Sam Girard

Improved depth makes Avalanche Stanley Cup contender

NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Saturday’s Stadium Series matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings from Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Colorado Avalanche have had one of the NHL’s most dominant top lines for a couple of years now thanks to the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. When they are on the ice together and playing at their best they can be borderline unstoppable.

They carried the Avalanche to a playoff appearance a year ago and a Round 1 upset over the No. 1 seeded Calgary Flames.

They are the foundation of the team and a massive part of what makes them a playoff team.

But for the Avalanche to become a Stanley Cup contender — and potential Stanley Cup champion — they needed to address their biggest Achilles heel over the summer.

Secondary scoring.

It is not unfair to say that the 2018-19 Avalanche were a top-heavy team.

When none of the MacKinnon-Rantanen-Landeskog trio was on the ice last year they were outscored by a 95-76 margin and controlled just 48 percent of the total shot attempts.

With the MacKinnon-Rantanen-Landeskog on the ice they outscored teams 46-29 and controlled more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts.

It is great to have an amazing top-line that can win games for you on any given night, but they are not going to be able to win games for you every night. The Avalanche had to address that over the summer.

And through a series of shrewd moves, they did.

  • After years of trade rumors and speculation, the Avalanche finally completed a Tyson Barrie trade and sent him (and Alexander Kerfoot) to the Toronto Maple Leafs for center Nazem Kadri, giving the team a bonafide second-line center that can play a shutdown role and score 30 goals. He was on track to score 30 goals again before his recent injury. Dealing Barrie was made possible by the emergence of young blue-liners Cale Makar, Sam Girard, and the selection of Bowen Byram with the No. 4 overall pick (acquired in the Matt Duchene trade).
  • They took advantage of Washington’s salary cap crunch and acquired Andre Burakovsky for two draft picks and Scott Kasmachuk. After being unable to fully reach his potential in Washington, Burakovsky is currently the Avalanche’s second-leading scorer.
  • They dipped into the free agent market and signed former Sharks forward Joonas Donskoi to a multi-year contract. While his offensive numbers were never going to make him a star, Donskoi has always been a strong possession-driving two-way player. He is having a career-year offensively for Colorado.
  • In what was perhaps their most under-the-radar signing, they signed Valeri Nichushkin to a one-year, $850,000 contract. After going through the most uneventful season in NHL history (0 goals, 0 penalty minutes in 57 games) he already has 11 goals in 51 games for the Avalanche.

Those four moves have helped turn the Avalanche into a true contender in the Western Conference.

They enter Saturday’s Stadium Series game against the Los Angeles Kings with the second-best record in the Western Conference, just three points behind the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues with still two games in hand.

Even with Thursday’s loss to the Washington Capitals, they are also 8-2-2 in their past 12 games.

All of that added depth has paid off in a big way this season, especially as they had to deal with early season injuries to Landeskog and Rantanen.

The Avalanche are so much deeper this season that when none of the MacKinnon-Rantanen-Landeskog trio is on the ice they are outscoring teams 79-42 and controlling 52 percent of the total shot attempts. It is not even a comparison to what they managed a year ago, and there is no way the 2018-19 roster would have been able to overcome extended absences for two of their big three the way this year’s team did.

The trio of Kadri, Nichushkin, and Burakovsky had recently formed a dominant second line that out had scored teams 11-1 and controlled possession. Kadri being sidelined for the time being obviously takes that option away, obviously, but the option to reunite it when he returns will be there.

There is also the potential to keep adding to the roster as the Avalanche approach the NHL trade deadline with the second most salary cap space available in the NHL to add whatever they think they need to put them over the top.

It may not result in a Stanley Cup this season, but the Avalanche are positioned to be one of the powerhouse teams in the Western Conference for the foreseeable future.

It starts with the trio of stars on the top line.

But the pieces they added over the summer to complement them are what can help take them to where they want to go.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, and Brian Boucher will call the matchup. On-site studio coverage at Air Force Academy will feature Kathryn Tappen hosting alongside analyst Patrick Sharp and reporter Rutledge Wood.

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 crush Blues to break out of slump

When the Colorado Avalanche are clicking on all cylinders that can look downright unbeatable. Like one of the scariest, most intimidating teams in the league. A true Stanley Cup favorite. We have not seen that version very much over the past couple of weeks, but it showed up in a big way on Thursday night in a huge 7-3 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

Nazem Kadri scored two goals, Nathan MacKinnon and Sam Girard both finished with four points, and Cale Makar continued his Calder Tropy caliber season with another huge game in the win.

The win snapped what had been a three-game losing streak for Colorado and is just its third win in the past nine games.

Breaking out of this little funk isn’t the only reason this was a big night for the Avalanche.

Even though it’s only the halfway point of the season, this was still a pretty massive game in the Central Division and could have helped swing the top spot in a certain direction. The Blues entered the game with an eight-point lead over the Avalanche and were already 2-0 against them this season. A regulation win would have given them a 10-point cushion with only two more head-to-head meetings the rest of the way.

Certainly too soon to call it in St. Louis’ favor, but it would have a huge deficit for the Avalanche to overcome in half a season. But with Thursday’s win the Avalanche were able to close that gap down to just six points. They also still have a game in hand and two more head-to-head matchups ahead of them. That may not seem like much of a swing, but it could be massive in the big picture.

Thursday’s win is only the fourth time the Avalanche have beaten the Blues in their past 17 meetings. It also snapped a six-game losing streak against the Blues.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Avalanche host Wild on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Friday’s matchup between the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The League returns from the Christmas break with 11 games on the schedule, including this Central Division matchup – the third of five regular-season meetings between the Wild and Avalanche. Each team has won at home against the other with the Avs winning, 4-2, on Oct. 5 (second game of the season for both clubs) and the Wild pulling out a 3-2 victory on Nov. 21.

Colorado, looking to return to the postseason for the third straight year, sit second in the Central, while Minnesota is in the thick of the Wild Card hunt – two points back of Calgary for the second position – and certainly not out of the race for a division spot, just three points behind Winnipeg. The Wild missed the playoffs a season ago after making six consecutive appearances from 2012-13 to 2017-18.

Nathan MacKinnon was voted an All-Star captain for the second straight season. Having another MVP caliber season (was the Hart Trophy runner-up two seasons ago), the No. 1 pick in 2013 has played in all 37 games this season and leads the Avs in most major statistical categories – goals (21), assists (34), points (55), shots (168), power-play goals (7), power-play points (20).

Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk missed over a month with a family issue, playing on Nov. 16 and then coming back on Dec. 19. He’s played in three games since his return (two starts). He allowed five goals at Arizona in a win in his first game back and then had the shutout against Calgary on Monday.

The consistent line of Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen is now fully healthy and the second line of Andre BurakovskyNazem KadriJoonas Donskoi, which is entirely new this season, has been just as productive a trio. After MacKinnon (21), it’s Burakovsky and Donskoi (13 each) and Kadri (12), who are tops on the team in goals this season.

[COVERAGE OF BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Minnesota Wild at Colorado Avalanche
WHERE: Pepsi Center
WHEN: Friday, Dec. 27, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Wild-Avs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

WILD
Zach PariseEric StaalMats Zuccarello
Ryan DonatoJoel Eriksson EkKevin Fiala
Jordan GreenwayNico SturmLuke Kunin
Marcus FolignoVictor RaskRyan Hartman

Ryan SuterJared Spurgeon
Jonas BrodinCarson Soucy
Brad HuntMathew Dumba

Starting goalie: Devan Dubnyk

AVALANCHE
Gabriel Landeskog – Nathan MacKinnon – Mikko Rantanen
Andre Burakovsky – Nazem Kadri – Joonas Donskoi
Matt NietoPierre-Edouard BellemareMatt Calvert
Tyson JostJ.T. CompherValeri Nichushkin

Cale MakarSam Girard
Nikita ZadorovRyan Graves
Ian ColeErik Johnson

Starting goalie: Pavel Francouz

Kathryn Tappen will host Friday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Mike Milbury and Keith Jones. Chris Cuthbert will handle play-by-play duties alongside Pierre McGuire at Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.

Episode 2 of the three-part docuseries “Road To The NHL Winter Classic” will air on Friday, Dec. 27, at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The season finale will be presented on Monday, Jan. 6, at 10:30 p.m. ET immediately following Oilers-Maple Leafs on NBCSN. 

The series will chronicle the Stars and Predators as they prepare to meet outdoors in the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on January 1 at Cotton Bowl Stadium at 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

Devils hold Taylor Hall out vs. Avs as trade rumors continue

Taylor Hall Trade Rumors
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Taylor Hall‘s days as a member of the New Jersey Devils are definitely numbered.

The team’s playoff chances are fading by the day, he is months away from free agency, there seems to be no progress in contract talks, and general manager Ray Shero is reportedly listening to offers from other teams around the league.

The Colorado Avalanche have been the odds on favorite to land him, and they were expecting to get an up close look at him on Friday with the Devils making their lone visit to Colorado. That did not happen however as the Devils held him out of the lineup due to what they called precautionary reasons.

 

Pierre LeBrun reported that Hall has not yet been traded but there is traction in trade talks and the Devils do not want to risk playing him at the moment.

With the speculation growing, it was only natural for Hall to be asked about the possibility on Friday ahead of the game.

Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston mentioned on Saturday’s edition of Headlines that teams believe it could take as many as four pieces to complete a trade for Hall. He also added that the Avalanche are pushing to acquire him, perhaps as soon as the holiday roster freeze which begins on Dec. 19.

Why the Avalanche still make the most sense

It’s not hard to see why the Avalanche are so high on the list.

They have one of the best rosters in the league and are already a Stanley Cup contender. Adding Hall to their second line would easily make them one of the most intimidating and dangerous teams in the league. Combine that with the fact they have the salary cap space to fit the remainder of his current contract, as well as possessing the young assets to trade, and they are a near perfect match for the Devils.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, have superstars still in the prime of their careers, with several signed to below market contracts to give them added flexibility.

It might be the right time to pounce and add another superstar to go all in on a championship while the opportunity is there if the price is right.

It all comes down to the cost

At this point Hall is a luxury for the Avalanche.

Make no mistake, he would be a huge addition and probably make them the Stanley Cup favorite. But he is not a necessity, and there are some potential risks that could come with trading for him.

Giving up significant assets — high draft picks, multiple high-end prospects — for a player that could walk in a few months is always going to be a risk a team in Colorado’s spot has to weigh. If you win the Stanley Cup with him, nobody cares. But that is always far from a guarantee.

While their salary cap situation is great right now, re-signing him could also lead to some long-term complications.

Sam Girard has a new contract starting next season. Gabriel Landeskog will need a new deal the year after that. Let’s not forget about Cale Makar and how much he is going to cost in the future given his development.

Hall will also be 29 next season, and while he is still an excellent player he would require a significant investment for a player that’s probably already played his best hockey for someone else.

Set up for success either way

The Avalanche have done enough work to fix their scoring depth, they have a kings ransom of cheap young players coming through their system they can keep building around, and they still have the flexibility to look elsewhere for potential secondary players that might be more cost effective. In terms of both long-term salary cap space and assets they would have to give up.

Trading for him without giving up a Bowen Byram caliber prospect, or re-signing him to a long-term deal that does not crush your long-term salary cap outlook would be a no-brainer for the Avalanche.

But if neither of those things can be accomplished there is nothing wrong with looking elsewhere or standing pat because the team is still set up for long-term success even without him.

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.

Stunning numbers on Flyers, Penguins, Coyotes, and more

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During the 2019-20 NHL season we will take an occasional look at some stunning numbers from around the league. Here is what stood out to us through the first two months of the season. 

The Flyers’ best start since … Eric Lindros played?! This, to me, is literally stunning. The Philadelphia Flyers started December with 35 points, which is their highest point total at the start of the month since the 1995-96 season. That stat comes via NBC Philadelphia’s Jordan Hall. Not sure if this says more about the Flyers’ 2019-20 performance, or the Flyers’ performance between 1996 and 2019.

McDavid and Draisaitl’s dominance. It would not be a stunning numbers update if we did not look at the performance of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl out in Edmonton because everything about these two is completely stunning. They are both at the 50-point mark entering play on Tuesday and are No’s. 1 and 2 in the scoring race. No other players in the league have more than 43 points so far this season. The only other Oilers players in franchise history to hit 50 points through December 1 are Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. No other player on the current Oilers team has more than 19 points this season. These two are the offense.

The Penguins’ absurd injury run. With Sidney Crosby, Bryan Rust, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz, and Nick Bjugstad all currently sidelined, the Penguins have more than $25 million in salary cap space sitting in the press box. That represents more than 30 percent of their total salary cap number. Since the start of the season the Penguins have lost 85 man games (and counting) to injuries to Crosby, Rust, Dumoulin, Schultz, Bjugstad, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alex Galchenyuk, Patric Hornqvist, and Jared McCann. It is incredible they are still in a playoff position and played as well as they have.

Quick’s continued decline: The Kings were hoping that Jonathan Quick could bounce back from his brutal 2018-19 performance, but he has been just as bad this season. Since the start of last season he has managed only an .888 save percentage. Among goalies with at least 45 starts during that stretch, that is the worst mark in the league. San Jose’s Martin Jones is the only other goalie with sub-.900 save percentage.

Darcy Kuemper is Arizona’s MVP: In February, 2018, the Arizona Coyotes traded Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood to the Los Angeles Kings for backup goalie Darcy Kuemper. It was a trade that probably snuck under your radar. It is also a trade that might get the 2019-20 Coyotes back in the playoffs. Since arriving in Arizona Kuemper has been one of the league’s most productive goalies, owning a .924 all situations save percentage. Of the 55 goalies that have logged at least 2,000 minutes of ice-time since then, that number places Kuemper sixth in the entire league. His goalie partner in Arizona, Antti Raanta, is fifth (Kuemper has played more nearly 5,000 minutes, while injuries have limited Raanta to just a little over 2,000 minutes). They are one of the best goalie duos in the league, right up there with Boston (Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak), Dallas (Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin), and New York (Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov).

Cale Makar is better than advertised. The Colorado Avalanche top forwards are incredible, and when the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog is healthy and together they are borderline unstoppable. But what is really exciting about the Avalanche and the biggest reason they have emerged as one of the rising NHL powers is the development of their young defense, specifically Cale Makar. He is averaging a point-per-game so far this season (26 points, 26 games) and is off to one of the best starts ever for a rookie defensemen. Since 1979-80 the only defender with more points through his team’s first 26 games was Larry Murphy, who had 29 points in 26 games for the 1980-81 Los Angeles Kings. Combined with Sam Girard and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram the Avalanche have a trio of young defenders that will shape their blue line for a decade or more.

Blues keep rolling. No Vladimir Tarasenko, no problem for the Blues. Since their top forward and most impactful player was sidelined with an injury, the Blues have managed to go on a 13-3-3 run. Leading the way for the Blues offense is David Perron, who is off to one of the best starts of his career with 28 points in 29 games, including five game-winning goals.

Red Wings’ struggles. The Detroit Red Wings have a minus-56 goal differential entering play on Tuesday. The next worst team (New Jersey Devils) is only at minus-31. That goal differential through 30 games is the 23rd worst in the history of the league and the worst since the 1993-94 Ottawa Senators.

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.