It's finally October and the Colorado Avalanche hockey season draws nigh! It’s time to dust off the rose-colored glasses for all the optimism a new season brings. After last year’s disastrous 48-point season, everyone can shake off the dust and approach the team’s preseason development with fresh eyes. While Rocktober will get a lot of notice in Colorado, the start of hockey season brings its own joy.
1. The veteran Avalanche players showed up at training camp like they had channeled all their frustration from last season into their offseason workouts. Their efforts appeared effective, especially since Coach Bednar emphasized conditioning in camp. Perhaps this will eliminate the ‘collapse in front of one’s own net’ strategy showcased last year in the third period. One can hope.
2. While preseason games are not direct indicators of regular season performance, watching the coaching staff experiment with players and special teams instead of relying on past performance was truly hopeful. Colorado selected the best players regardless of tenure with the team and afforded all the players a chance to showcase their skills. While one can debate the merits of one player over another, the Avalanche are making room for their prospects, a refreshing change.
3. Forward Nathan MacKinnon led the team in preseason scoring, notching four goals and two assists in four matchups. He finished the preseason tied for fourth among all NHL scorers. Perhaps everyone can forget when he couldn’t score on the broad side of a barn.
4. Say what you will about plus/minus, but after last year’s disastrous results, seeing ANY player in the plus category is a refreshing change. Keep an eye on defenseman Chris Bigras, as he has, hold onto your seatbelts, a +5. The Avalanche actually have a defenseman tied for fourth place among all defenders in the category. Remember the last time that happened? Me neither. Sometimes it’s the simple things in life you treasure.
Only two players scheduled to make the final roster finished the preseason in negative territory – forwards Blake Comeau and Matt Nieto, both at a -2.
5. While on the subject of Chris Bigras, the young defender enters the regular season leading the team in preseason assists, and in a tie for 12th place among all NHL players. Yeah, that’s not a typo. The Avalanche may have yet another defensive scoring threat aside from Tyson Barrie.
6. Remember August 25, 2016? Avalanche Coach Jared Bednar should. That's when the Avalanche announced hiring him after previous coach Patrick Roy suddenly resigned. Bednar was hired three weeks before the start of Rookie Camp without a chance to select his assistants. A year under his belt and new assistant coaches should make a significant impact on the team, and their record.
7. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov - and his surgically repaired ‘bionic’ hips - looks to be regaining his form, something hampered by recurring groin injuries the past two years. He earned a .948 save percentage in four preseason appearances with a goals-against average of 1.50, the best numbers of any goaltender appearing in four contests and good enough to put him in the top 10 for all goaltenders. If he continues to remain healthy, there’s a chance he can once again be included in Vezina trophy discussions.
8. The Colorado Avalanche roster (given there will be some player movement later today) currently places them as the third youngest team in the NHL with an average age of 25.9. Considering 31-year-old Carl Soderberg will likely be a healthy scratch for the start of the season, the on-ice team will be even younger. Brace yourself, as the young players WILL make mistakes. But if how the young call-ups played at the end of last season is any indication, the games should be a lot more interesting.
1. Backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier – wait for it - tweaked his groin during the final appearance against Vegas. Between Varlamov, Greer, Jost and now Bernier, maybe the Avalanche should check into groin insurance.
2. Forward A.J. Greer, up and coming prospect trying to make the roster, suffered a concussion and recently returned to practice in a limited role. It’s a tough injury for a player trying to make the team and will likely put him on injured reserve or relegated to San Antonio. But fear not, Greer’s a feisty sort who will be vying for the first injury call-up.
The season is starting so don't look for lots of 'BAD' this week. There will be plenty of time for that later in the season.
1. 31-year-old forward Blake Comeau allegedly checked Greer – who was a wearing a red ‘no contact’ jersey – into the wall. While scrimmages may get intense, most people would think twice before re-injuring a teammate. Comeau may need a timeout in San Antonio so he can re-group. Veteran players need to lead by example and Comeau’s example is not inspiring.
2. $4.75 million a year center Carl Soderberg will likely be a healthy scratch for the start of the season. That’s not just bad, that’s UGLY. For a player who notched a 51-point season in 2015-2016 after having two mid 40’s point seasons, the precipitous drop-off is confounding. Hopefully, he can rediscover his game as he was an excellent two-way center and one of the best players on the ice in 2015-2016.
3. The NHL has elected to change the rules on the offsides challenge. Last year, if a coach challenged an official’s offsides call (or no-call), if the on-ice ruling was deemed correct, the team would lose a timeout. Now, if the coaches challenge the offsides call unsuccessfully, the team will be assessed a two-minute penalty.
Crazy idea – how about instead of penalizing teams for inconsistent officiating, the NHL actually does a better job of training and hiring NHL officials? Yeah, yeah, not gonna’ happen. But one can hope. Penalizing teams because accurately enforcing the regulations has proven problematic seems like blaming the horse for the cart losing a wheel.
With so many prognosticators suggesting the Avalanche will finish last in the NHL again this year, even behind the expansion club Las Vegas Golden Knights, a little history lesson may be in order. The team hitting the ice for the season opener will look significantly different from last year.
1. Last year’s opening day roster included the following players no longer with the team – Jarome Iginla, Renee Bourque, Ben Smith, Mikhail Grigorenko, Andreas Martinsen, Patrick Wiercioch, Fedor Tyutin, and Francois Beauchemin. Plus, Gabriel Bourque is still with the organization but will likely be starting his season with Colorado’s AHL affiliate – the San Antonio Rampage. For those counting at home, that’s NINE players out of 19 who strapped on the skates for the Avalanche on opening day. Three players represented half the blue line and the remaining six covered half the starting forwards. The goaltender – Semyon Varlamov – will be starting again this year. Essentially half the team is different. But wait, there’s more.
2. In addition, three other players have returned but will likely see a significant drop in ice time - Carl Soderberg, Blake Comeau, and Joe Colborne. Soderberg played over 18 minutes of the opening game, with Comeau at nearly 15 minutes while Colborne had almost 13 minutes in ice time. Based on the current practice schedule, Soderberg will be a healthy scratch for the season opener along with Joe Colborne (who is recovering from an injury) while Comeau will be getting fourth line minutes. That’s a fairly substantial change.
3. Something also worth considering - the destination of the eight players no longer with the Avalanche – speaks to the team’s previous struggles. Only two of them found other NHL homes – Patrick Wiercioch with the Vancouver Canucks (Ed. note: Wiercioch was placed on waivers this afternoon) and Francois Beauchemin for a third stint with the Anaheim Ducks. Iginla and Tyutin are both unsigned unrestricted free agents (UFA’s). Rene Bourque is playing in the Swedish hockey league. The Toronto Maple Leafs put Ben Smith on waivers yesterday. The Montreal Canadiens waived Andreas Martinsen yesterday as well. Mikhail Grigorenko is playing for CSKA Moscow in the KHL. So long fellas and thanks for all the fish!
Other players who were with the team last year include goaltender Calvin Pickard - who joined the Vegas club in the expansion draft (boo!), Cody McLeod - who was traded to the Nashville Predators late in the season (good for him), John Mitchell - who is playing with the Cleveland Monsters (an AHL team) and Cody Goloubef and Eric Gelinas - both unsigned (yikes).
4. Summarizing, of the nine players who started for the Avalanche last year’s opening night, only one of them is playing in the NHL. Of five others who were on the roster, only two are currently in the NHL. That means 14 players from last year's roster are not with the team and 10 of them are not in the NHL. Let that sink in a minute. That’s a lot of guys from last year who can’t get traction at hockey’s highest professional level. No wonder the Avalanche are gambling on the youth this year.
5. The assistant coaches also experienced substantial change. Tim Army, Dave Farrish and Francois Allaire left the team last May. Nolan Pratt remains with the team, but he was hired in the summer of 2016 before Coach Bednar joined the organization, although he had worked with Bednar in the AHL. Maybe they can find the answer to the ultimate question of the universe on other clubs because the answer of 42 didn’t seem to work for the Avalanche.
In July, the Avalanche announced the hiring of Jussi Parkkila and Ray Bennet as assistant coaches. Parkkila – who worked with Semyon Varlamov in the KHL in 2007-2008 – will work with the goaltenders. Meanwhile, Ray Bennett had been the assistant coach for the St. Louis Blues for 10 years and is expected to dramatically improve the team’s power play.
6. It’s worth noting the Avalanche actually scored five times on the power play during the preseason, with six teams even less effective below them. There is room for improvement as the season progresses, but it’s still better than last year when they were dead last. Colorado, however, also successfully defended their net in preseason when short-handed 82.4% of the time, finishing 11th in penalty kills. That’s a marked improvement from their 29th place finish last season.
WHAT TO WATCH
1. Team rosters will need to be finalized by 3 pm MST today. There’s likely to be some player movement throughout the day. Remember, the Avalanche have first pick of players placed on waivers, so they might still make a last minute acquisition today or tomorrow (Ed. note: The Avalanche claimed defenseman Patrick Nemeth from Dallas), but the future is as yet uncertain.
2. The Avalanche embark on the regular season by taking their show on the road 5 pm MT Thursday night, Oct. 5, facing off against the New York Rangers.
3. Colorado continues their eastern swing with a Saturday afternoon, Oct. 7, matchup against the New Jersey Devils a noon MT.
4. Rounding out their road trip, the Avalanche take on the Boston Bruins for an unusually early 11 am MT Columbus Day game on Monday, October 9th.
5. Sometime this week, the Colorado Eagles will be announcing they will become the Colorado Avalanche AHL affiliate next year. One of the worst-kept secrets in hockey.
For the Avalanche, it’s time to invoke the first rule of Italian racing (from the campy classic movie 'Gumball Rally'), tear out the rearview mirror on last season and remember what’s behind them is NOT important. Forward throttle – the new season beckons!
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