Philipp Grubauer

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Avs’ rising expectations put Bednar under pressure

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.

Rantanen’s contract, Grubauer among questions facing Avs

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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.

Let’s ponder three questions for the 2019-20 Avalanche:

1. Is Philipp Grubauer ready for prime time?

He certainly looked like he could shoulder the brunt of a full-time role in the final month of the season. But if you watched the first stretch of last season you’d have thought the exact opposite.

The reality is, if not for Grubauer, the Avalanche wouldn’t have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Despite struggling early on in the year, Grubauer was nothing short of money across his final 14 appearances of the regular season, posting a 9-2-2 record with a .956 save percentage and three shutouts.

Elite level goaltending was needed, especially with Colorado’s top line fizzling slightly in the scoring department down the stretch. Grubauer’s play earned him the nod in the playoffs and rightfully so. You’d be crazy not to run with the goalie stopping 96 percent of the shots he faced in the run-in to the postseason. And he was pretty stellar there, too, propelling the eighth-seeded Avs past the top-dog Calgary Flames in Round 1 before taking the San Jose Sharks all the way to Game 7 in Round 2.

With the departure of Semyon Varlamov, the crease is now Grubauer’s. Play as he did in March and April, and the Avs will contend for first place in the tough Central Division.

2. Will the offseason moves provide the depth scoring Colorado yearns for?

Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog combined for a whopping 261 points last season, including 106 of the team’s 258 goals (41 percent).

There’s nothing to suggest that those numbers won’t be there again this season, but the hope in Colorado is that they get a bit of help.

Each of the next three top point producers on the Avs last season (Tyson Barrie, Carl Soderberg and Alex Kerfoot) won’t be on the team for this coming season.

In their place are offseason acquisition Nazem Kadri, who came from Toronto in the deal that sent Barrie and Kerfoot the other way, and Joonas Donskoi, who was picked up in free agency, as well as Andre Burakovsky.

[MORE: Under Pressure2018-19 review I X-factor: Makar]

Kadri immediately becomes the team’s second-line center and has 30-goal potential, having done so in two out of the past three years. Last season’s 16 goals were a disappointment, but if Kadri can rebound in a new environment in an expanded role, Colorado can probably count on a total at least in the high 20s.

3. How long will contract negotiations linger for Mikko Rantanen? 

At this point, there’s no reason to hit the panic button on the restricted free agent.

A quick glance around the league shows several big-ticket RFAs who have yet to sign. This has become standard practice and there are varying degrees when it comes to outcomes.

The biggest thing here for the Avs to avoid is reaching some sort of impasse in which Rantanen misses part or all of training camp. There’s no need to allow that to happen. Colorado has the cap space to give Rantanen what he wants — and what he deserves given his pedigree.

That likely comes in around the $10 million mark in annual average value and the Avs will want to get that sewn up in an eight-year pact.

It still seems like everyone is waiting for the first foot to drop (Mitch Marner) but that situation could also play itself out well into training camp itself.

The Avs don’t need a repeat of William Nylander (at least his on-ice performance after missing a bunch of time due to a contract stall out.) Sakic has gone ahead and made some moves to make this team better. An elongated contract dispute with Rantanen would only set the team back.

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

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

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.

Avalanche offseason presents big opportunities — and challenges

The Colorado Avalanche don’t want to hear this – not after falling painfully short against the Sharks in Game 7 – but to many observers, that agonizing ending feels like just the beginning.

Just consider the players who spearheaded their surprising five-game steamrolling of the Calgary Flames in Round 1, and the players who pushed San Jose to the limit in Round 2.

  • Nathan MacKinnon‘s the headliner, and at 23 with a ridiculous bargain $6.3 million cap hit through 2022-23, he might be the best value in all of the NHL.
  • After a bumpy start to his Colorado stay, Philipp Grubauer sure looks like a legitimate No. 1 goalie. He’s 27 and cheap ($3.33M) though 2020-21, too.
  • Mikko Rantanen‘s not that far behind MacKinnon, and just 22.
  • It feels like Gabriel Landeskog has been around forever, but he’s just 26. His $5.571M cap hit doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season.
  • Cale Makar looked right at home in the pressure cooker of the playoffs, and he’s 20. Samuel Girard is another nice piece, and could improve since he’s just 20, too.
  • Tyson Barrie‘s like Landeskog in that he’s still young (27), and affordable ($5.5M through 2019-20).

Of course, it’s not just all that precocious youth that makes the Avalanche seem like a Team of Tomorrow.

Thanks to that brilliant Kyle TurrisMatt Duchene trade by GM Joe Sakic, the Avalanche didn’t just add Girard and other more immediate pieces; they also snagged what would become the Ottawa Senators’ first-rounder in 2019 (along with Ottawa’s third-rounder).

While Colorado didn’t enjoy the sexiest option of getting a shot at Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, you won’t see a ton of teams make two consecutive playoff appearances and land the fourth pick of the draft. That happened thanks to the Turris trade, and the Avalanche are also slated to pick 16th with their own selection, as confirmed by NHL.com.

[Sharks hold off Avs in Game 7]

Having two picks in the top half of the 2019 NHL Draft gives Sakic & Co. some fascinating options.

Most directly, they can stick with both picks. They could also move one or both of those selections for more immediate upgrades via trades.

Both options are tantalizing, but the latter scenario is fascinating because of the road ahead for the Avalanche. Let’s take a look at the decisions Sakic must make, both in the near and longer-term future. As always, Cap Friendly is a crucial resource for contract information and other details, and served as a great resource for this post.

Tons of cap space, but some big names to re-sign

Via Cap Friendly, the Avalanche have about $46.9 million in cap space devoted to 13 players, with few problem contracts (aside from, I’d argue, Erik Johnson‘s deal).

There’s some significant money coming off the books as this season ends, and it remains to be seen if Colorado wants to bring back any of veterans Semyon Varlamov (31, $5.9M in 2018-19), Derick Brassard (31, $3M after retention), and Colin Wilson (29, just under $4M). Honestly, the Avs would probably be wise to let both Varlamov and Brassard walk, and maybe see if Wilson would take a little less cash for some term.

Either way, a ton of money will be allotted to RFAs. Rantanen figures to come in at a big clip, and it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if he landed in double digits. Honestly, even if he did, his trio with MacKinnon and Landeskog could probably still be underpaid as a group.

Rantanen isn’t the only noteworthy RFA. Alex Kerfoot, 24, and J.T. Compher, 24, both need new deals, and each player is somewhat tough to gauge value-wise. (Kerfoot is sneaky-effective from a two-way perspective.) Nikita Zadorov is another interesting situation as a 24-year-old RFA.

A window opens

Considering how young this Avalanche core is, the instinct might be to take a zen-like, slow approach.

Yet, if the Avalanche look at cap-crunched teams like the Maple Leafs, they should realize they have an unusual advantage to know that a window is opening, and that they should seize opportunities when they come along.

MacKinnon’s contract represents the outer limits (2022-23) of that window, but Colorado should also consider more immediate “deadlines.”

  • Landeskog and Grubauer are eligible to become UFAs after 2020-21, and should expect hearty raises.
  • Tyson Barrie’s deal runs out after 2019-20, and could be pricey considering his offensive production.
  • Girard’s slated to be an RFA after 2019-20, while Cale Makar’s rookie deal ranks as another competitive advantage for Colorado.
  • Granted, there will also be moments of cap relief. Carl Soderberg‘s $4.75M cap hit ends after 2019-20, so that should come in handy. The Brooks Orpik buyout ends after 2019-20, too.

With all of that in mind, the Avalanche should strongly consider ramping up their aggressiveness by either landing a free agent (maybe recent opponent Erik Karlsson, if he springs free? How does Artemi Panarin feel about skiing?) or by trading for a big ticket player. It’s tough to imagine the Predators trading P.K. Subban in general, yet especially to a division rival where they’d face Subban multiple times per year, yet Subban might be the type of gamebreaker Colorado should try to land.

Again, this is where that fourth or 16th pick could make things that much more interesting. Colorado could sell a trade partner on receiving cap space and/or a high draft pick in exchange for taking a known quantity, and a player who’s already x number of years into their development.

Imagine the Avalanche team that battered the Flames and challenged the Sharks adding an All-Star-level player, or even two? It’s a scary thought for opponents, and the Avalanche shouldn’t wait forever to try to make big strides. MacKinnon’s contract gives them a lengthy advantage, yet other bargains will evaporate soon. Why not get a surplus of talent while you still can?

***

Whether you believe the Avalanche should go bold or take a more measured approach, it sure seems obvious that this team has a lot of potential.

If management makes the right decisions – and, honestly, gets a few lucky breaks – then the Avs might just reach that potential.

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.

What to watch for in Sharks-Avalanche Game 7

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For the second time this postseason the San Jose Sharks find themselves in a winner-take-all Game 7 on home ice.

After a miraculous comeback against the Vegas Golden Knights in Round 1, they are back at it on Wednesday night (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) where they will try to knock out a young, upstart Colorado Avalanche team that is starting to position itself as a major player in the Western Conference.

The winner moves on to play the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final.

Trying to predict which team that will be is a difficult proposition because this has been an incredibly tight series where no team has anything close to the upper hand.

Let’s take a look at what to watch for and some of the factors that could determine the winner.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

1. No advantage for anyone six games in

Whether you’re looking at traditional numbers like wins and losses or goals for and against, or shot-based advanced analytics no team has carried the play in this series.

The Sharks lead the goal department by the slimmest of margins, outscoring the Avalanche by a 17-16 margin overall and 13-12 during 5-on-5 on play.

The Sharks have had a slightly bigger advantage when it comes to the possession game and total shot attempts (53 percent to 46 percent) but the Avalanche have actually done a better job generating scoring chances (52 percent) and high-danger chances (54 percent). On one hand, the Sharks have to like that they have been able to control the territorial edge, but they can’t like the fact they are giving up as many chances as they are. One mistake or breakdown against Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, or Gabriel Landeskog and there is a very good chance it is going to end up in the back of your net.

2. Both goalies have been really good

This was probably the big question mark for both teams coming into this season (or at least one of them). Martin Jones had a terrible regular season for the Sharks and struggled early in the playoffs against Vegas before catching fire late in that series and continuing that play into Round 2.

Philipp Grubauer had a tough start to the season for the Avalanche but played lights down the stretch and has been one of the team’s best players in the playoffs. But it probably wouldn’t have been unfair to wonder about him entering the postseason just because he has such a limited track record as a starter in the NHL and flopped in his first playoff experience with the Washington Capitals a year ago. But he has definitely risen to the challenge for the Avalanche.

Usually in a Game 7 you throw everything out the window and just go with the team that has the better goalie, but even that mindset kind of makes this game a huge toss-up because it’s hard to see which team has the advantage.

Neither goalie has a track record of being one of the NHL’s elite, and their performance through the first six games has been fairly similar as they have mostly matched each other save for save.

3. What will the Sharks’ power play look like?

The Sharks’ power play was the driving force behind their Game 7 comeback in Round 1, but it has gone cold in Round 2 against the Avalanche. One strategy that Peter DeBoer and the coaching staff has utilized has been splitting up Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, a decision that seems to be a little unconventional given how the two of them are among the best offensive defensemen in the league and are both dynamite on the power play.

The mindset behind it is that it allows DeBoer to limit Burns’ minutes so he can play more during 5-on-5 situations and be matched up against the Avalanche’s top line that is centered by MacKinnon. I get the strategy behind it, but the Sharks’ power play has struggled mightily in this series and has had its most success when the two of them have been on the ice together. And by “most success,” I mean their only success.

Karlsson and Burns have played just four minutes together on the power play in this series with the Sharks scoring two goals. They have zero power play goals in 22 power play minutes with them split up.

I know the Sharks want to keep Burns fresh to go against MacKinnon, and power plays are often hard to come by in a Game 7, but when the Sharks do get the man-advantage they should not be holding anything back. This is Game 7, and one power play or one goal could be the difference between an extended postseason run and an extended summer.

4. The Joe Pavelski factor

It is still not yet known if Pavelski will return to the Sharks’ lineup, but if he does you know there is going to be an emotional lift for the crowd and the team.

More importantly, there’s an on-ice hockey lift, too.

Remember, this is a player that scored 38 goals during the regular season and the Sharks haven’t had him for a single game in this Round 2 series. And they still made it to Game 7 without him. Getting him back would be a huge addition with your season on the line.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.