon have proven that the top line hinges on that pairing and there are a lot of different players who can fit into that third slot. Cale Makar is just a point behind Mikko and Nate, and simply looking at the Avs point leaders right now is a good summation of their most talented players.
Adrian: I agree with Jacob, the obvious and likely correct answer is Valeri Nichushkin. With that said, I can’t help but notice that Mikko Rantanen is having yet another sneaky good start to his season. I think that over time we will see Nathan MacKinnon become the clear standout for the Avalanche once again. His speed and competitive tenacity will always set him apart even on a solid roster like Colorado’s.
Eddie: I’m genuinely shocked there has been no mention of Alexander Georgiev. I agree Valeri Nichushkin has been incredible, full credit to him for his hot start. However, given the circumstances, I believe Georgiev’s start is much more impressive. We saw how hard it was for Darcy Kuemper and Philipp Grubauer to adjust when they first arrived at the Avalanche, and not only has Georgiev fared better but he’s been extremely impressive. He just took his first regulation loss of the season, in a game that he saved two goals above expected. Let’s just hope he keeps this hot start rolling.
Ezra: It’s Nichushkin first and foremost followed by Byram and Georgiev for me. But since I got to this article last, let me also shout out Evan Rodrigues. ERod has really stepped up in the last week or so, meshing well with Mikko and Nate on the top line and top powerplay when given the opportunity. The penalty kill stunk to begin the year, but since he’s been given some minutes there as well it has improved dramatically. I’m not saying that’s all him, since the other PK guys definitely settled into the system a bit after a tough opening stretch, but Rodrigues has absolutely made a difference shorthanded.
What concerns would you like to see addressed in the next month?
Evan: I’d hope to see the depth addressed just a little more. We’ve seen Mikhail Maltsev be successful on the fourth line, and digging away at every puck for the short period of time he’s been out on the ice. Ben Meyers hopefully continues his progression in Loveland with the Colorado Eagles so that he can join the team once again, similarly to Alex Newhook last season. Speaking of Newhook, if he can get going consistently it will all help bring it all together for everyone below him. It’s going to be key now with all these injuries and struggles we’ve seen up to this point outside of the first line.
Jackie: The depth is what it is at this point and it’s going to be something that has to be dealt with all season. I’d like to see a functional fourth line that can play through the entire game and ease the burden on the top players. Playing them more isn’t yielding better results and some poor third periods are starting to creep up on the Avalanche, likely due to overuse. A commitment to Martin Kaut would be nice too as behind MacKinnon and Nichushkin, it is Kaut who actually has been effective at generating the third most shot attempts per 60 (16.58) among the forward core.
Jacob: I highlighted this in the season preview and I still believe that defensive depth is the number one concern for the Avs. Forward depth is very unsettled right now but there are at least multiple options to improve on that front. Defense is a much trickier issue. Jacob MacDonald has filled in admirably as the seventh defenseman in the wake of Devon Toews’ injury, but after trading away their base of defensive prospects, this is their thinnest position. It’s ironic because no team has a better top-six defenseman than Colorado, but past their lineup locks, the depth is questionable, and should both Toews and another top-six defensemen miss considerable time, the Avs will see their greatest competitive advantage over the NHL shrink dramatically. Given the cost of a good defenseman these days, it’s very difficult to find good depth at solid value who also has minor league options available, but the biggest potential test the Avs could face to their dominance is multiple defensive injuries. Forward depth is up in the air right now, but there are far more options to fix the bottom six than there are on the back line.
Adrian: My main concern is settling on a semblance of consistency in terms of the lineup. I get that the Avalanche are toying with line combos early on with new pieces coming into the fold, but it’s only a matter of time until that becomes a detriment to chemistry inside each combo. I am confident that part of this recent lineup mixup up was a part of doing just that. It may seem counterintuitive, but hopefully, all the experimenting is done so that some of these new guys can get used to the minutiaes of each combo.
Eddie: I agree with all the talk of depth, however, I think it’s a simple solution for now. The lines need more balance. Evan Rodrigues has finally found his stride and Alex Newhook finally got on the scoresheet against the Islanders, however, I think Bednar can cater to him better. Swapping Mikko Rantanen and Rodrigues will give Newhook a great support system of Rantanen and Val Nichushkin, when healthy. Separating Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon would be a good choice too. Those two just don’t work together without Landeskog, and moving Mikko down helps balance the top six because MacKinnon can get production out of anyone. Getting the fourth-line minutes will also be a great help. They have the talent to produce, they just need the opportunity.
Ezra: I’m honestly not too worried about the actual players in this lineup - everyone aside from the top line needs to produce more, for sure, but ultimately my big concern is usage. Nate and Mikko cannot go a full season playing 25 minutes a night, they will wear down. Jared Bednar has my full respect and support, but his refusal to give more than six minutes to the AHL callups is driving me crazy. They might crash and burn, it’s true, but this team is good enough to win a lot of games regardless and this time of year is the best time to give young players a longer leash and see what they can become.
Do you enjoy the NHL Global Series with games overseas?
Evan: I think they’re neat, certainly different. Similarly to the Outdoor Series, it seems as if it’s lost a little spark. Of course, it calls for a major disruption within the schedule to deal with the time changes which will be unique to see. Already this season, the NHL has played overseas with the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators. Both teams have only won two games since returning to the States. Therefore, it will be unique to see how the Avs perform once they finish the Global Series.
Jackie: There’s some logistical drawbacks but it’s an important experience for the players to have and hopefully the group bonds and becomes tighter as a result of experiencing the trip together. It also is awesome for European Avalanche fans to have a chance to see some of their favorite players live in person. Growing the game globally is an important overall objective, too. It’s nice the Avalanche have been asked to showcase the NHL in this event.
Jacob: I love it. Hockey is a global game and the NHL shouldn’t confine itself to North America. Europe is the source of a significant portion of NHL players and it’s extremely good business for the league to create opportunities for fans across the Atlantic to see their hometown favorites.
Adrian: I think if the Avalanche were more historically successful in these overseas games, I would be more excited. It seems like they split or lose each time they play outside of North America. This one should serve slightly more special with Mikko Rantanen getting some of the national spotlights alongside Patrik Laine.
Eddie: They’re super fun. As I’m sure Evan knows, European sports crowds are insane. The energy they bring to the events is unmatched, something we saw in the Czechia Global Series. My favorite part about the Avs' last Global Series was seeing Peter Forsberg for the puck before one of the games. I wonder what ex-Av it will be this year. I’m hoping Ville Nieminen, one of my favorite players and Cup champion.
Ezra: They’re cool, and I think generally giving players a break from their routine is a good thing since an 82-game season can be grueling mentally. That said, international travel mid-season is a logistical nightmare, and we’ve already seen this season how poorly the schedule makers handle it with four back-to-backs in four weeks. Overall, I think they’re good though.
What do you hope to see from the team in Finland?
Evan: The Columbus Blue Jackets got the better of the Avs last year in both games they played. The Avs need to get on top of it, especially since the Jackets got talent by acquiring Johnny Gaudreau - despite being last in the Metro. I’d like to see a win at least, especially since they lost both games against the Ottawa Senators in 2017. Similarly to the Outdoor Series, the Avs need to get over that hump and just win one of them for the first time.
An added bonus would be keeping a camera on Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen at all times to see the shenanigans they get up to in their home country.
Jackie: I heard of a group trip to the famous Finnish saunas and I definitely want to see that. Hopefully, the team’s content creators want to share the adventure with us at home. A pair of wins would be lovely, too.
And it looks like the team delivered.
Jacob: This would never happen and competitively it’s a terrible way to try to win games but boy would it be fun if Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen were the only players on the scoresheet in an Avalanche win.
Adrian: Championship teams display consistency as a pillar of their success. It’s time for the Avalanche to settle into a good groove and rattle off a couple of victories before heading back to North America for a Divisional contest with the Nashville Predators.
Eddie: This was around the time the Avs got it together last year. The big difference this year is their underlying hasn’t been nearly as promising. I think that will change, but two truly dominant performances at 5v5 would be encouraging, no matter the outcome. However, after dropping both games of the back-to-back this past weekend getting all four points will be big. On an individual level, I’d like to see J.T. Compher, Alex Newhook, and Cale Makar get their play on track.
Ezra: I just have three humble requests from the hockey gods. First, I’d like to see Alex Newhook build on his goal against the Islanders and put up a couple of points in Finland. Second, I’d like Kaut and Maltsev to come close to ten minutes of ice time. And third, two wins against a terrible Columbus team would be nice.