Philipp Grubauer

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.

Holtby’s future uncertain heading into contract year

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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 Washington Capitals. 

A few years ago, if you would’ve suggested that Braden Holtby‘s future in Washington was in doubt, many hockey fans would’ve suggested you were crazy. After all, he has been one of the top goalies in the league for a while and he won a Vezina Trophy as recently as 2015-16. Oh, and he also helped the Caps win a Stanley Cup just last season.

Still, it’s interesting to note that the Capitals haven’t given him a contract extension heading into the final year of his current deal. He was eligible to sign an extension on July 1st, 2019, and teams with franchise players usually opt to get a new contract signed as soon as that player is eligible to do so.

Why haven’t the Caps extended Holtby yet?

Well, it might have something to do with the fact that they want to see how he performs at the start of this year. Although the Capitals have had a ton of success over the last two seasons, their starting netminder has had his issues with consistency. In 2018, the year they won the Stanley Cup, Holtby’s play dropped off so badly that backup netminder Philipp Grubauer took over between the pipes. Grubauer actually started the first two games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs until they want back to Holtby in Game 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Last season, there was a stretch from Jan. 18 to Feb. 23 where Holtby won just four of his 13 appearances. In the end, he finished with a 2.82 goals-against-average and a .911 save percentage in 59 games. It’s safe to say the Capitals are expecting more from their number one goalie.

The fact that Holtby doesn’t have a new contract yet probably doesn’t mean that the Caps want to get rid of him, but it indicates that the two sides likely don’t agree on his dollar value. Is the 29-year-old looking for a deal similar to the one Sergei Bobrovsky signed with Florida this summer (seven years, $70 million)? Would the Caps be willing to go anywhere close to that? Probably not.

It’ll be interesting to see where the two sides end up meeting (if at all) once the negotiations are concluded. Holtby made it pretty clear that he wants to come back.

“This is all I know here,” Holtby said of Washington, per NBC Sports Washington. “I’d love [to re-sign]. I think that’s pretty clear. But you don’t worry about that stuff. I’m lucky enough to be here for at least right now so happy for that.

“It’s just one of those things, you let the business side of it take care of it and you focus on your job. I’m lucky enough to be under contract for another year to play hockey here so it’s pretty fortunate and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity with a great team coming back.”

It’ll be fascinating to see how Holtby handles the uncertainty surrounding his contract status. This will probably be the top storyline for this team heading into the season.

MORE:
• 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.

Islanders need Varlamov to pick up where Lehner left off

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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 New York Islanders.

When the Islanders needed to roll the dice on a goaltender last season, they decided to hand Robin Lehner a one-year, $1.5 million. The deal couldn’t possibly have worked out any better for them, as Lehner ended up being named one of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy.

The 28-year-old posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage in 46 appearances with the Isles last season. It was, by far, the best year of his career. Of course, he had quite a bit of help. New head coach Barry Trotz used a defense-first system that limited the opposition’s scoring chances. That’s not to say that Lehner’s season wasn’t impressive though.

The Islanders netmider also helped his team sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately for them, they were swept in the second round by Carolina Hurricanes. In the end, Lehner finished the postseason with a 4-4 record, a 2.00 goals-against-average and a .936 save percentage.

[MORE: Summary | Three Questions]

As good as he was, Isles general manager Lou Lamoriello wasn’t interested in committing to his goalie long-term. Once free agency opened on July 1st, Lehner signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Isles decided to give Semyon Varlamov a four-year, $20 million contract.

Varlamov’s had his share of struggles over the last few seasons in Colorado. He ended up playing in 49 games last year, but eventually lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer. The 31-year-old had a 20-19-9 record with a 2.87 goals-against-average and a .909 save percentage last season.

“Even [before last season] when we were looking for goaltenders, he was on the radar for the organization,” Trotz said of Varlamov via NHL.com. “He’s obviously been someone that I think we have a lot of confidence in. With Robin’s [contract] situation, when that didn’t materialize, [Varlamov] was the No. 1 guy that we were going to go after.”

So committing to him for four years is definitely a risky move, but Trotz’s system could help bring out the best in him.

“It’s very hard to play against the teams he’s coaching because of his system,” Varlamov said of Trotz. “Every team playing against a Barry Trotz-coached [team] is going to have a hard time because all the teams he’s coached, they play very well defensively. They play very tight in front of the net.”

There will be plenty of pressure on Varlamov’s shoulders heading into this season. Expectations will be higher for the Islanders this year because they were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference last season. The beauty of Trotz’s system is that he just needs his goaltender to be solid. Most of the time, he doesn’t need his goalie to steal games. Can Varlamov handle that? Can the Isles replicate the success they had last season?

Varlamov is the biggest change the Isles made to their roster this off-season. If they drop off in 2019-20, a good amount of blame will be placed on his shoulders.

The pressure is definitely on the Russian veteran to provide the team with adequate performances between the pipes.

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.