Nathan MacKinnon

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.

Who can challenge Alex Ovechkin for NHL’s goal crown this season?

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Alex Ovechkin has been the NHL’s most dominant goal-scorer from the moment he entered the league and has a chance to finish his career as the league’s all-time goal-scoring leader. Even if he doesn’t eclipse Wayne Gretzky’s mark of 894, there were still be an argument to be made that he is the best ever at putting the puck in the net when you account for the era they played in. He has already finished as the leading scorer eight times, including six of the past seven seasons.

It has become a foregone conclusion that he is going to score at least 50 goals and outscore everyone. This past season the gap closed a little bit as Edmonton’ Leon Draisaitl finished just one goal behind and John Tavares four goals back.

Will anyone be able to finally overthrow him at the top this season?

Let’s take a look at some contenders.

The top contenders

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: They key for Matthews will be staying healthy. Over his first three years in the league he has scored at a 42-goal pace over 82 games. That is the good news. The bad news is he has missed 36 games over the past two seasons. He is just now entering what should be his peak years in the league and (if he stays healthy) might have a shot at 50 goals.

Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets: He was expected to challenge Ovechkin a year ago, especially after an 18-goal month of November. But his shooting percentage cratered for the remainder of the season and he finished with only 30 goals. He is too talented for that to happen again. Expect big things from him this season.

Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning: Since Oveckin entered the NHL at the start of the 2005-06 season, only five players other than him have finished a season as the league’s leading goal-scorer (and only three of those five are still active). Stamkos is one of those players, and he has actually accomplished the feat twice. He is still one of the league’s best players, is on an offensive powerhouse team, and is coming off of a 45-goal season. He is always a threat.

The next tier

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: He is the best player in the world, but he is probably more of a playmaker than a pure “goal scorer.” Still, he has topped the 40-goal mark in each of the past two seasons and is entering the peak offensive production period of his career. He’s got a few 50-goal seasons in his future.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche: His shot volume has skyrocketed the past two years and even finished with a league-high 385 shots on goal this past season. He’s a 40-plus goal guy and if he sees just a little bit of a spike in his shooting percentage to go with that added shot volume he could be capable of some special things.

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning: He is one of the elite players in the league so he always has to be in the discussion, but I am not sure if he is going to be quite as dominant as he was a season ago.

The sleeper

David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins: He only needed 66 games to score 38 goals for the Bruins a year ago (a 47-goal pace over 82 games) and is quickly developing into an elite offensive player on a Stanley Cup contender. As long as he gets significant time next to Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand he is going to be surrounded by All-Stars and put into a great scoring environment.

Maybe not as close as they were

Leon Drasaitl, Edmonton Oilers: He was the runner-up a year ago, finishing just one goal behind Ovechkin. He is a great talent, a great player, and plays next to the league’s best playmaker. I am just not sure if he scores on 20 percent of his shots again. That might drop him down a tier or two on the goal leaderboard.

John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs: His first year in Toronto produced a career high in goals (47) and his highest ever finish in the goal race. He has talent around him and is a great player, but like Draisaitl I feel like there might be a bit of a shooting percentage regression coming in his future this season. Even if that only knocks a few goals off of his total, that might keep him out of the race.

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.

Flyers’ Giroux-Couturier duo is great, but they need help

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The Philadelphia Flyers may not have had much success as a team over the past few seasons but there have been two very important developments during that time.

The first is that Claude Giroux has re-emerged as one of the elite point producers in the league after a three-year decline. He has been so productive that since the start of the 2017-18 season only four players in the league (Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, and Sidney Crosby) have more total points than his 187.  Just looking at things strictly from an offensive perspective, this is the best two-year run of Giroux’s career.

The second big development is that Sean Couturier has gone from being a reliable, defensive-minded center to one of the most complete and best all-around players in the league, perfectly blending his shutdown defensive play to go with an emerging offensive game that has seen him produce consecutive 30-goal, 76-point seasons (only eight other players in the league matched that).

After finishing as the runner-up in the 2017-18 Selke Trophy voting, he finished sixth this past season and will enter this season as one of the favorites to win it.

[More: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

When the Flyers put them together they can be as good as any other duo in the league.

It is when one (or both) is sitting on the bench that things unravel for the Flyers and the team gets its doors blown off. The table below shows what the Flyers’ shot attempt, scoring chance, high-danger scoring chance, and goal differentials when both are on the ice, one is on the ice, and when neither is on the ice. This is all during 5-on-5 play.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

With both, the Flyers are as good as any team in the league. Without one or both they become one of the worst teams in the league. That is the look of a team that has no depth beyond its top few players, and that is simply not good enough to win in the NHL.

This is where Kevin Hayes and Nolan Patrick become so vital to the Flyers’ chances.

The Giroux-Couturier pairing obviously works, but it has left the team dangerously thin the past couple of seasons. The team has been so thin that when the Flyers tried to split them up and play them on different lines it ended up doing nothing but holding them both back because there was not enough talent around them. They work at their best when they are together, and that is the way it should remain.

For the Flyers to have a chance this season they will need Hayes to be able to provide a capable second-line presence down the middle and prove he was worth that seven-year, $50 million price tag, and for Patrick to continue to evolve and help drive the third line after struggling to breakout in his second year as the second-line center.

Without both of those things happening (and without Carter Hart solidifying the goaltending spot) the Flyers will once again struggle no matter how great Giroux and Couturier are.

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.

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.

Avs continue strong summer by extending coach Bednar

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If you want an example of how quickly things can change in sports, consider the Colorado Avalanche and head coach Jared Bednar, who was signed to a two-year contract extension on Tuesday.

In a bizarre turn of events, Patrick Roy left the Avalanche in August of 2016, not that far from training camp. Bednar was thrown into a tough situation as head coach – some would say, in part because of a lack of options considering a hectic hiring process – and suffered through a disastrous 22-56-4 debut season in 2016-17. That was good for just 48 points in 82 games.

Things were so glum to begin 2017-18 that a miserable-looking Matt Duchene was inspiring a bunch of Simon & Garfunkel memes, and it seemed like the Avalanche might suffer through a lengthy period of … well, darkness.

Instead of merely signaling relief, the Duchene trade instead propelled the Avalanche faster toward the light at the end of the tunnel. The Avalanche stunned the hockey world by making the playoffs in 2017-18 (Bednar’s second season as head coach), and managed a repeat appearance this past season.

[PHT’s Bednar interview from August 2018]

Once the Avalanche punched their ticket to 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they made serious waves.

Colorado didn’t just upset the top-seeded Calgary Flames in Round 1. They clearly and undeniably outplayed the Flames. This Natural Stat Trick chart captures much of the spirit of the Flames falling in five games, as instead of Mike Smith being the one thing that derailed Calgary’s run, he instead held them in some of those contests:

The Avalanche also pushed an excellent San Jose Sharks team to Game 7 of Round 2, with San Jose narrowly escaping, controversial calls and all.

Considering that “mile high” elevation, any reasonable coach would want the Avalanche playing at the sort of pace that will leave opponents huffing and puffing. Bednar embraced that, but others have not, including Patrick Roy. It can be tough to separate smart coaching from sheer happenstance, yet it sure feels like Colorado is moving in the right direction, and Bednar seems to have them pointed forward.

The still-fairly-new coach also deftly handled Nathan MacKinnon‘s kind of adorable tantrum merely by not letting it become a thing.

So, aside from that first-year meltdown, Bednar’s passed most (if not) all of his tests as a head coach, making that extension easy to understand.

Bednar getting top-heavy but somewhat limited Avalanche teams to the playoffs these past two seasons is a testament to his coaching, yet the most intriguing challenges await.

Colorado’s enjoyed a smashing success of a summer, adding legitimate pieces such as Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, and Andre Burakovsky to supplement that mighty top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s up to Bednar to integrate those additions – and maybe manage Kadri’s temper? – along with making the right calls about how to work prospects Cale Makar, Conor Timmins, and Bowen Byram into the mix over the years. Bednar also must manage the goaltending position. While Philipp Grubauer looked like a genuine starting goalie toward the end of 2018-19 and into a strong playoff run, there were also shaky moments, and now the Avalanche don’t have a veteran to fall back on as Semyon Varlamov got that surprising contract from the New York Islanders.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

As much as the Avalanche seem set to take off, it’s easy to see situations where they might stumble in trying to make a greater leap forward. It could be up to Bednar to keep those frustrations from boiling over, and to manage growing pains as the Makars of the world take on greater responsibility.

In the grand scheme of things, the Avalanche appear to be on an exhilarating upward trajectory, and it seems like Bednar is a strong choice to pilot them on that journey.

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.