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MHH Roundtable: Halftime

Colorado Avalanche enter the second half at the top of the Western Conference

Arizona Coyotes v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

As the Colorado Avalanche head into a much more abbreviated February break than they were expecting there is still time for rest, recovery and reflection on the 44 games which defined the first half of the regular season and a look ahead at the concluding half. With 68 points earned in those games the Avalanche lead the Western Conference and are poised to win the Central Division if that strong play continues into the second half.

The Avalanche have won a lot of games lately, what has been your favorite moment thus far this season?

Evan: There have been several games that have been thoroughly enjoyed throughout the year, especially in this home streak. I don’t think anything will beat the comebacks the Avs have completed. It’s a close one-two for me between the comeback against the Toronto Maple Leafs along with the win against the Boston Bruins. I can’t choose a favorite between the two, that’s how good they were. The resilience faced in each game, especially after MacKinnon’s injury against the Bruins, is something this team needs towards a championship run despite not playing the prettiest of games.

Jackie: The comebacks have been great and a much-needed addition to the team’s bag of tricks but my favorite game of the season thus far was the win at home against the Florida Panthers. That game had everything including great skill, physicality and intensity. My personal favorite moment however was the two-goal and assist game from Bowen Byram against Columbus including the game tying goal at 6-on-5 in the last minute. I was in attendance and I’ll never forget the excitement I had witnessing such a moment from a talented young player.

Eddie: It would be easy to pluck a game from this past month, and for good reason. Outside of the Nashville and Arizona losses each game brought something we had yet to see out of the Avalanche this season. The Boston and Toronto games in particular were huge measuring tape wins for the Avalanche, showing why they’re once again cup favorites, and although those games were great my favorite game came before the extended holiday break. The 4-2 win over the Rangers was the perfect example of a cup contending team versus a cup pretender. Colorado dominated play against the New York, whose goaltending kept it close. Cale Makar, Nathan MacKinnon, Valeri Nichushkin, and Darcy Kuemper all played excellent games to get the team the two points, but the best moment of the game came when Kurtis MacDermid proved himself as a true heavyweight in the league by beating the snot out of Ryan Reaves. A close second was Nichushkin pick pocketing Adam Fox to give himself a breakaway, which he scored on, to seal the victory for the Avalanche.

Daniel: As the season has come to the halfway point, we have been fortunate to watch some incredible hockey courtesy to some of the best players in the NHL. This team is truly special, and seems to be coming into their own as a true powerhouse for this season and beyond. I was able to go to the Maple Leafs and Bruins games in person. Let me tell you, IT WAS LOUD. Too bad I am not the first to mention these games in this segment of the roundtable but they were by far the best moments together so far. Playing top Original Six teams on national television, the Avalanche showed some serious resilience in those victories, coming back from deficits to blow the roof off Ball Arena with the final results. Also, the other honorable mention was Cale Makar’s mind bending OT winner against Marc Andre Fluery, & the Blackhawks. That goal seemed to propel the Avs and showcase how unreal they can be on any given night. This team is sick.

Luke: The game against Toronto where it was all but over till it wasn’t was a highlight for me. After getting stomped in Toronto, it was nice to see the revenge served cold. The Avs kept playing their game and broke through and got the result they wanted. You wanted to see the Avs compete well against another cup favorite, and once they started getting their legs going, Toronto really didn’t have an answer. That was my favorite game so far. Hell of a game.

Casey: It’s not really a moment, but my favorite storyline from the first half of the season has been the return of Pavel Francouz. Besides his first start, (which he got assigned an hour before puck drop due to COVID issues), Francouz has been lights out. Compared to all the other highs this season has brought, you just can’t help but feel happy for Francouz. He came to North America in 2018 at 28 years old, made his first NHL start at 29, and his first season got him a $2x2 deal that he made his first start on almost two full years later due to a slew of major injuries. As a guy who came into the league so late, his leash isn’t as long as others. His contract extension with Colorado was his security contract, and him not getting to play through most of that contract could’ve been detrimental to his NHL future if he didn’t make it back this season. Once he got back it was on him to play well, and he’s done exactly that. Currently sitting at 7-1-0, with a .927 SV% and a 2.29 GAA, to go along with two shutouts. Frankie came back and didn’t miss a beat, and that’s a feel good story that can’t be ignored.

Who has been Avalanche’s first-half season MVP?

Evan: Nazem Kadri’s redemption tour is alive and well. When you’re one of the top point-getters across the league putting up Conor McDavid-like numbers, you’re going to get some recognition. After having his season cut short last year due to an eight-game suspension in the playoffs, Kadri has been out to prove a point and send a message. He is going to be paid massively next season, whether it’s with the Avs or on a different team. For the time being, he is producing at a remarkable rate that will take the Avs far for the rest of the season.

Jackie: The Avalanche have a great problem which is too many guys to choose from. I’d love to recognize the criminally underrated Mikko Rantanen who is top 10 in league scoring himself and of course Kadri’s first half has been nothing short of remarkable. However, my MVP vote goes to Cale Makar. The way that he can turn up his game in important situations is a treat to watch. A historic pace setting 18 goals in 40 games sets himself up for a monster second half of the season.

Eddie: As has been his case with his entire career, Devon Toews is being underrated in this conversation. After Toews returned to the lineup in a 4-2 loss against the Columbus Blue Jackets the Avalanche have a 28-3-3 record with him in the lineup. Not only that but his return allowed Cale Makar to begin to do the crazy things we’ve seen him do so far this year. Toews is the team's best defender in his own end, and while Kuemper and the other players on the backend were struggling to find their footing early in the season he was a rock and provided some stability that got the team back to where they are now in their own end. Not only that but his 32 points puts him in the Top 15 in defensemen scoring, which is made all the more impressive by the fact he’s played the least number of games of any of the fifteen.

Daniel: As we all can agree, there are a few players that are deserving of this designation at the mid point of the season. Nazem Kadri has been the key cog in the well-oiled Avalanche machine on the offensive side of the rink. However, we must remember that before the season, the biggest question mark for this team was in net. Phillipp Grubauer left to Seattle (oof) and Joe Sakic needed to be quick in replacing him. Darcy Kuemper was that replacement, and what a job he has done. With 21 wins in 31 starts, he has shown that when he is on his game, no one is more important to the success of this team then him. Coming into a new system and making all fans and pundits forget about those question marks in net has been remarkable. He is the Colorado Avalanche’s first half MVP.

Luke: Naz has been a monster this year for the Avs. After a rough covid shortened year last year, ending with a suspension in the playoffs, Kadri has been on a mission this year, and with players constantly rotating in the line up, his game hasn’t strayed. He is a huge reason the Avs are where they are. With is underlying numbers pretty similar to his career averages as well, one has to wonder if he is entering a mini 2 to 3 year tear at this rate. But he is the Avs MVP so far this season. Going into his UFA summer as well, a team is going to pay handsomely for his services and good on Naz for getting a well deserved pay day.

Casey: Nazem Kadri is far and away my MVP so far this season. Kadri has consistently been the Avs most dangerous player at 5v5 this season, and he’s managed to keep a mostly positive impact on the ice. His reputation is always going to follow him, so a lot of petty penalty calls, as well as faceoff infractions are going to go his way, but the way he’s managed to control his temper and let his game do the talking has been a huge X-Factor in the Avs being able to go on the run they just did. When you’re getting a multi-point night out of a 2nd liner on a near nightly basis, you’re going to win a lot of hockey games.

Who or what has been the biggest surprise of the season so far?

Evan: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the play of Logan O’Connor this season. With multiple shorthanded goals, consistent hustle and willingness to get feisty, LOC has stepped up in a big way this year. Surprisingly, he’s found himself on all four lines on different occasions this season and played multiple roles within those four lines. With six goals and 11 assists, his $1.05M contract is looking to be a steal for the next three seasons with his work ethic in the middle six for the Avs.

Jackie: Kadri is certainly up there as far as biggest surprise. I expected a bounce back effort in his contract year but to get elite production out of him is something nobody could have predicted. Heading into the break Kadri is third in the league in points with 60 and is just one point shy of his career high. It is hard to believe he’s the same guy who went 20 games without a goal last season.

Eddie: Considering all the worry around him at the start of the season, Kurtis MacDermid has been a bit of a surprise. At defense I don’t love him, but when put at forward he can be a solid piece in the lineup. He constantly finishes checks, makes as good of decisions with the puck as you can hope for, and can kick the crap out of any dude that has the guts to step to him. It was nice to see him finally bury one too. He had been close before, but he finally put the biscuit in the basket, and on a pretty nice shot I might add.

Daniel: As far as surprises go, we can’t say that we did not expect Pavel Francouz to return to form and play well after missing a seasons worth plus of game time. After his injury trouble, he slotted right back where we needed him and has preformed very well. He looks healthy, confident, and able to cover any sort of issues his team shows in front of him. Sure, his is not perfect (Chicago game) but he has surprised me in how solid he has been after a long hiatus.

Luke: While i did not see Kadri pushing a 100 point pace, a player who has surprised me so far, and exceeded my expectations is Alex Newhook. He started off a bit rough, including a AHL stint, but since returning to the line up in November, he has 10 goals and 16 points and is on pace for a 20 goal, 32 point season in 70 games. His defensive game has been very impressive for a rookie as well. He is rounding out to be quite the player for the Avalanche. I do want to give Bowen Byram some love also. Byram, when healthy, and we wish him all the best as he works his way back, has been a monster on the back end for them. He rounds that defense out really nicely and is quite the x-factor on a loaded defensive group.

Casey: For me, Devon Toews has been the Avs biggest surprise. We got a taste of how good Toews was last season, but after missing the first 10 games of the season recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Toews came back better than we’ve ever seen him before. Critics will be quick to contribute his success to playing alongside Cale Makar, but this is a perfect example of how complimenting your star players, will produce a star-studded lineup. Toews has eight goals and 24 assists for a career-high 32 points in 33 games, while playing in all situations, and crunching a team high 25:39 of ice time. The Avs already had the luxury of having Girard and Makar on the roster, and (hopefully) we can still see a 100% Byram come through, but adding Devon Toews, a guy who has grown into a true #1 Defenseman in Colorado for TWO 2nd round picks, has only aged like wine.

What is your greatest concern for the second half of the season?

Jackie: I’ll state the obvious that health is first and foremost the greatest factor heading into the playoffs and that hopefully the second half of the season goes well in that regard. As a tangent to that I’d like to see a little more load management in regards to keeping the top players fresh and on top of their game. Utilizing depth and extra players might come in handy during some heavier travel segments and the remaining back-to-backs. The squad will need to manage a largely meaningless final three months of the regular season will be a task and how they approach setting themselves up the best for the playoffs while grinding through the necessary final 38 games. I would also like to see some of that great Ball Arena confidence translate on the road a bit more.

Evan: I second what Jackie says - there’s luckily not too much to be concerned about with the team on or off the ice for the Avs. While we wish the Avs would never lose again, they will fall again sometimes this season like they did against the Coyotes before the break. But, there would be no need to be concerned unless the injury bug strikes again. With Nathan MacKinnon out injured, the other big name players have stepped up. If we have multiple injuries with other big name players, things could get worrying. Simply put, they need to play out the last three months smoothly and be ready to turn up the heat in the playoffs.

Eddie: Defense. My worries on defense are in a similar vein to Jackie and Evan’s concerns, health. This defense has struggled to stay healthy this year, with Bowen Byram and Ryan Murray constantly going in and out of the lineup. Both of those guys are big pieces to this team’s group of defenders. As DNVR’s Evan Rawal pointed out earlier this week, having those two back shields Jack and Erik Johnson from playing too much in a game, which can lead to big mistakes from those two. This week especially the Johnson’s have made some pretty boneheaded choices that have led directly to goals against. Having a top six defense of Cale Makar, Devon Toews, Sam Girard, Bowen Byram (if he returns this season), Erik Johnson and Ryan Murray will make it hard for other teams to generate anything against the Avalanche, but they have to stay healthy to do it.

Daniel: With the home game win streak now snapped (how fun was that Avs Nation?!) I am mostly looking to the rest of the schedule to find a point where the Avs may run into trouble maintaining their up-tempo style of play. They have come out of the gates flying and showing what makes them so dangerous tot he rest of the league. However, we all know when the games get tighter, the physicality increases which has plagued the Avs in recent playoff runs. Getting used to close games and closing out one goal games will be critical. Also the injury bug is real. Injuries are inevitable, but as we all know, they seem to happen at really in-opportune times and in bunches for the Avalanche. Continuing to stay healthy and rolling four lines, building the confidence for everyone going into playoffs will be key. Time to get some rest and come back refreshed. LFG AVS!

Luke: Finding ways to win in different ways is great. Comeback wins are also great. The great play by Kuemper and the improvements on the PK will have to continue, but letting teams hang around, not been able to find that 3rd dagger goal to put games away is a concern. They have let teams hang around instead of finishing them off. I would like to see them get that 3rd goal and bury teams. Don’t give them an ounce of hope they can come back on you. Be the grim reaper they don’t want to see.

Casey: Obviously, the torrent pace we’ve seen from the Avs to kick off 2022 is in no way sustainable, and the Avs aren’t going to avoid regulation losses forever. This team is still one of the most skilled in the NHL however, so the Avs are still expected to play high-octane hockey in the second half. My biggest concern for the second half of the season is the team taking too big of a step back. The Avs should have a playoff spot locked up as long as they don’t revert to zero for the remainder of the season, but the Avs are the best home team in the NHL. The Minnesota Wild are the only team in the West who are close to Colorado in the standings, so this team needs to avoid slipping below the Wild in the second half. Home ice will matter more than it ever has in the COVID era, and the Avs have to stay on a straightened arrow.