The NHL regular season kicked off last night but the majority of the league gets going tonight, including the Colorado Avalanche opening on the road at the New York Rangers. The Avalanche are looking to rebound off a 48-point season that saw the team suffer a mind-boggling 60 losses last year.
The page can't turn fast enough for the organization and the intrepid BSN Avalanche staff is here to tell you what they're looking forward to most this season. For AJ Haefele and Jesse Montano's predictions, be sure to check the latest episode of the BSN Avalanche Podcast.
What are you most excited/worried about for the upcoming Avalanche season?
Adrian Dater: I'm probably most excited about seeing how three forwards who weren't even with the team to start last season integrate themselves into the team. They are Tyson Jost, Alex Kerfoot, and J.T. Compher. Of course, I know Compher and Jost played some last year, but I really feel like this is their "true" rookie year, and I think they're going to add a lot of juice to the lineup. Same with Kerfoot. I didn't think Kerfoot would be given this much responsibility this fast, but here we are. I'm also excited to see if Nail Yakupov can carry his strong preseason into the regular one.
Worried? It's still the defense. As of Wednesday, the Avs had a guy (Patrik Nemeth), who was claimed off waivers, playing with Erik Johnson on a top pairing. Maybe that will change by Thursday night, but either way that's a bit worrisome. I also worry about Matt Duchene getting off to a slow start and feeling really unhappy about being here and poisoning the well. We already know he's feeling like an uninvited guest with the team as it is.
Evan Rawal: Like most, I'm excited to see the young guys and how they perform, but I really want to see how Erik Johnson does now that the coaching staff has made it very clear he's the guy on the blueline and he'll play heavy minutes. He came into camp leaner and looks ready to take off, as long as he can avoid injury problems, which has been hard for him to do.
J.D. Killian: I am excited about watching the impact of young players on how the team evolves over the season. Half the team is different from last year. Because of their youth, I’m expecting the first couple of months may be a little rough with moments of brilliance alternated with “what the heck?” but I expect to see them improve by the end of the year.
Andi Duroux: Honestly, my answer is the same for both questions: the rookies. After last season, bringing the skill, potential, and attitude of the young players was the right course correction for the franchise. I'm excited to watch them grow into their roles this season and start to define a new era of Avalanche hockey.
But at the same time, rookies mean rookie mistakes. It's going to be incredibly frustrating watching flashes of brilliance mixed with boneheaded decisions. As the youngest team in the league, these incidents won't be isolated. Will it snowball, and can they get the team back on track if it does?
What areas of the team do you feel have been upgraded the most?
AD: It feels like they're stronger on the left wing, with Kerfoot and Sven Andrighetto and, depending where they are played at times, a guy like Colin Wilson or J.T. I also feel like Jonathan Bernier is a decent-sized upgrade over Calvin Pickard. I once was high on Picks, but just saw too many weak areas late last year. I just think the forwards are better overall, with Kerfoot, Jost, Compher, a more mature Rantanen, Yakupov, etc. I don't think they'll be the lowest-scoring team in the league again.
ER: The forward depth is probably the biggest upgrade. There are still question marks in the forward group, but the additions of Colin Wilson and Nail Yakupov, the signing of Alexander Kerfoot, and the graduations of Tyson Jost and J.T. Compher add more depth to a team that struggled to score last year. Nothing is perfect, but if the Avs run into a game where MacKinnon's line just doesn't have it, they now have a little more depth that may help them make up for it.
The forwards – in particular the third and fourth line. Only five of their current forward corps started in last year’s season opener (assuming Comeau and Soderberg play).
I’m also hopeful the team significantly upgraded the assistant coaches.
The defense line should be a lot faster.
Andi D: If you look at the opening night lineup from last year, only 9 of those 23 players are still with the team, so pretty much everywhere has been drastically upgraded.
However, with the additions of Ray Bennett (assistant) and Jussi Parkkila (goaltending), I'm most excited about the coaching upgrades. Add in a full offseason to prepare and a far less awkward situation for head coach Jared Bednar, and I expect to see much more stability behind the bench.
What areas of the team are you most concerned about?
AD: As alluded to before, defense. What happens if either EJ or Barrie goes down again? It'd be rough. It's already a worrisome area with those two guys.
ER: I think the team is built to be more offensive, but I'm not sure Jared Bednar's system is made for offense. The defense gets all the blame, but the offense last year was non-existent and I think a lot of that was the system, so it'll be interesting to see what adjustments Bednar can make now that he has some more skill and speed up front.
I am concerned about how the defensive pairings will shake out. I don’t think they have figured out the ideal player combinations yet.
I am intrigued to see how effective Bednar is as a coach now that he’s familiar with the team and has his staff in place.
I wonder whether Semyon Varlamov will regain his pre-injury form and if he will be able to stay healthy.
Andi D: This season rests on Varlamov's bionic hips. With such a young roster, the goalies are going to be tested. Jonathan Bernier is an upgrade at the backup position, but Spencer Martin isn't ready for NHL duty, particularly behind this team. If Varlamov isn't 100% or is out for any significant amount of time, the Avs are in a tight spot. It could get very ugly very quickly.
Prediction time! How many points will the Avs finish with, who will be their leading scorer, their biggest breakout (definition entirely up to you), and biggest disappointment?
ER: With how many variables are in play with the Avs young guys this year, it's tough to guess how many points they'll have, but I'll say 82. They won't make the playoffs but they will be watchable, at the very least. I'll go out on a limb and say that Mikko Rantanen bests Nathan MacKinnon by a hair to lead the team in scoring. Beyond Rantanen leading the team in scoring, I think Nikita Zadorov does break out in a big way. Maybe not in points, but in the impact he makes on the ice. He might take a little bit of time to catch up after missing some of camp, but I expect a big year from him.
As for disappointment, I am worried that Landeskog's offensive numbers continue to decline. He's not on a high scoring line, and his shot attempts have gone down the last few years. I expect heavy defensive minutes for Landeskog and the offense to struggle.
JDK: The Avalanche will get around 85 points, Nathan MacKinnon will repeat as their points leader, Mikko Rantanen as their leading goal scorer, Nikita Zadorov will have a breakout year and Tyson Barrie’s defensive game will disappoint.
Andi D: If there's anything I've learned over the past few years, it's that attempting to predict this team is only going to make you look like an idiot by the year's end. With that in mind:
Finish: 86 points
Leading scorer: Nathan MacKinnon
Biggest Breakout: Nail Yakupov
Biggest Disappointment: Matt Duchene is still on the roster heading into the summer.
What do the Central Division standings look like at the end of the season?
ER: As much as it pains me to say, I think the Wild win the division but again flame out in the postseason. The other teams in the division that I see making the playoffs are Nashville, Dallas, Chicago, and Winnipeg. I think St. Louis is on the decline and will miss the playoffs for the first time in several years, and while the Avs will improve, they won't have enough to make the playoffs.
Andi D: STL, MIN, NSH, DAL, WPG, CHI, COL
I think it's going to be a much tighter grouping than most are expecting, and I also expect Nashville to go deeper into the playoffs than STL or MIN. Colorado also has a good chance to surprise and jump a spot or two in the rankings.