The Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils shocked the hockey world last season when they managed to make the playoffs. Both teams snuck into the postseason by finishing in the final Wild Card spot in their respective conferences and both were eliminated in the first round, but the fact that they made it at all was an impressive accomplishment. Will they be able to do it again?
Neither team made much of a splash this summer. The Avs added Matt Calvert in free agency and Philipp Grubauer via trade, while New Jersey didn’t really add any significant piece to their team. Both teams have quite of bit of cap space remaining (Colorado has just over $14 million, New Jersey has $19.537 million).
When you look at the way both teams are built, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t want to add a major veteran piece in free agency. Neither organization should be in a rush to get older. Both are loaded with young players that are bound to take the next step in their professional careers. So rather than block a youngster from making the team by signing an older player, both Joe Sakic and Ray Shero decided to stay the course.
But waiting for youngsters to grow into important roles could come with short-term consequences.
Having Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall at their disposal will cover up a lot of flaws. Both players had MVP-type seasons, but it was Hall who came away with the award when it was all said and done. For either team to have a shot at making it back to the playoffs, they need their franchise players to carry them.
The biggest advantage Colorado has over New Jersey, is that their supporting cast is more established. MacKinnon was great last year, but he also had Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Tyson Barrie, Alex Kerfoot and Samuel Girard. Tyson Jost could also be ready to take on more of an important role if all goes well with his development.
That’s not to say that Hall doesn’t have a supporting cast, but he’s in a bit of a different situation. Nico Hischier is going to be a huge part of the organization going forward, but how good will he be in year two? Can he make the same kind of impact that Rantanen made for Colorado last season? That’ll be an interesting story to watch. The same goes for Jesper Bratt, who got off to a great start in training camp before he tailed off. The Devils will need Marcus Johansson to stay healthy and they need to find a way to get more out of a guy like Pavel Zacha, who simply hasn’t lived up to the hype of being a top 10 pick.
Both teams have a franchise forward, but the depth advantage definitely goes to the Avs.
Goaltending is another thing to consider when analyzing these two teams. If all the goalies on the roster are at their best, there’s an argument to be made for Cory Schneider being the best of the bunch. Unfortunately for Schneider, he hasn’t always showed that over the last two years. Injuries and inconsistency have been his biggest problem. Keith Kinkaid has stepped in nicely for him though.
On the flip side, Colorado has similar problems with Semyon Varlamov, who also just can’t seem to stay healthy. Sakic sort of addressed the question marks surrounding Varlamov by adding Grubauer from Washington. Grubauer hasn’t been a full-time starter at the NHL level, but he’s proven to be an effective short-term option if the starter gets injured or falters.
In the end, it’s hard to give an advantage to one side or the other in this case because there are too many question marks between the pipes. Both teams have goalies that can be difference-makers.
But the other thing to factor into this equation is the competition that both teams will face for a playoff spot. In the East, teams that missed the postseason include: Florida, Carolina, both New York teams, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa and Buffalo. Some of those teams are going to be better, but it’s difficult to envision one of them becoming a juggernaut. Sure, the Panthers are better and the Hurricanes are looking different, but there’s way more competition in the Western Conference.
The Avalanche will have to fight off teams like St. Louis, Dallas, Chicago, Calgary and maybe Edmonton. That’s not going to be easy for this young team.
Even though there’s more competition in the West, it looks like the Avs are better equipped to have another strong season because their roster is superior at this point. That’s not to say that both teams can’t make it back to the postseason again, but at this point Colorado’s roster just seems to be ahead of New Jersey’s.