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NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines entering training camp

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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we take a look at some of the biggest storylines across the league that are worth watching throughout the 31 training camps. The top issue throughout the offseason has been the ongoing RFA standstill, but that has been discussed so much and is starting to resolve itself with signings trickling in that we are going to focus on topics outside of that.

Included among them, a major goaltending competition that could impact one team’s entire season, new coaches in new places, coaches on the hot seat, and whether or not a recent league MVP will want to re-sign with his current team.

What else are we keeping an eye on this preseason? Let’s get to the rankings to find out!

1. Columbus’ goalie competition. It might be the most interesting and important competition in any camp across the league. The Blue Jackets are getting fed up with being told how bad they will be this season, and while they still have a lot of reasons for optimism on the roster the ability of either Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins to adequately replace Sergei Bobrovsky will determine what the team is capable of doing.

2. Joel Quenneville’s impact in Florida. It has been a long time since Panthers fans have had a reason for optimism at the start of a season. This might even be the first time since they came off a Stanley Cup Final appearance all the way back in 1996 that they have reason to believe better days are ahead. They had a huge offseason that was kicked off with the addition of a future Hall of Fame, three-time Stanley Cup winning coach.

3. Taylor Hall‘s future in New Jersey. Ray Shero was one of the NHL’s busiest general managers this summer with the additions of P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds, Nikita Gusev, and the drafting of Jack Hughes with No. 1 overall pick. His biggest move, though, will be convincing his best player to stay in New Jersey and sign a long-term deal. Hall missed most of the last season due to injury and the Devils were never able to recover from that. Now that he is back the pressure is on New Jersey to get back to the playoffs. If they can’t do that after all of their summer additions, what motivation is there for Hall to want to re-sign?

4. Connor McDavid‘s health. This could probably be even higher on the list, but it seems like he is going to be ready for the start of the season. Still, he is coming back from a pretty significant injury at the end of the last season and there is reason to believe he may not quite be 100 percent at the start. He is the league’s best player and if the Oilers have any hope of competing they not only need him to be healthy, they need him to put the entire franchise on his back and carry it. Tough ask.

5. Coaches on the hot seat. Bruce Boudreau has to be pretty high on this list. He has already done the impossible for an NHL head coach and outlasted two GMs in Minnesota, but how long of a leash will he get under new GM Bill Guerin? Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice also has to be near the top of this list. The Jets badly regressed a year ago and have a ton of question marks entering the season and a slow start could lead to a change behind the bench.

6. The Colorado hype. They have what might be the best young core in the NHL, addressed their biggest depth needs at forward with the additions of Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, and Nazem Kadri, and have a couple of young stars on defense in Cale Makar, Sam Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram. They already took a huge step a year ago by reaching Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and with the roster they have entering this season (as well as the salary cap space at their disposal) there is going to be plenty of pressure to take the next step.

7. First-round picks competing for roster spots. Jack Hughes (New Jersey) and Kaapo Kakko (New York Rangers), the top two picks in the 2019 NHL draft, seem to be locks to make their respective rosters, but are there any other 2019 first-round picks that can find their way onto a roster this season? Kirby Dach with the Blackhawks? Byram in Colorado? Maybe Dylan Cozens in Buffalo?

8. Craig Berube and Jordan Binnington in St. Louis. The hiring of Berube and call-up of Binnington were the two turning points for the Blues on their way to a Stanley Cup. What will the duo be capable of for an encore when expectations will undoubtedly be higher than they were when they made their Blues debuts? The biggest question probably rests with Binnington’s ability to duplicate his 2018-19 performance over a full season.

9. Ralph Krueger in Buffalo. The Sabres’ head coaching position has been a revolving door of mediocrity over the past eight years. Can Krueger be the one break the cycle that has seen them make a change every two years? Or will his tenure be more of the same for an organization that has given its loyal fans nothing but grief for nearly a decade now?

10. Will it be another lost season for the Southern California teams? The Kings were terrible from the start a year ago, while the Ducks eventually cratered in the second half after goaltending carried them as far as it could early in the year. Is there any reason to expect anything different this season? The Ducks already lost veterans Corey Perry (buyout), Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves (injury) and did not really add much to their roster over the summer. The Kings still seem stuck in limbo in what direction they want to take as an organization and will be relying heavily on bounce-back years from veterans. Instead of fighting for a Stanley Cup, this intense rivalry might be about draft lottery odds.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Previewing the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, looking at whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: The Avs were one of the best young teams in the entire NHL last season and that should continue into this year. They found a way to add veteran center Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs while also landing Joonas Donskoi, Andre Burakovsky, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Valeri Nichushkin. Outside of Kadri, the rest are nothing more than depth additions, but on a roster lacking firepower behind their first line, those moves may prove to be significant. Whether or not the Avalanche are a better team this year than they were last year will likely depend on when restricted free agent Mikko Rantanen signs his next contract. For now, let’s call the Avs better.

Strengths: Again, let’s assume for a moment that Rantanen will be signed by the start of the regular season. With Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog in the fold, the Avs arguably have the best line in hockey. When those three are on, they’re incredibly difficult to stop. MacKinnon is coming off 97 and 99-point seasons, Landeskog had 75 points in 73 games and Rantanen had a career-high 87 points in 74 contests. They’re nearly impossible to stop on their worst day.

The Avs also have some of the top young defensemen in the game in Cale Makar, Samuel Girard and Bowen Byram. Makar made a significant impact in the playoffs last year and he should be able to pick up where he left off. Girard just inked a significant contract extension with the club this summer and Byram, who was drafted fourth overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, is likely a year or two away from the NHL, but he offers immense upside, too.

[MORE: 3 QuestionsUnder Pressure I X-factor: Makar]

Weaknesses: We’ve talked about the outstanding top line, but can the rest of the squad score enough to give them a more balanced attack? After the “big three,” no other forward on the roster put up more than 49 points last season. After MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog, their top score point-getters were Tyson Barrie, Carl Soderberg and Alex Kerfoot. All three of those players are no longer with the organization. Of course, Kadri should be able to pick up some of the slack offensively, but for the Avalanche to get more out of their roster, they’ll need more balance up front.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): The seat isn’t even warm for Jared Bednar, so we’ll go with a 2 out of 10. If the Avalanche take a step back in 2019-20, anything is possible. But Bednar showed that he’s able to get the most out of his guys during the regular season and the playoffs. Again, unless something drastic happens with Rantanen, this team should be better than they were a year ago.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Makar, Tyson Jost and Philipp Grubauer are three players to keep an eye on this season. Makar didn’t suit up in a regular season game for the Avs because he was finishing up his college season with UMass-Amherst, but he made quite the impression during the postseason, as he had a goal and six points in just 10 games. He has the potential to be a number one defenseman for this organization for a long time. How quickly can he get there?

Jost is still just 21 years old, but the Avalanche need him to up his production sooner or later. The 21-year-old was drafted 10th overall in 2016. Since then, he’s picked up 49 points in 141 games which is fine for a young player, but someone with that draft pedigree has to explode offensively sooner or later. Is this the year?

Grubauer has shown that he’s capable of winning big games during the regular season and the playoffs, but this will be the first time in his career that he’s the undisputed number one goalie on a team at the NHL level. He’s never played more than 37 games during an NHL regular season and you have to imagine that he’ll have to surpass that number this year. He’ll need to show that he can handle a heavy workload now that Semyon Varlamov is no longer in Colorado. He should be fine, but it’s something to monitor.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. This is a team that managed to earn the final Wild Card spot in the West last year and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them finish there again this year. They also have enough talent that they might be able to sneak into the top three spots in the Central Division though.

MORE:
How good can Avs be next season?
ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Avs’ rising expectations put Bednar under pressure

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

If you look at lists of the best offseasons in the NHL, chances are, the Colorado Avalanche will be on most of them.

That’s with good reason, as this team seems ahead of the curve when it comes to making savvy improvements to their team, and they’re in an incredible position to be a force in the West, in large part thanks to bargain contracts for superstar Nathan MacKinnon, value in other parts of their roster, and young up-and-coming players who’ve maybe only shown a taste of what they can do in the NHL. Sometimes fans of teams make the error of merely seeing young players and assuming they’ll reach some imaginary potential that’s actually not there, yet with the Avs, such daydreaming doesn’t seem so far from reality.

All of that is great, but a significant chunk of the excitement around the Avalanche focuses on the future. What about the present, though? Are we sure that a team that squeaked into the playoffs the past two seasons can make it again, especially with a very different-looking roster?

Ultimately, head coach Jared Bednar is under a lot of pressure to make it all work.

[MORE: 3 Questions2018-19 review I X-factor: Makar]

Let’s consider some potential bumps in the road for Bednar and the Avs this season.

  • The team might not be dramatically improved, at least short-term: Some metrics put the 2019-20 Avalanche closer to a “push” with last year’s version. After all, this team lost Tyson Barrie, Alexander Kerfoot, Semyon Varlamov, and Carl Soderberg. In most if not all of those cases, Colorado made the right calls, yet it means players like Burakovsky, Cale Makar, and Joonas Donskoi can’t be seen as pure additions; instead, one might look at them as replacements. That could mean incremental improvements or downgrades for Colorado for next season.
  • A lot rides on Philipp Grubauer‘s play: After a tough first half of 2018-19, Grubauer justified the Avalanche’s gamble that he had starter potential. With Varlamov gone, there’s less of a safety net, so Bednar might be challenged to change strategies if Grubauer struggles and/or gets injured.
  • Integrating the new guys: Bednar and his staff must find the right minutes, roles, and tone to take with Nazem Kadri, Burakovsky, Donskoi, and other new faces. Also, Cale Makar is almost brand-new himself, and his development is crucial for Colorado. (More on Makar, and how he’ll hope to replace some of what’s lost in trading Barrie, in this post.)
  • Keep the top line together, or diversify? For the most part, Bednar’s been comfortable with keeping Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog together on a top line that’s deadly, but sometimes leaves Colorado a bit one-dimensional. Will the above new additions inspire Bednar to experiment a bit? For all we know, finding the right balance could be the difference between another playoff appearance versus a letdown.
  • Challenging Central Division: The Avs may not be able to rise above the wild-card level thanks to a Central Division that – while altered – still figures to be a beast in 2019-20.

The Avalanche have been one of the surprise successes of the league, particularly after the grim debacle that was Bednar’s first season as an NHL head coach in 2016-17.

For NHL head coaches, such success can be a double-edged sword, as expectations rise in the eyes of fans and owners alike. Fair or not, Bednar is under significant pressure to make sure that the Avalanche don’t stumble during what looks like a swift climb up the NHL ladder.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Avalanche betting big on Cale Makar

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

In jumping from the NCAA straight to high-pressure playoff hockey, Cale Makar looked like a quick study for the Colorado Avalanche. He might need to be one, too.

From a long-term point of view, Colorado’s bold trade of Tyson Barrie makes a lot of sense. Barrie seemed on his way out being that a) he’s entering a contract year, b) Makar could conceivably check many of the same boxes as a skilled, scoring and transition-minded right-handed defenseman, and c) prospects like Bowen Byram and Connor Timmins are on the horizon.

In the short term, one of the Avs’ biggest x-factors boils down to Makar making Colorado look wise in swiftly moving on from Barrie with point B.

[MORE: 3 Questions2018-19 review I Under Pressure]

Much like the Predators counting on Dante Fabbro to absorb a significant chunk of what they’re losing in P.K. Subban, the Avalanche are hoping Makar can be Barrie-like despite a mere 174 minutes of NHL playing time.

That’s not to say that the Avs are being outrageous. After all, playoff play is where flaws get magnified, yet Makar instead had people raving, including teammate Nathan MacKinnon raving during Round 2, as NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika reported on May 3.

“He looks so comfortable,” MacKinnon said. “He’s probably one of our best defensemen already. He controls the play. He’s great defensively. He’s got a good stick and blocks shots and does everything really well. He gaps up really well because of his feet. In the [offensive] zone, he’s always pinching, because he knows he can get back if he gets chipped by. So it’s impressive.”

You could see how impressed the Avalanche were by how they deployed Makar in a featured role right off the bat, with his second playoff game representing an early NHL career-high with 20:06 of ice time. Remarkably, Makar scored a goal in his first playoff appearance, and looked especially deft when paired with Samuel Girard. Makar ended up with six points in those 10 playoff games, a nice mark for virtually any defenseman.

But that’s the rub: Makar’s only played in 10 playoff games, and will make his NHL regular season debut in 2019-20.

That’s simply not a lot of data to work with, as the Avs parted ways with a borderline All-Star-quality defenseman in Barrie. Contract situations and youthful prospects make that smart long-term, but what about the immediate present?

And a lot of it might fall on Makar, at least right away. Mile High Hockey’s Tom Hunter projects an Avalanche 2019-20 defensive lineup that would include Makar on a second pairing, penciling in more development time for Byram and Timmins.

As great as the Avs’ “defense of the future” looks, the present-day group might take a step back, and it could be up to Makar to make sure it’s closer to a stumble than a plummet.

Let’s not forget that, for as impressive as the Avs’ run through the West-topping Flames was, Colorado didn’t make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs by a large margin.

This is an excitingly well-run team, yet there are certain metrics that indicate that they might not actually be better than they were last season, at least right away.

There are also some risks involved. What if Nathan MacKinnon and that top line are merely mortal after two superhuman seasons? Could Philipp Grubauer crumble under the burden of being the clear No. 1 goalie?

Count Makar’s development as one of those big x-factors, as his work will factor into knee-jerk reactions about the Barrie trade as much as Nazem Kadri playing well and avoiding suspensions.

I’d personally be shocked if Makar and other Avs blueliners don’t eventually end up being big difference-makers over the long haul, but in 2019-20, things could go either way. On the bright side, Makar should be a blast to watch, even if he goes through some growing pains.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Girard signs seven-year, $35M extension with Avalanche

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As we wait to see what kind of extension Mikko Rantanen will receive from the Colorado Avalanche, the team is continuing to lock up its young talent.

The Avalanche announced on Wednesday that they have extended Samuel Girard with a seven-year, $35M deal. The 21-year-old defenseman has one season left on his entry-level contract, so this extension will kick in at the start of the 2020-21 NHL season.

“Samuel has been one of our best all-around defensemen since joining the Avalanche,” said Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic. “He plays important minutes and is someone our coaches count on to play against other teams’ top lines. He has an exceptional ability to skate and move the puck. As a member of our core, we felt it was important to sign him to a long-term deal and we are excited to announce this extension.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Girard, a second-round draft pick by the Nashville Predators in 2016, was part of the Matt Duchene trade and has played 150 games with the Avalanche over the last two seasons, recording seven goals and 47 points. This past season he averaged 19:54 of ice time a night and picked up 27 points in the process. Playing most of the season and playoffs with Erik Johnson, the strong puck mover was also partnered with Cale Makar in the postseason and the duo shined. In a little over 64 minutes together, the pair posted a 57% Corsi rating, per Corsica, and a 58.24% expected goals for, which measures every scoring chance and tells whether a player should have scored from a specific opportunity.

That was a good look at a potential future full-time pairing and maybe one for the start of the season depending on how Johnson is following shoulder surgery. Add in 2019 first-round pick Bowen Byram to the youth mix and the Avalanche blue line has the potential to be incredibly strong over the next few years as they develop together.

MORE: Return on Duchene trade will help shape Avalanche’s defense for years

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.