This is the latest file in THN.com’s ongoing “Three Burning Questions” series – an analysis of big questions for each NHL team prior to the start of the 2022-23 regular season. In today’s file, we’re posing Three Burning Questions about the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR THE AVALANCHE IN 2022-23:
1. Let’s get right to it – Can the Avs win it all again for the second straight season? Colorado absolutely mauled its opponents last season, as well as the playoffs. They earned the second overall spot in NHL team rankings with a 56-19-7 record, and in the post-season, Colorado lost only four games in four series as they captured the second Stanley Cup in franchise history. And although cap constrictions have forced them to make major changes, the Avalanche still have some of the top talent in the entire league.
For proof, look at their top two forward lines: superstar center Nathan MacKinnon leads the way, with Finnish sniper Miko Rantanen on one side of him, and big Russian Valeri Nikushkin on the other side. The Avas suffered blows when second-line center Nazem Kadri left for Calgary as an unrestricted free agent, and second-line winger Andre Burakovsky left as a UFA for Seattle. But in mid-September, Colorado replaced Kadri by signing UFA pivot Evan Rodrigues, who netted 19 goals and 43 points in 82 games with Pittsburgh last year.
Rodrigues will have star forward Gabriel Landeskog and Artturi Lehkonen on his line, giving Colorado a young(sh) group, with none older than 27. There are questions about their goaltending – questions we’ll deal with below – but the Avalanche still have a superstar up front in MacKinnon and a superstar defenseman in Cale Makar. Both of those stars were difference-makers when it counted, so we think Colorado can make it all the way back to the Cup Final once again and seriously test the best the Eastern Conference has to offer. So, yes, they can win a championship again.
2. Will their change in goaltending fail to succeed and cost them big-time when the playoffs arrive? New Avs GM Chris MacFarland and his boss, Joe Sakic, made a huge tactical change to Colorado’s roster when they allowed No. 1 goalie Darcy Kuemper to depart to Washington as an unrestricted free agent, and replaced him with former New York Rangers No. 2 goalie Alexandar Georgiev. The Avalanche showed their belief in Georgiev by signing him to a three-year, $10.2-million contract, and the 26-year-old – who hasn’t played more than 34 games in a single season in his six-year NHL career, and who posted a .898 Save Percentage with the Rangers last season – now will be tasked with stopping enough opponent shots to allow Colorado’s dynamic offense to win them games.
If Georgiev stumbles, Colorado’s second option is returning understudy Pavel Francouz. Still, the 32-year-old Francouz has only 57 games of NHL experience in three seasons, and he showed in the playoffs he’s not someone you can use to play 40 or 50 regular-season games and post-season contests. The Avs need Georgiev to elevate his game, knowing it’s their offense that will be doing most of the heavy lifting night-in and night-out. If that doesn’t happen, Colorado may slip in the standings, and search for a new netminder.
3. Is Colorado’s defense corps an underrated element of their success – and will the ‘D’ be even better this season? With so many incredible talents up front, the Avalanche’s defensemen sometimes take a backseat, away from the spotlight, in the big picture. But veteran NHL observers know better than to underrate this defense corps, which, one-through-six is one of the top groups of defenders on the planet.
Of course, everyone should know by now Makar is a generational talent who put up an astonishing 28 goals and 86 points in 27 games last season. But the rest of Colorado’s ‘D’ also make notable contributions. First-pair defender Devon Toews put up 44 assists and 57 points in 66 games, and he’s only 28. Second-pair D-man Samuel Girard didn’t have his best individual performance in 2021-22, with 5 goals and 28 points in 67 games, but Avs head coach Jared Bednar still trusted Girard, giving him an average of 21:38 of ice time.
Girard’s second-pair partner, 30-year-old Josh Manson, was an important trade-deadline pickup who could’ve left via unrestricted free agency, but chose to stick around, signing a four-year, $18-million contract that is very fair to him and the team. And on the final pair, the Avs have 21-year-old stud Bowen Byram, who availed himself very well in 30 regular-season games (12 assists and 17 points, while averaging 18:58 of ice time), and greybeard cornerstone competitor Erik Johnson, who at age 34 still averaged 17:16 of ice time and chipped in 17 assists and 25 points.
It’s hard to ask more from a blueline that performed as well as Colorado’s did last season, and they have the capacity to be even more dangerous this coming year. That is one of the many things that should frighten the Avalanche’s opponents in 2022-23.