This year’s Colorado Avalanche feel a little different. Colorado finished in a tie for third in the 2020 season and the Avalanche entered last year’s playoff bubble in Edmonton as one of the odds-on favourites to win the Stanley Cup. After rolling through the Arizona Coyotes, who looked completely overwhelmed by the Avalanche’s never-ending attack, Colorado was eliminated after seven games by the Dallas Stars in the second round. Whether it was attributed to goaltending injuries, poor conditioning after a return from quarantine, or simply running into a strong Dallas team that would go on to compete in the finals, the point remains that the Avalanche could not have been happy with their premature exit.
In the offseason, poised to alter the outcome of 2021, the Avalanche changed the look of the team’s defensive unit, acquiring Devon Toews from the New York Islanders and added to their offensive firepower, landing Brandon Saad from the Chicago Blackhawks. In Toews, the Avalanche found a top-pairing defensemen to offer reliable play alongside Norris Trophy candidate Cale Makar, who additionally would go on to become a major factor in the establishing of one of the best top-four defensive groups in the league. Saad presented Colorado with a big, offensively-gifted power forward to play on the second line with the streaky Nazem Kadri and sniper Andre Burakovsky. The Avalanche’s first line is arguably the best line in the league, however, as was proven in last year’s bubble, when the Stars managed to slow down superstar Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado’s Cup bid ended prematurely. Secondary scoring options needed to become a priority for the team and Saad became the first key piece in solving this puzzle.
The arrivals of Saad and Toews provided the opportunity to reorganize lines and offer new roles to players who were asked too much of in seasons prior. Joonas Donskoi, now on the third line, scored a career-high 17 goals in his lowest recorded number of games played, good for a 26 goal pace over 82 games. Having discovered a previously unseen scoring touch, Donskoi has now shifted into the bumper position on the team’s first power play unit. Donskoi’s centreman, JT Compher, now surrounded with more talent, produced at his best Corsi For Percentage (CF%) of his career at 54%, controlling play for 6% more of his time-on-ice than his previous career-high in this area. Further, Compher’s expected plus/minus of +4.8 was more than four expected goals better than any previously recorded career total. Donskoi and Compher are just two examples. Third-line power forward Valeri Nichushkin had the best analytics season of his career, as did fourth-line center Tyson Jost. When all of a team’s depth players perform to their career-bests, it cannot be a coincidence. Brandon Saad, who recorded the second-highest CF% of his nine-year career, was the missing second-line winger that when slotted in, allowed for every other player behind him to flourish in a role more well-suited to their skillsets. After bringing in Carl Soderberg at the trade deadline and calling up highly-touted prospect Alex Newhook just prior to the playoffs, the Avalanche’s forward depth should continue to capably reach its expected value.
Depth is something that was drained on the back end for Colorado in a season where the Avalanche was one of the teams affected the most by COVID-19. Through it all, Devon Toews posted his highest NHL point total, playing to a near 60% CF% and a +18 expected plus/minus. Also stepping up, tasked with quarterbacking the first power play unit when Makar battled injury, was Samuel Girard, who finished second on the team amongst defensemen and graded as Colorado’s third number one defensemen analytically. When healthy, Makar built on his outstanding rookie season and continued to develop into a superstar, scoring at a point-per-game average and offering reliability at both ends of the ice. Rounding out the top four, Ryan Graves, while not producing points as efficiently as his teammates, had his best statistical season by a wide margin and gave the Avalanche key penalty kill minutes all year.
If the aforementioned evidence is still not enough to prove that this year’s Avalanche should be Stanley Cup favourites, Colorado’s starting goaltender was recently announced as a Vezina candidate. Phillip Grubauer, who was hurt midway through last year’s playoff run, won 30 of his 39 games started, more than doubled his previous career-high in shutouts and held his Goals Against Average to under two. In front of Grubauer, the Avs hold opposing teams to the lowest number of shots against per game in the league, while tallying the second-highest shots for. Grubauer will have run support. If he can stay healthy, it is hard to forecast any team beating him four times in seven games.
Of course, no Avalanche analysis is complete without looking at the top line. Arguably the best line in the league, the play of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen speaks for itself. In a postgame network interview, Landeskog described his linemates as having skillsets that are well-suited to one another. This is an understatement. The Avalanche captain finished the regular season scoring at just under one point-per-game, posting his first-ever CF% over 60 and finding a home in front of the net where he so brilliantly finds ways to redirect shots on goal and jam in rebounds. MacKinnon, in my opinion, is the second-best player in the league (behind only Connor McDavid) and has game-breaking talent from the minute he touches the ice. His ability to accelerate while stick-handling and his control in change of direction plays demonstrate once-in-a-generation level skill. The icing on the cake: MacKinnon is currently an all-time great playoff performer. The former first-overall pick currently sits fifth all-time in playoff points-per-game behind only Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr and Mike Bossy. MacKinnon is a perennial superstar in the league and he didn’t even lead Colorado in goals this season. Mikko Rantanen scored 30 goals in 52 games (46 goal pace) and toppled his previous season-highs in CF% and expected plus/minus. Analytically, the line finished first, second, and fourth in league-wide individual CF% (MacKinnon, Rantanen, Landeskog, respectively), and all fell within the top 15 in expected plus/minus. They are as close to unstoppable as a line can be in the NHL.
After a relatively early exit for the Avalanche in last year’s bubble, it was never about rethinking expectations. The team already had its star line, its Norris candidate defensemen and its Vezina-level goaltender. Colorado simply needed to rest up, get healthy and reload. As it would turn out, last year, they were only a couple of pieces away. This year will be different.