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2023-24 Avalanche Position Preview: Forwards

The biggest, and most important group for last in this preview!

Colorado Avalanche v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

The top six of the Colorado Avalanche have long been the boon of their forward core. Ever since the emergence of Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche have boasted one of the best top sixes in the league year in and year out. Last year, that reputation took a hit. The Avalanche were a one-line team last year, due mostly to injuries, but also a lack of depth. This offseason Chris MacFarland sought out to address those issues and has given the Avalanche a top six that could potentially be one of their best yet. But he took some risks to do so.

Top-six talent

Of the returning Avs in the team’s current top six, all four are a pretty known quantity. MacKinnon and Rantanen each put up 100-point seasons last season, cementing their spots as top players in the league. With them are some of the best two-way forwards in the league in Artturi Lehkonen and Valeri Nichushkin. The only question facing those four is health.

MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Lehkonen can be penciled in to miss a handful of games each year, as is the case for most NHL players. There’s nothing major to be worried about with those three barring a serious injury, which could happen to any player. The main health concerns revolve around Nichushkin.

For the second year in a row, Nichushkin had a near-point-per-game season interrupted by at least 20 games missed from injury. Those past two seasons have been the best of his career and if he stayed healthy during them there’s a good chance he would’ve hit the 30-goal mark. Nichushkin plays a large part in the top six as a puck-hound and net-front presence, his presence in the lineup will be vital, especially to help insulate the two new players in the the Avs’ top six.

As a team tight for cap space, the Avalanche couldn’t afford to get two cream-of-the-crop top-six players, even with Gabriel Landeskog’s seven million stashed away on LTIR for the season. Chris MarFarland had to take a risk and swing on the upside, something that has worked out pretty well for the Avalanche in years prior. He brought in Ryan Johansen and Jonathan Drouin for a combined 4.8 million to round out Colorado’s top six.

Between these two players, Ryan Johansen is much more proven. Johansen played as the Nashville Predators’ top-line center for years until they signed Matt Duchene in free agency. Whether or not he succeeds in said role is dependent on two things: Can he stay healthy and can the Avs tap into some of his unleashed potential?

Johansen has stayed pretty healthy his entire NHL career, missing more than 10 regular season games due to injury only once. Unfortunately, that one time was last season when Johansen suffered an ankle injury that required surgery. Johansen has said in interviews that it has healed well and he should be fine, which matches up with what one could see if they watched him skate this preseason.

The second question is the bigger concern, in a sense. Johansen is just one season removed from a 20-goal, 60-point 2021-22 campaign, which is what the Avalanche are looking to recreate. In fact, before the 2019-20 season, Johansen had hit 60 points in five of his six previous seasons. But in his past four seasons, he has only hit 60 points once, in ‘21-22. It’s safe to say there’s a track record of success for Johansen to try and recreate, but more recently than not that track record has slipped. By putting him with more skill and in a more beneficial system the Avalanche are hoping to turn back the clock and solve their problem.

The other question mark in the Avs top six is Jonathan Drouin. He’s a craft playmaker with some really solid seasons under his belt. Unfortunately for Drouin, he’s struggled with some serious on-ice issues. In the past two seasons, he has missed a combined 72 games due to mental and physical health problems. Despite those issues, he was on pace for a 48-point season in ‘21-22 and a 41-point season in ‘22-23.

Not game-breaking by any stretch, but given the roster he was playing with and the issues he had, pretty solid. Looking at those seasons and some 50-point seasons from earlier in his career, it’s easy to see where he could thrive with the Avalanche. He’s a strong skater and a creative playmaker, two skills that really fit into the way Colorado likes to play hockey. Not only that but playing with MacKinnon, his former juniors teammate (if you weren’t already aware), will help him in more ways than the scoresheet, especially on the assisting end as he did here.

Bottom-six success?

Where the Avalanche really fell behind last year was their bottom six, specifically their third line. That failure sparked what turned out to be a complete overhaul. Colorado’s third line is made up entirely of new players Miles Wood, Ross Colton, and Tomas Tatar. Relative to Colorado, they may be question marks but all three of these guys are bonafide third-liners at this point in their respective careers.

Tatar and Wood are pretty known commodities. Tatar is a veteran goalscorer with a strong all-around game. Barring an unforeseen drop off he should continue to do what he has done the rest of his career in Colorado. The only thing that might change for Tatar is his spot on the team. Given his proven status if anything happens to one of the Avs’ top six wingers there’s a good chance Tatar will be the first to move up.

Tatar’s former teammate in New Jersey, Miles Wood, has a bit different track record. Wood has been a consistent 10-goal, 20-point guy in his career. He’s pushed or hit 30 points a couple of times, something the Avalanche would like to see him do again. For the most part, points aren’t what he’s here for. Wood is the energy guy for the Avalanche third line.

He has spent his entire career using his staggering speed and trademarked physicality to make the other team’s life hell. Wood’s downside is that sometimes he makes his own team’s life hell too. Wood has had some serious penalty problems in his career, which have seemed to tone down a bit lately (half of his 76 penalty minutes last year came from two penalties). Despite the penalty problems taking a slight dip Wood will have to stay much more disciplined than he has, or else he will fast draw the ire of Jared Bednar.

The lynchpin of this third line is Colton. Colton is a bit of an unknown quantity given his fluctuating role during his three years with the Tampa Bay Lightning. His role this season with the Colorado Avalanche is clearly defined: Third-line center.

There will be games where he moves around the lineup due to injuries or performance, but he will likely spend the most minutes at 3C. Colton’s success is imperative in order for the Avalanche to redeem themselves after last year. He comes to Colorado with proven tools and a track record of NHL success, but the biggest question facing him is how far can that take him.

Colton possesses a high-level shot, good play-driving abilities, and plays a hard-nosed game. Pair those with his strong skating abilities and he could go places in Colorado. For at least this year, it is important that he fulfills expectations and gives the Avs a strong 3C option to help solidify their center depth.

Similar to the third line, the Avs bottom forward group is a combination of two proven role players, who are familiar with each other, and one newcomer with some gray area in his level of play. Around the league and in Avalanche circles, Logan O’Connor and Andrew Cogliano are proven fourth-line players. Both play with high motor, intelligence, and defensive prowess. Cogliano may be a step back from years prior but with a full offseason of rest there’s hope he can improve off a disappointing previous campaign. O’Connor won’t be pushing any big numbers, but he does have a potential for growth. He has shown to have a decent amount of skill for a fourth liner and has had productive stints with the Avalanche. For the former Pioneer, this year is really about staying consistent offensively, and not going long stretches off the score sheet as he often has done.

The two speedy wingers are centered by Fredrik Olofsson. The former Star was the Avs’ first acquisition of the offseason and the last forward to make the roster. Olofsson turned a lot of heads with his preseason performance and has given people some hope for the future of the Avs 4C position. Olofsson is the biggest unknown on the Avalanche roster, registering only 28 NHL games, all with the Dallas Stars last season. Chris MacFarland and the Avalanche clearly saw something in him though, since they felt the need to trade for him just two days after the NHL offseason began. If he can bring the tenacity and puck skill he showed in the preseason consistently in the regular season, the Avs should have their fourth line solved.

There are a few question marks with the Avalanche forward core this year, but it’s safe to say they are much better off than they were this time last year. If they can stay healthy and get their new additions to even come close to expectations they should be in good shape to repeat their regular season success from last year, at the minimum.