Who will the Colorado Avalanche be this season: Central Division champs or basement dwellers?
COACH: Patrick Roy
2014-15 RECORD: 39-31-12, 90 points (seventh in Central, missed playoffs)
VITAL SIGNS: 2.55 goals per game (22nd); 2.72 goals per game (21st); 15.0 power play pct. (29th); 84.6 penalty kill pct. (5th); PDO: 100.9 (7th); Corsi For pct.: 44.1 (29th); Fenwick For pct.: 44.6 (29th); face-off pct.: 50.8 (14th)
NOTABLE ARRIVALS: F Mikhail Grigorenko, D Nikita Zadorov, D Brandon Gormley, D Francois Beauchemin, F Blake Comeau
NOTABLE DEPARTURES: F Ryan O’Reilly, F Jamie McGinn, D Stefan Elliott.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
Gabriel Landeskog – Matt Duchene – Nathan MacKinnon
Alex Tanguay –Carl Soderberg – Jarome Iginla
Blake Comeau – Mikhail Grigorenko – Mikko Rantanen
Cody McLeod – John Mitchell – Jesse Winchester (injured)
Francois Beauchemin – Erik Johnson
Nikita Zadorov – Tyson Barrie
Brandon Gormley — Brad Stuart
Nate Guerin/Nick Holden
OUTLOOK: The Avs went 52-22-8 and finished a surprising first in the Central Division in 2013-14. Then, during a season in which many expected Colorado’s young players to take a big step forward, they disappointed and finished last. It would be easy to say the true measure of their ability lies somewhere in between those two extreme results (injuries played a part in their plunge), but splitting the difference might be too generous. Advanced stats experts said the 2013-14 team was playing way over its head, and the numbers didn’t improve last season. The Avs’ 44.6% Fenwick number was better only than the woeful, tanking Buffalo Sabres.
The hope is that Colorado’s core learned some painful lessons that will help the hungry Avs climb back into playoff contention. However, the loss of center Ryan O’Reilly to Buffalo looms large, especially on special teams (Colorado's power play ranked 29th last season). Carl Soderberg is basically his replacement and the former Bruin has some nice playmaking skills but he's not the two-way force that O'Reilly can be. Winger Jarome Iginla (29 goals) is 38. Even assuming he remains productive, Sabres export Mikhail Grigorenko, 21, fully taps his offensive potential, 6' 4" rookie power forward Mikko Rantanen turns out to be as good as hoped, and Nathan MacKinnon, who suffered through a sophomore slump compounded by a fractured foot, and Matt Duchene enjoy bounce-back seasons, Colorado still faces a tough climb in the tough Central, where every team finished with 90 or more points last season.
The backline may need some time to round into form. The Avs took a risk on some high-upside project defensemen in Nikita Zadorov and Brandon Gormley, and paid handsomely (three years, $13.5 million) for physical veteran Francois Beauchemin, 35, who looked his age at times with Anaheim late last season. Erik Johnson, who signed a seven-year extension ($6 million AAV) in September, is coming back from a knee injury. Semyon Varlamov will again be the workhorse in net, so his health will be crucial. (Coach Patrick Roy cited Varlamov’s absence due to a groin injury last season as a major reason for Colorado’s stumble.)
PLAYER TO WATCH: Tyson Barrie
Barrie, 24, is the best defenseman who nobody talks about as being elite. While Erik Johnson may be the guy in Colorado, Barrie is much better and a key to the Avs’ hopes. He led the team’s blueliners with 53 points last season despite shooting worse than the season before. With a better power play, his totals could rise to a level that forces Norris Trophy consideration.
PREDICTION: 88 points, seventh in Central