Many predicted the Colorado Avalanche would finish near the bottom of the Western Conference standings last season after they ended the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign with the NHL’s second-worst record.
The team stunned everyone and surged to a 52-22-8 record to win the Central Division over the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks and claim the No. 2 seed in the 2014 Western Conference playoffs. Star players coming back from injuries, Patrick Roy’s arrival as head coach and consistently great goaltending were the main reasons for Colorado’s remarkable turnaround.
For the Avalanche to take the next step and become a legitimate contender in a competitive division, they need Nathan MacKinnon to join the league’s elite. The 2013 first overall draft pick won the Calder Trophy last season with a rookie-leading 63 points (24 goals, 39 assists) in 82 games and rode a 13-game point streak from late January through mid-March.
MacKinnon is an incredible talent who combines elite playmaking skills, fantastic goal-scoring ability and top-end speed. It’s a complete offensive skill set that also includes a high hockey IQ. The 19-year-old center has worked hard in the summer to enter training camp in incredible shape.
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MacKinnon will play a more prominent role in Colorado’s lineup following the free-agent departure of veteran center Paul Stastny. If MacKinnon takes his game to another level, the Avalanche will maintain last season’s success and make back-to-back playoff appearance for the first time since 2005-06.
Let’s preview the 2014-15 Colorado Avalanche.
Key arrivals: Daniel Briere, Jarome Iginla, Brad Stuart
Key departures: Paul Stastny, P.A. Parenteau, Matt Hunwick
Player to Watch
Semyon Varlamov had a breakout 2013-14 campaign with a 41-14-6 record, a .927 save percentage (career high) and a 2.41 goals against average. It’ll be interesting to see if the Russian goaltender is able to duplicate that success because, before last season, he had never played in more than 53 games or won more than 26 games in a single campaign.
Which Varlamov will show up this season: the guy who struggled in 2012-12 with a .903 save percentage and a 3.02 GAA, or the Hart Trophy candidate from 2013-14? Colorado needs the latter or it won’t contend in the West.
Scoring depth is a huge advantage for the Avalanche. They have three centers who would play on the top line for most teams, including MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly. The team’s depth also is strong on the wings, highlighted by captain Gabriel Landeskog and 12-time 30-goal scorer Jarome Iginla.
Colorado had five players hit the 60-point mark, five 20-goal scorers and 10 double-digit goal scorers last season. Any team with three lines capable of scoring against quality competition will be tough to beat.
Most Glaring Weakness
The Avalanche were bad defensively last season. They allowed 32.7 shots per game (second-most in the West) and ranked 25th in corsi-for percentage (puck-possession stat). Varlamov needed to make a league-high 2,013 saves and often bailed out his teammates after mistakes in the neutral and defensive zones. It’s rare to see a team win 40-plus games despite giving up so many shots and failing to consistently possess the puck.
The signing of Brad Stuart adds experience and poise to a young blue line, but the Avalanche still need a lot of improvement defensively to repeat last season’s success.
Expectations In 2014-15
The Avalanche aren’t likely to accumulate 110-plus points this season, mostly because it will be difficult for Varlamov to post ridiculous numbers in back-to-back seasons and the team isn’t likely to win 70 percent of its one-goal games again. To be fair, Colorado has more scoring depth than a lot of its conference opponents, and Roy has proven to be a fantastic coach/motivator.
The Avalanche will be a fascinating team to watch this season, but even if they fail to win the division again, it would be surprising if they didn’t earn a playoff berth.