If the Vegas Golden Knights didn’t enter the NHL this season, the story the Colorado Avalanche are writing might be getting a heck of a lot more attention.
But behind Vegas’ historic grand entrance, the Avalanche’s return to relevancy after their own historically awful 2016-17 isn’t followed by the same feel-good celebration. Last weekend, with a 4-1 win over Dallas on Jan. 13, Colorado surpassed its win and point totals from the entirety of last season.
It’s not often that a team will trade away one of its top players, a third overall pick and top-line contributor, in-season and then improve. But after a long, drawn-out process of miserable play and training camp mug shots, Colorado finally traded Matt Duchene for the exact type of return for young players, picks and prospects it needed to move forward. And now, quicker than anyone could have expected, it’s come together.
Though the Avs hold a playoff spot today, the bumpiest part of the schedule is ahead. Just how good this Colorado team is will be determined over a stretch where they play 13 of 16 games on the road, beginning Monday night in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.
But why and how has Colorado returned to the playoff picture so fast? Here are a few factors behind their success:
ONE OF THE OLDEST NHL TEAMS TO ONE OF THE YOUNGEST
When the Avs were circling the drain a year ago, they did it with the ninth-oldest roster in the NHL. But as Joe Sakic was taking heat for not trading Duchene fast enough, or for the disaster of a season he presided over, he was quietly making the roster younger over the summer and that was accentuated when he finally made the least surprising trade of the season.
Out went Jarome Iginla, Rene Bourque, Fedor Tyutin and Francois Beauchemin, only one of whom is still playing in the NHL. This gave more (or brand new) ice time to the likes of Sam Girard, Alexander Kerfoot and J.T. Compher. The Avs went from eight 30-plus players to just two, with the oldest being 32-year-old Carl Soderberg (more on him later).
The NHL is a young man’s league today more than it ever has been and in skewing towards youth, the Avs are faster and in better position to compete.
CARL SODERGBERG’S SHUTDOWN LINE LEADING THE PK RECOVERY
The big line has been grabbing all the headlines for Colorado, and rightly so, but beneath the surface has been the unheralded contributions from the Soderberg-Matt Nieto-Blake Comeau line.
“They’ve been together from Day 1 (of) training camp, didn’t have great years for us last year as veteran guys and they’ve really stepped up,” head coach Jared Bednar said in a recent Hockey Central at Noon appearance. “Huge part of our penalty killing, lots of D-zone starts, they usually have a tough matchup every night against other teams’ top players. Sometimes that gives the MacKinnon line breathing room.
“In the defensive roles they’re in they’ve really helped us give our less-experienced guys some beneficial matchups and put them in areas to succeed.”
Those three forwards are the biggest factor in the Avs’ PK unit climbing from second-worst a year ago to second-best at 85.2 per cent.
NATHAN MACKINNON AS AN MVP CANDIDATE
Without a doubt the best and biggest story out of Colorado’s NHL team has been that other player from Cole Harbour, N.S., who was a first-overall pick. Just as the Avs took a bit more than half a season to eclipse their totals from 2016-17, MacKinnon looks just games away from surpassing his all-time career highs. With 59 points in 45 games MacKinnon is second in NHL scoring and making a case for the Hart Trophy — if he can get the Avs to the playoffs.
It’s the breakout we’ve all been waiting for as other players from MacKinnon’s 2013 draft — Aleksander Barkov, Seth Jones, Sean Monahan — had already emerged as substantial impact players and leaders for their teams.
“There’s a slight changing of the guard,” Bednar said. “MacKinnon is an up-and-comer and has been here for a little while. Sort of a passing of the torch now to Mac, he’s known as the offensive leader on our team. His power-play unit starts every time, it’s his line that’s expected to go out and be difference makers in most offensive situations. They’ve really embraced that and the team has really embraced it.
“We lean on those guys heavily in those situations. We have other guys stepping up in defensive roles and providing secondary scoring. The overall chemistry of our group certainly improved.”
VARLAMOV BOUNCE BACK, BERNIER SOLID IN RELIEF
Make no mistake, there was a lot wrong with last year’s Colorado squad, but the biggest issue may have been in net. Semyon Varlamov was limited to a 24 games by injury, but was plodding along with an .898 save percentage and 3.38 GAA. Calvin Pickard, currently with the AHL’s Marlies, took over for 50 games and he was only six percentage points better.
Since Varlamov is signed at a $5.9 million cap hit through 2018-19, the Avs really needed him to return strong. And though he hasn’t — and probably never will — get back to the level he was at when he first joined Colorado, he’s been fairly average. That can be considered a win.
Perhaps the best surprise, though, has been backup Jonathan Bernier, whose confidence has been crushed since his days as a member of the Leafs, playing a position that requires it. But as Varlamov has struggled to stay healthy again, Bernier has had to step in for 20 games and has an even better .917 save percentage and 12-7-1 record. He’s not stealing games night in and night out, but he’s not losing them and providing a steady hand for the legaue’s fourth-highest scoring offence.
ERIK JOHNSON HEALTHY
It can’t be overstated how devastating it was to lose Johnson to a broken fibula in December last season, forcing their biggest and most reliable minute-eater to the sidelines for nearly half the season.
This year he’s averaging 25:37 per game, logs the most minutes on the penalty kill and is the perfect complement to the (currently injured) smaller, younger and more offensively inclined Tyson Barrie. He’s their rock on the back end and it speaks volumes that they’ve been able to endure the significant loss of Barrie, who should return next month.
At 29, Johnson, the first-overall pick from 2006, isn’t old either. And he’s signed for five more seasons beyond this one, which provides a whole lot of optimism. Colorado’s most obvious roster deficiency has been the blue line, which had plenty of depth concerns coming in. But now with Johnson, Barrie, newly acquired Sam Girard, plus blue chip prospects Cale Makar and Conor Timmins in the system, there is a very bright future on the horizon, too.