Ian Cole

Colorado Avalanche: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Colorado Avalanche.

Pavel Francouz the surprising star in net

If you were to look at the Avalanche roster at the start of the season and had to pick out an area of concern, goaltending might have been the easy choice.

Philipp Grubauer is a solid starter, but is he a championship-caliber goalie? After him, their top backup was the relatively unproven Francouz who entered the season with just two appearances in the NHL and only one season of professional hockey in North American. Given his age (29) and lack of an NHL resume, there had to be at least a little bit of a question mark regarding their goaltending depth.

Francouz has, instead, turned out to be one of the single biggest surprises on this year’s roster.

In 34 appearances he owns a 21-7-4 record with a .923 save percentage and was outstanding as the starter when Grubauer was sidelined due to injury. His overall play has been so good that the Avalanche already signed him to a two-year contract extension. He and Grubauer have turned out to be an outstanding duo and the underrated star of this year’s team.

Injuries have been a major disappointment

When it comes to performance it is really difficult to find a disappointment on this year’s team. The stars have been great, the scoring depth was addressed in a meaningful way over the summer with some great additions, the goaltending has been better than expected, and the young defensemen have excelled and are already blossoming into stars.

Instead of anything relating to performance, the biggest disappointment this season has been the bad injury luck.

Obviously that is not anyone’s fault, but it has kept us from really getting a sense of just how good this team can be when it is at full strength.

The injury list this season includes…

That is not only a lot of games, it is a lot of games for significant players.

Even with all of that the Avalanche have still been one of the league’s best teams and certainly builds some excitement for what their ceiling is when everyone is in the lineup.

Tyson Jost has not really taken a big step forward

If you did want to reach for a performance related disappointment Jost might be the player to look at. It is tough to say that because on one hand he is still only 21 years old and has a ton of talent. So the potential is absolutely there. On the other hand, he has also already played 200 NHL games and has not really shown significant improvement. After that many games it might be time to start wondering if this is the player that he is — a 10-goal, 20-point depth forward. Not saying he can not be more than that, and players do develop at different paces, but we are no longer talking about a small sampling of games here.

He was mentioned in trade rumors leading up to the deadline and it definitely seems reasonable to conclude that he could be moved at some point in the future.

Ryan Graves has been a great complement for Makar

The Avalanche have the potential for an outstanding long-term defense with Makar (the current Calder Trophy front-runner as the league’s Rookie of the Year), Samuel Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram. That trio, their talent, upside, and contract situations help make them one of the most important parts of the team’s core moving forward and will be the foundation of a potential championship team in the very near future.

There is another player that has emerged as part of that defense this season, and that is the 24-year-old Graves.

He has spent a significant portion of his season playing alongside Makar to help form an outstanding pair.

In close to 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season the Avalanche have completely dominated the shot attempt and scoring-chance metrics and have outscored teams by a 31-17 margin with them on the ice. While it is easy to conclude that a lot of that is due to Makar carrying the duo, Graves has also excelled when playing next to Ian Cole.

Basically, no matter who he plays next to, it works.

For the season, Graves has nine goals and 26 total points and is a league-leading plus-40 while playing close to 19 minutes per game.

He may not be the impact player or star that Makar is, but his play has been an outstanding development this season.

MORE:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche
What is the Avalanche’s long-term outlook?

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.

Avalanche injuries: Grubauer out with lower-body injury; Calvert to miss ‘weeks’

Avalanche
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After being injured in the 2020 Stadium Series game on Saturday, Colorado Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer will not be in the lineup on Monday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning due to a lower-body injury.

Even more concerning for the Avalanche, there is no current timetable for his return.

“I don’t really have a timeline on it,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar on Monday, via NHL.com. “He’s still getting evaluated, he’s still going through some testing or training room or whatnot. I’ll have a better answer probably later in the week. Right now he’s day to day and could miss some time.”

Grubauer is 18-12-4 this season for the Avalanche with a .916 save percentage.

He was injured on Saturday during a collision with teammate Ian Cole.

You can see the play here.

Pavel Francouz, who has been outstanding this season, will take over the main goaltending duties for as long as Grubauer is sidelined.

Hunter Miska will serve as the backup.

Even if Grubauer only misses time this week that could still be as many as four games. The Avalanche’s standing as a playoff team is secure, but they are still in a fight for the top spot in the Central Division as well as home-ice advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. It doesn’t seem to be serious enough at this point to force a trade to add some depth, but it’s still an injury worth watching. The Avalanche should still be in good hands with Francouz as their starter in the short-term, but things could get a little complicated when it comes to potential playoff seeding if it is an injury that lingers.

In other Avalanche injury news, forward Matt Calvert is also expected to be sidelined for a couple of weeks with a lower-body injury of his own.

In 50 games this season Calvert has 12 goals and 25 total points. He played 12:47 of the Stadium Series game on Saturday.

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.

Toffoli, Quick lead Kings to upset vs. Avs, who lost Grubauer to injury

Much was made of the teams not being used to the altitude at the 2020 Stadium Series. The 2019-20 Kings haven’t exactly been used to winning, and certainly not building winning streaks, yet that’s what they did on Saturday. Not only did the Avs lose, they also lost Philipp Grubauer to injury.

Tyler Toffoli scored all three of the Kings’ goals to complete the first hat trick during an outdoor game. Jonathan Quick might have been the bigger star, though, as helped the Kings beat the Avalanche 3-1 by making 33 saves.

Here are all three goals:

The Avs weren’t guilty of a poor effort in this one, really, but it was pretty much a disaster. Here’s why.

Avs lose game and Grubauer

Ian Cole bumped his own goalie Philipp Grubauer during an unfortunate sequence for the Avs. At first, it was tough to tell if Grubauer was hurt on the play, or just making a save. While he did get the stop, things clearly weren’t right for Grubauer:

If Grubauer misses time, that’s a substantial issue for the Avs. Much like last season, Grubauer had been heating up lately. The German-born goalie carried a .939 February save percentage (4-2-0 in six games) into Saturday, and his save percentage hadn’t dipped below .910 in any month since December.

On the bright side, Pavel Francouz gets another chance to prove himself.

Francouz quietly put together a strong 13-4-2 record and .925 save percentage in 21 games this season, just 23 contests into his NHL career. While that serves as a small sample size, Francouz put up great numbers at other levels. For all the Avs know, he might represent an almost-as-good (maybe better?) option than Grubauer.

(Goalies: they’re unpredictable.)

The Avalanche lost a chance to move into a lead in the Central, and thus the Western Conference. Instead, they fell in regulation, and slipped to third in a tightly packed top of division:

1. Blues: 74 points in 58 games played (32-16-10)
2. Stars: 73 in 58 GP (34-19-5)
3. Avs: 72 in 57 GP (33-18-6).

Ouch. If Avalanche (or Stars … or Blues) fans want an opportunity to grumble about the playoff setup now, that seems fair. (As of this writing, no Pacific Division team is in 70-point range.)

Either way, the Avalanche will be leaving Falcon Stadium grumbling on Saturday.

Kings, Quick showing potential as spoilers

For much of this season, the Kings have been better than their record indicated. That doesn’t mean they’re a juggernaut in waiting, but it attaches a flashing sign to their potential as spoilers.

Los Angeles made that potential more obvious during the past two games. First, they dealt a painful blow to the Flames, beating them 5-3. Now they’ve managed a rare winning streak by following that up with Saturday’s win. Beating two playoff-positioned teams, including a potential contender in Colorado, makes it that much more impressive.

This had to be an especially big relief for Quick. The two-time Stanley Cup winner got his first win since Dec. 31. It’s been a disastrous couple of seasons for the veteran, but a turnaround could improve the timeline of the Kings’ rebuild.

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 keep rolling on the road, defeat Wild

The Colorado Avalanche have their eyes on a big prize this spring. In order to reach their destination, winning tight, physical games and collecting victories on the road will be major assets.

On Sunday, the Avalanche checked a lot of boxes in their 3-2 win against the surging Minnesota Wild. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog scored as Colorado closed a five-game road trip with a 4-1 record.

“We have done a great job dialing up that playoff mentality, that desperate mentality,” defenseman Ian Cole told Pierre McGuire. “We are trying to catch up to St. Louis, we need points.”

Minnesota’s three-game winning streak came to an end as the Wild missed out on two crucial points in their quest to climb the Western Conference standings. Kevin Fiala scored once again, but Minnesota remains four points and three teams shy of returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Youthful Avalanche wise beyond their years

A championship window can close as quickly as it opens.

For the Avalanche, there is a young nucleus in place, and the time to strike is quickly approaching. MacKinnon is playing at a Hart Trophy level, Cale Makar looks like he has played in the NHL for over a decade and Joe Sakic’s offseason maneuvers have helped turn a one-line team into a complete team.

Additions aside, one of the biggest signs that Colorado is ready to take that quantum leap has been its maturity.

[NHL ON NBCSN: Ovechkin’s chase for 700th goal continues Monday]

“We have done a great job learning as the season goes,” Cole continued. “We would lose some leads earlier this season. We are continuing to dial in that end of game situational play. We are maturing quickly. For a young team, that’s great to see. We have to keep playing.”

Goaltender Controversy?

The Avalanche will need one of their goaltenders to force Jared Bednar’s hand and establish themselves as the starting goaltender.

Pavel Francouz made 34 stops in the win and improved to 13-4-2 in 19 starts. In the final period, Francouz’s stable play in net helped the Avalanche remain calm and protect a one-goal lead.

Philipp Grubauer has been the preferred goaltender and has received the lion’s share of the work this season, but Francouz is stating his case to seize control. A steady backup goaltender is important during the regular season, but in the playoffs it could lead to compromised decision-making when it matters most. Colorado is not hoping one goaltender’s play slips, instead they are yearning for one of those two netminders to separate themselves.

Ovechkin’s quest for 700:


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Ovechkin 700: Opponents helpless vs. NHL’s best goal-scorer

WASHINGTON — Alex Ovechkin arrived in Washington in the summer of 2005 wearing mismatched flip flops and Daisy Duke shorts. He looked like a lost tourist.

Ovechkin went No. 1 in the draft and was touted as a can’t-miss prospect, but Capitals teammates wondered aloud if this guy really was supposed to be the new face of the franchise, much less an elite player.

A decade and a half later, Ovechkin is the grinning, gap-toothed face of NHL goal-scoring, much to the continued bewilderment of his opponents.

The big Russian left winger is on the verge of becoming just the eighth player to score 700 career goals thanks to a once-in-a-generation combination of physicality, power and a unique shot that has made him nearly impossible to stop.

”He just can score from anywhere,” Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano said. ”You sort of think teams would come up with a game plan to stop him, but you can’t.”

No game plan has worked. Like the cutter flustered batters knew was coming from New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, Ovechkin comes at goaltenders and defensemen with the same relentless, masterful approach – and the numbers keep climbing.

Ovechkin has never scored fewer than 32 goals in a season, and his 11 seasons of 40 or more trails only Wayne Gretzky for the most in league history. He has averaged 0.5 goal every playoff game, 10th-best all time, and contributed to winning the Stanley Cup and postseason MVP honors in 2018.

A dozen goaltenders and defenders who have tried to contain Ovechkin described the task to The Associated Press as his milestone approached.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

”Whatever small inch you give him, he’s going to find a way to throw it through your legs from the blue line top cheese and you’re like, ‘What the heck just happened?”’ said Colorado forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who faced Ovechkin in the 2018 final with Vegas. ”Maybe you’re thinking your goalie should have it and you look at the replay like, ‘OK, that was a heck of a shot.’ … It’s just that at any time in a game he can have an off night and out of nowhere, boom, he can have a hat trick.”

Bellemare made that observation just days before Ovechkin had no shots with six minutes left against Los Angeles. He then scored once to tie it, a second time to give Washington the lead and a third into an empty net to seal another win.

Those were goal Nos. 696, 697 and 698.

PROLIFIC SNIPER

Ovechkin’s job from day one has been to shoot the puck as much as possible. He has an NHL-best 5,483 shots since 2005-06. No other player has 4,000. Ovechkin’s stick – an open blade with a big curve at the toe – and how he releases a shot also puts him in a class of his own.

”His puck flies not straight,” said Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has allowed nine goals to Ovechkin. ”It’s kind of changing direction every time, so it’s pretty hard to stop for a goalie. It’s like knuckleball.”

A knucklepuck with a 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker’s strength behind it. It’s not just Ovechkin’s release but how the puck feels when it gets on net.

”His shot is absolutely a rocket or missile,” said Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, who has given up six of Ovechkin’s goals. ”He shoots from anywhere and he shoots it hard and heavy.”

LETHAL SPEED

Ovechkin has made a living – roughly $113 million so far with another contract expected to start in 2021-22 – by not only making goalies but the league’s best defensive defensemen miss. Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty believes the only way to slow Ovechkin down is to get in his face in the neutral zone before he can pick up steam.

Problem is, even at 34 and past the prime of most scorers, Ovechkin still has the lower-body strength and footspeed to glide around opponents like they’re pylons.

”He still has that ability from when he was younger to beat you one-on-one, so you can’t just play the shot or you can’t just back off,” said Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole, who battled Ovechkin for years as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. ”You’re in a bit of a quagmire when you’re playing against him just because there’s so many ways that he can beat you and he is so good, he’s so good at cutting to the middle, too, on his off side and letting these pucks go through traffic.”

LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION

There is no safe area when it comes to defending Ovechkin.

”He can make moves and shoot from anywhere and it can go in,” Kings forward Trevor Lewis said. ”Most guys, if you keep them to the outside and they’re shooting, they’re not going to bury it every time. But it seems like every shot he takes, it’s got a chance to go in.”

Connor Hellebuyck vividly remembers his first encounter with Ovechkin as a rookie. The Winnipeg goaltender felt like the scene played out in slow motion before the puck barely stayed out, but he allowed two goals to Ovechkin in a game a couple of years later.

”He came down and ripped what looked like a little snap shot from the top of the circle,” Hellebuyck recalled. ”It came off so heavy and I got such a good beat on it, but I was able to watch it completely pass me and I missed it.”

OVI’S OFFICE

It’s the elephant in the room. Everyone knows, at some point, Ovechkin will rifle a blazing one-timer from the left faceoff circle on the power play. It is telegraphed almost every time, and yet it has proven to be one of the most potent shots in the history of the sport.

”It’s sometimes hard to get it by a shot-blocker but sometimes it’s easy,” Doughty said. ”And he’s going to be able to get it by one way or the other. You just have to be on the same page as your goalie to be able to make the save or make the block. We all know it’s coming, but that shot’s so good.”

Ovechkin on the power play is such an institution that teammates told Bellemare when he entered the league not to try to chase him on the penalty kill and look like a fool. Bellemare is in awe of how much opponents can focus on him and still end up watching him celebrate another goal.

”We watch video, we study, but still, it keeps happening,” he said. ”This is what it is. Everybody’s trying to play their best game when we meet that guy, and still he finds a way to go through you. This is what is unbelievable.”

Ovechkin last season became the oldest player to lead the NHL in goals since Phil Esposito in 1974-75. He refuses to reflect on his accomplishments until he hangs up his skates.

”I’m still playing,” Ovechkin said. ”After career, yeah, I’m pretty sure me and my family and my friends are gonna talk about it. But now, we, and me personally, I’m gonna try to concentrate about just go out there and do my job.”