Nathan MacKinnon. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Colorado was one of five 90-point teams to miss the post-season in 2014-15 and playing in the toughest division in the NHL doesn’t do the Avalanche any favors. The Avalanche need big seasons from Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Semyon Varlamov to even dream about the playoffs this season.
2014-15 Record: 39-31-12 (90 Pts.)
THN’s Prediction: 7th, Central Division
What To Expect: The Avs sought to get deeper, tougher and better on the blueline, and their major off-season move addressed those needs. In moving
Ryan O'Reilly, who was one year away from free agency, Colorado nabbed blue-chip blueliner
Nikita Zadorov and towering pivot
Mikhail Grigorenko. They polished off the retool by signing
Carl Soderberg, who steps in as the No. 2 center, plus depth winger
Blake Comeau and veteran D-man
Francois Beauchemin as UFAs. Off-season moves were bold and swift, and youngsters Zadorov and Grigorenko could fit in nicely with Colorado's young talent. But if playoffs are the goal this season, the summer was a failure. O'Reilly's departure will be felt at both ends of the rink. He was a possession driver and special teams staple. The Avs don't come close to replacing one of the game's most complete forwards by slotting in Soderberg.
Five of six 50-point scorers return. Even with these weapons, the offense finished 23rd thanks to a 29th-ranked power play.
Nathan MacKinnon could save the day, though. It's only a matter of time before he's a regular among the league's top producers. Beauchemin can help reduce goals against, but he's 35 and not a savior. The hope is Zadorov can play on the second pair immediately.
Erik Johnson, who went down with a knee injury in January, anchors the D-corps with
Semyon Varlamov provides star-caliber goaltending if healthy, but he had groin issues last year.
Calvin Pickard is the second-best goalie, but
Reto Berra will be the regular backup. On the rookie front, defensemen
Chris Bigras and
Mason Geertsen will get NHL auditions this year. The Avs' 2015 first-rounder,
Mikko Rantanen, is a wild card. He could play in Finland, the AHL or the NHL in 2015-16. The 6-foot-4 sniper, 18, was second on his team in scoring in Finland's top league last season. The Avs have young talent that'll eventually lead them to the summit of the unforgiving Central, but they'll stay at base camp at least another year.
Best-Case Scenario: MacKinnon had a down year in 2014-15, but that doesn’t mean he’s due another. Matter of fact, after spending an off-season around
Sidney Crosby, it wouldn’t be shocking if MacKinnon comes back and has a career-best season. With the added offensive punch and small changes made to the back end, Colorado could very well compete for a wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Central Division was the only one which had every team finish with at least 90 points. Every other division had at least one team finish with 71 points or fewer. That means divisional games are incredibly difficult and on paper the Avalanche are at the bottom of the Central food chain. It won’t be a long, miserable season, but Colorado could narrowly miss the post-season again in 2015-16.
Who To Watch: There’s no doubt the player to watch is MacKinnon. Fans know what to expect of
Gabriel Landeskog and
Alex Tanguay, but after MacKinnon slumped last season to the tune of 14 goals and 38 points — just over half of his rookie point total — Colorado fans want to see him breakout in 2015-16. With the talent surrounding him, there’s no reason MacKinnon shouldn’t be able to, either. He’ll get top line minutes, skate on the top unit of the power play and the Avalanche have filled out their top six to make two strong units that should take some of the pressure off of him. He’s fully recovered from a fractured foot that forced him out of the final 18 games in 2014-15. This will be the most important season of his young career, and MacKinnon has to answer with a big numbers.
What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):
Click here for more detail on these predictions. In a tough Central, one team sticks out. That’s Colorado. The other six are loaded to the brim with talent and ready to compete, but the Avs don’t appear to have that luxury, which likely leads to a bottom five finish and a 1-in-5 chance at making the playoffs. The Avalanche have the star-power to stay competitive, but the rest of their roster is among the bleakest in the league. The team is currently carrying nine players projected to be below replacement level players is worse than every team save for Arizona. Let’s put it this way: The Avs are worth about 6.5 wins above replacement, but Duchene, Landeskog, MacKinnon, Barrie and Varlamov alone are worth 8.5. That means the other 15 players are worth -2 WAR. Not ideal. That top five is an above average group, and there’s reason to believe they can exceed their projections too, but their depth players destroy any hopes that the team has. It’s huge black holes like
Cody McLeod and
Brad Stuart that really do the damage here. Just finding replacement level players to play over them would greatly improve the team’s chances this season (they’d be in line with a team like Calgary, although in a much tougher division) as the core players provide a solid foundation for the club.
The big trump card for the team is Varlamov. He’s carried the team to a division title just two seasons ago and he has the talent to do it again, but he needs support from the rest of the team. A big breakout towards elite from the Avs former top-three picks would help a lot too, but barring that – plus another superstar season from Varlamov – it’s difficult to be optimistic about this team.
THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section to see other team breakdowns.