Colorado Avalanche: Are They More Than an Eighth Seed Success Story?

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News came out the middle of last week that Jared Bednar was re-signed by the Colorado Avalanche to a two year extension, as he’s led the club to two straight playoff appearances. Both of those playoff appearances for the Avs involved playing consistently around the end of the season and locking up the last playoff spot in the Western conference.

You read that right, the Colorado Avalanche have been the eighth seed two years in a row and have played as well if not better than most people expected; taking the Nashville Predators to a surprising six games in the first round in 2018, smashing the Calgary Flames in five games in round one earlier, and then lost a nail-biter to the San Jose Sharks in round two in a seven game series.

Before the two years of being in the playoffs, the Avalanche had two subpar seasons and one dreadful one. As with many teams who have multiple years of missing the playoffs, there were a good number of reasons why they couldn’t get back to being the best in their division during the 2013-2014 season. Goaltending had become an issue, star player Nathan McKinnon wasn’t the same player as when he first came into the league, and most notably, the team lacked good defensemen. Including this year’s draft, the Colorado Avalanche have drafted a total of 37 defensemen (they took zero in 2012 and then five in 2013). Compare that with 30 centers, 13 left and right wings (each), one forward and 14 goalies, per hockeyreference.com.

Ever since that dreadful 2016-2017 season, the Avs have turned things around, starting off with the hiring of Jared Bednar. A lot has come together since, with Nathan McKinnon fully back to his 2013 debut form being a big one. McKinnon proved he’s one of the best players in the league and single-handedly turned the tide in the first-round series against the Calgary Flames in the Saddledome by netting an OT winner in game two.

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Nathan McKinnon (right) swats a puck in during Game 4 against Martin Jones. The Avalanche shut out the Sharks 3-0 to even the series

The acquisition of German Stanley Cup Champion goaltender (although backup to Braden Holtby) Philipp Grubauer has been a breath of fresh air and a much needed body in net, which led to Colorado being fine with Semyon Varlamov’s departure to the New York Islanders. As noted by Joe Micheletti stated during game five of the Avalanche/Sharks series, “Grubauer’s best attribute is how he plays honestly and doesn’t seem to ‘cheat’ when he’s in net,” and “at times for Colorado playing defense, Grubauer took control and directed the defense on what to do, as if he could see every little thing that was going on.”

Roster depth has built up especially for the wings over the years, as team captain Gabriel Landeskog and J.T. Compher have anchored the first line. Colin Wilson, Matt Nieto and Mikko Rantanen are worthy backups behind both of them. As for center,  Tyson Jost is a complimentary backup to MacKinnon, though free agency did help Colorado build what could be a scary secondary line behind a fantastic group on the first. The Avalanche gained three quality players in Nazem Kadri (via trade), Joonas Donskoi and Andre Burakovsky (free agency), something that will give teams in the western conference headaches.

There will be a lot of questions over the third and fourth lines when next season begins and progresses, especially when it comes to certain opponents and important games late in the year, so it’s probable Bednar and his staff are planning with the rest of the team. Philipp Grubauer could also fall back to earth or not play at a Vezina-like level he had late last season, though if the depth of this roster can get it going, he shouldn’t have to. The Avalanche drafted the top defensemen Bowen Byram in the 2019 draft, but they did trade their best defensemen away to Toronto in the complicated Nazem Kadri trade, so again there must be cohesion and solid play from the defensemen, highlighted by the re-signed Nikita Zadorov.

Four of the remaining six teams in the central division added pieces to take a good shot at either making the playoffs or getting to the Stanley Cup Finals, with the St. Louis Blues (one of the two that didn’t) will have the same focused roster as they had when they won the Cup in June. Whoever wins the central could possibly be the favorite to go to/back to the Championship, and for the Colorado Avalanche to do that, they’ll have to rely on their stars, grow and develop the lines and role-players behind them, and get a monumental push from Coach Bednar, with some things falling in their favor. The Avs have proven they can handle not just an underdog role, but to build off of it and become a threat for upcoming seasons. Expect this team to make a resonating impact this year.

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