Fresh off the worst 82-game performance of the entire post-lockout era in 2016-17, Colorado entered the 2017-18 campaign with little hope and next to no promise of snapping a three-season playoff drought. But no team had a single-season turnaround quite like the Avalanche last season.
Without making a change behind the bench, without any major signings and in a campaign in which they traded arguably their second-best offensive player a month after the season opener, Colorado not only improved last season, they did a complete about-face. While teams such as the New Jersey Devils, Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators saw 20-plus point increases from season-to-season, the Avalanche topped the league by nearly doubling their point total from the year prior. A 48-point team during their disastrous 2016-17 season, Colorado ended the 2017-18 campaign with 95 points, flirting with the 100-point plateau thanks to a 47-point turnaround.
The Avalanche’s charge up the standings was powered, in large part, by the performance of Nathan MacKinnon. Five seasons after taking the league by storm as the 2013-14 Calder Trophy winner, MacKinnon exploded with a career-best 39-goal, 97-point campaign that saw him finish second in Hart Trophy voting and prove himself capable of being the bona ide superstar he was drafted to be.
MacKinnon’s performance was supplemented by that of Mikko Rantanen, who had one of the league’s best sophomore campaigns. Captain Gabriel Landeskog had his first 25-goal, 60-point season since MacKinnon’s rookie year. And the play of Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson brought some semblance of stability to a blueline that was in shambles for much of the 2016-17 season, giving netminder Semyon Varlamov the opportunity to bounce back from a season marred by both injury and poor performance.
But as the 2018-19 season approaches, one can’t help but wonder if the Avalanche have done enough to do it all again, to compete in the battleground that is the Central Division and earn consecutive trips to the playoffs in an incredibly tight Western Conference.
Despite their success, which was in large part dictated by an offense that finished 10th in the league with 255 goals, the first question that arises when digging into Colorado’s success last season is whether or not the attack can continue to be as effective. Because while the trio of MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen were more than capable, the rest of the offense trailed behind significantly. The next-highest scoring forward was rookie Alexander Kerfoot, whose late-season performance would seem to make him a prime contender for a sophomore slump, with Carl Soderberg and Matt Nieto being the only other returning forwards to crack the 25-point plateau.
It’s not as if the lack of depth was addressed this off-season, either. In fact, the only move up front was the signing of Matt Calvert. That’s all good and well, too, unless you consider that Calvert’s average of 12 goals and 25 points per season over the past three campaigns isn’t going to replace the combined 23 goals and 44 points left town over the course of the summer. The hope, almost assuredly, is that increases will be seen from the likes of youngsters Tyson Jost and J.T. Compher, with incoming rookie Vladislav Kamenev hopefully adding a bit of offensive as well. There’s no guarantee there, however, that any of the three youngsters become significant contributors this season.
There’s also an analytical component to the concern about the offense, as well. Last season, the Avalanche, for all their successes, played over their heads. When the campaign closed, Colorado has the seventh-best 5-on-5 shooting percentage, which allowed them to buck what the underlying numbers said about their likelihood of scoring. Per Corsica, the Avalanche had the NHL’s second-lowest expected goals rate at 5-on-5 last season and, at a projected 1.98 goals per 60 minutes, joined the Buffalo Sabres as the only other team below an expected goals rate of two. Colorado’s bottom-five possession percentage, shot percentage and expected-goals percentage at five-a-side didn’t bode well, but MacKinnon and Co. were able to nullify those numbers and drive the Avalanche to success.
The one positive, maybe surprisingly given Colorado allowed more goals against in 2016-17 than all but three teams in the past five seasons, is that the Avalanche were actually somewhat defensively sound. Some of the underlying numbers may not suggest as much — Colorado was bottom-five in shot attempts against and shots against — but they were middle of the pack in scoring chances and high-danger chances against, earning them a top-10 spot in expected goals against.
A lot of the praise for that performance should be heaped upon Johnson and Barrie, of course, but Samuel Girard and Nikita Zadorov proved themselves more than capable second-pair defenders with some honest upside. That said, the combination of Patrik Nemeth, Mark Barberio and off-season signee Ian Cole isn’t all that inspiring as far as rounding out the blueline this season. The unfortunate reality is that the Avalanche’s best shot at finally piecing together a defense corps that’s rock-solid from top to bottom will be when Cale Makar makes the decision to leave school and Connor Timmins makes the full-time jump to the NHL. Maybe that’s next season, but it almost certainly won’t be the 2018-19 campaign.
The area the Avalanche addressed the most, and addressed by bringing in arguably the best player available, was their crease. However, the irony in acquiring Philipp Grubauer, a prospective No. 1 netminder who had outgrown his backup role with the Washington Capitals, is that he’s moving to another organization in which he’ll start the season as a tandem netminder at best. Varlamov will continue to be Colorado’s starter when the campaign begins, and he’s earned the chance to prove himself again this season. He ranked eighth among netminders to play at least half the campaign in 2017-18 with a .920 save percentage and he ranks 10th in SP among all goaltenders with at least 100 games played over the past five seasons.
That’s not at all to say the Grubauer acquisition was misguided. Varlamov’s 2016-17 campaign, complete with its .898 save percentage and 3.38 goals-against average in 24 games, was awful by both his standards and what we’ve come to expect from No. 1 goaltenders throughout the league. A regression of that kind from Varlamov would vault Grubauer into the starting gig. Likewise, Grubauer could find himself taking the top job if Varlamov gets bitten by the injury bug once again. He missed 24 games last season due to a variety of ailments, and his 2016-17 season was marred by injury.
But the combination of a fresh face in goal and not much else tinkering makes one wonder where exactly the Avalanche will end up this coming campaign. If it weren’t for the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado’s success would have been the most surprising story of the 2017-18 campaign. Now they have to be out to prove they can replicate it.