Based on an impressive finish to the 2018-19 regular season, coming just a win shy of advancing to the Western Conference final and seemingly addressing secondary scoring and other needs through the draft, trades and free agency, the Colorado Avalanche are set up for Stanley Cup contention in 2019-20.
It appears Colorado – which advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and was a Game 7 victory shy of reaching the conference final for the first time since 2002 – is finally built as a perennial playoff contender, instead of an annual long shot.
The Avs entered the off-season looking to add top-six forwards and bolster their scoring depth, and they did just that by bringing in Nazem Kadri (trade with Toronto), Andre Burakovsky (trade with Washington) and Joonas Donskoi (free agency). They also improved their blueline and have committed to Philipp Grubauer as the undisputed No. 1 goalie.
Colorado had an all-star first line last season in Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, and because of the additions up front, the ‘MGM Line’ figures to begin 2019-20 intact. In Kadri, Colorado has a defensively responsible second-line center who scored 32 goals in back-to-back seasons before being bumped down the Toronto lineup by John Tavares.
Burakovsky and Donskoi will slot into the top nine, with Tyson Jost, J.T. Compher and Colin Wilson also in the mix. Compher could succeed in his ideal role as the third-line center with Wilson on the wing. Colorado signed veteran fourth-line center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and he might play with trusted wingers Matt Nieto and Matt Calvert or youngsters like A.J. Greer or Logan O’Connor.
This is a major strength, even after surrendering Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. The Avalanche have sky-high hopes for rookie Cale Makar. The 20-year-old hasn’t played an NHL regular-season game, but he was a star in 10 playoff games for Colorado.
The Avs also have highly skilled Samuel Girard and will likely give 2019 first-rounder Bowen Byram (No. 4 overall) a nine-game NHL audition before deciding on his immediate future. As for big, shutdown defensemen, Colorado has a handful in Erik Johnson, Nikita Zadorov and Ryan Graves. Ian Cole is out until December after double hip surgery.
Colorado could have one of the league’s shortest and most economical tandems with Grubauer (6-foot-1, $3.3-million cap hit) and Pavel Francouz (six-foot, $950,000). Grubauer, 27, was terrific late last season in his first year with the Avs and is the clear-cut No. 1. Francouz, a 29-year-old journeyman from the Czech Republic, was excellent with the Colorado Eagles in his first season in North America.
The power play should once again rank in the top 10. Kadri will get an opportunity with MacKinnon, Landeskog, Rantanen and Makar on the No. 1 unit. Colorado might also try the ‘MGM Line’ with Makar and Girard on the points. The penalty kill needs to improve. The Avs traded an excellent PK guy in center Carl Soderberg to Arizona for defenseman Kevin Connauton, but Connauton will help in that area, and Bellemare has a track record of winning crucial defensive-zone faceoffs.
Last season’s playoff run filled the franchise and the fan base with a sense of belief, and the optimism will carry over after a summer of astute roster moves. After Connor McDavid, MacKinnon is the NHL’s most frightening forward 1-on-1.
Makar is bound to make a big impact and is surefire Calder Trophy candidate. Byram and Conor Timmins, who has been cleared from the concussion-like symptoms that kept him off the ice all of last season, also could be contributors on the back end. Up front, O’Connor has a chance at a depth role as a second-year pro.
Grubauer must stay healthy and further prove that his stellar late-season play is the norm. He has never been an NHL team’s go-to No. 1 until now. Offensively, the Avs need to get production from Kadri after he scored just 16 times last season.
As GM, Joe Sakic has done a nice job building from the back end and addressing secondary scoring while still having plenty of cap room to sign RFAs such as Rantanen this summer and Jost and Burakovsky in 2020. The seven-piece haul that Sakic got in the Matt Duchene deal in late 2017 continues to pay dividends and is easily the best swap the club has made since getting Patrick Roy.
– Mike Chambers
Stanley Cup Odds: 12/1
Projection: 2nd in the Central
The pieces are coming together in Colorado, where young forwards Martin Kaut and Shane Bowers will soon help the NHL depth. Colorado has future goalie options in Justus Annunen and Pavel Francouz, while the blueline is the biggest strength. Cale Makar and Samuel Girard lead the youth movement, but the Avs snagged Bowen Byram fourth overall in 2019. The most elite blueline prospect in the class, Byram led the WHL in playoff scoring with high hockey IQ and smarts.
1. Cale Makar, D
Age 20 Team Massachusetts (HE)
Sublime skater and playmaker already super poised at both ends. A Calder Trophy frontrunner.
Acquired 4th overall, 2017 NHL ’19-20
2. Bowen Byram, D
Age 18 TeamVancouver (WHL)
Top-notch natural instincts but needs refinement. Great off the rush with a high panic threshold.
Acquired 4th overall, 2019 NHL ’20-21
3. Martin Kaut, RW
Age 20 TeamColorado (AHL)
Looked comfortable playing against men in his first AHL season. Will fill out his lean frame.
Acquired 16th overall, 2018 NHL ’20-21
4. Alex Newhook, C
Age 18 TeamVictoria (BCHL)
Gifted offensively, and it showed with nearly two-points-per game. Boston College bound.
Acquired 16th overall, 2019 NHL ’22-23
5. Conor Timmins, D
Age 21 TeamColorado (AHL)
A concussion cost him a year of development, so he’ll surely need to regain his timing in the AHL.
Acquired 32nd overall, 2017 NHL ’20-21
6. Shane Bowers, C
Age 20 TeamBoston University (HE)
Offense sagged in second NCAA season, but he’ll get a different challenge after turning pro.
Acquired From Ott, Nov, 2017 NHL ’21-22
7. Calle Rosen, D
Age 25 Team Toronto (AHL)
He uses his speed to rush the puck effectively. Mature and creative, he’s ready to step in.
Acquired From Tor, July, 2019 NHL ’19-20
8. Logan O’Connor, RW
Age 23 TeamColorado (AHL)
A sharp defensive player who kills penalties well. His offense is coming around. A bottom-sixer.
Acquired Free agent, July, 2018 NHL ’20-21
9. A.J. Greer, LW
Age 22 TeamColorado (AHL)
Solid role player has had a 37-game NHL trial over three seasons. Uses his size well to get to the net.
Acquired 39th overall, 2015 NHL ’19-20
10. Pavel Francouz, G
Age 29 TeamColorado (AHL)
Showed he can handle the North American game with a productive AHL season. NHL-ready.
Acquired Free agent, May, 2018 NHL ’19-20