The home stretch has arrived. With the season set to kick off for the Avalanche at home on October 2nd, we have a fair idea of what the team is going to look like this season.
We all know what happened last year: the defense was atrocious, goaltender Semyon Varlamov did about all he could to help remedy that situation, and the Avalanche were dead last in just about every relevant category on their way to the first overall pick.
So what’s in store for them for the 2013-14 season? How do the Avalanche look compared to last year and most importantly, what will they do this upcoming season? Part one of this final preview series will take a look at the forwards.
Quick disclaimer: instead of doing a traditional “wingers/centers” split, we’re going to look at this from a top six/bottom six perspective. Each group will get a rating 1-5 and the overall forward corps will get graded as well. Let’s get to it.
The Top Six
This is pretty much set in stone right now and has been for quite some time and this hasn’t been said in quite some time: the Avalanche are going to roll out two very good lines that could be just about equal in terms of talent and impact.
The top line as it stands should be pretty good and has the chance to be really good. Matt Duchene returns to center the top line, fresh off his breakout performance during last year’s abbreviated season. His 43 points in 47 games tied for the team lead but more importantly, Duchene looked like the dynamic game-changer many thought he would be when the team took him third overall in 2009, capable of things like this:
He’s still just 22-years-old, one of the most explosive skaters in the game, and still growing in terms of his game. He’s seemed extra focused since last year and could be on the verge of true stardom. This could be a monster season for Dutchy.
Joining him on the right wing will be one of his linemates from last year, PA Parenteau. Parenteau might be the quietest point-producer in the league. What I mean is the guy has improved his points-per-game average the last three seasons and actually improved on his last year with the Islanders which saw him score 67 points. Extrapolate his .90 points-per-game from last year (when he tied Duchene for the team lead in points) and you’d get a career-best 73.
One thing to keep in mind about Parenteau is that, yes, he’s 30 years old but he’s only entering his fourth year as a regular on the NHL level. That’s a lot less wear and tear than most 30-year-old NHLers have and he’s still learning as he goes. Putting him on the team’s top line, with power play opportunities to boot, could see him top the 70-point mark for the first time in his career.
On the other wing is a new face…sort of. Ry
an O’Reilly is entering his fifth season in Denver but this will be his first as a winger. The glut at center created by the selection of Nathan Mackinnon gave the Avalanche to luxury of moving a talented, complete player like ROR to the top line to play with better linemates.
O’Reilly and the team were in a contract stalemate as the season began last year but thanks to the Calgary Flames, the issue was resolved and O’Reilly joined the team for the final 29 games of the season. He picked up 20 points in that span, showing that there was more to him than maximum effort and a strong defensive game.
This has all the makings of a big season for O’Reilly as his contract will again be up after this season. Playing for a new paycheck is always a big motivating factor in sports and that shouldn’t be any different this season.
But that’s certainly not the only reason. O’Reilly is just 22-years-old and has gotten better with each season. He’s growing more comfortable as a scoring option. He’ll be afforded more ice time, better linemates than he’s probably ever skated with, and all of that will mean more opportunities. His career-high is 18 goals but playing with Parenteau and Duchene could mean a huge breakout season for O’Reilly to the tune of 30 goals.
This isn’t an elite line by any stretch but one the Avalanche can ice with confidence. Injuries not withstanding, these three could all be in for their biggest years yet. Duchene and Parenteau will benefit from O’Reilly’s tireless effort and energy, while O’Reilly will benefit from the deft playmaking abilities of his two linemates.
Behind them is a strong trio that could match them production-wise if all goes well.
Gabriel Landeskog, the second overall pick in 2011, followed up a Calder Trophy winning rookie season with something less spectacular. Granted, he dealt with a nasty concussion issue that helped limit him to 36 games and 17 points. He didn’t quite look like himself and struggled to get into a rhythm; whether than can be blamed on his injury or the Avs’ general sucktitude is up for debate.
He’s (presumably) back to 100% health and should no doubt be motivated to make this season a much better one than last. When he’s on, he’s as talented a guy as there is on the roster and a hard-working, physical player. He’s going to make an impact on the ice be it with a goal or a big hit and his leadership abilities (youngest captain in NHL history) are glaringly obvious.
On the opposite wing is a familiar face that hasn’t been seen in Denver in quite some time. Once upon a time, Alex Tanguay was the burgeoning young star among his older, All-Star teammates. After a few years abroad, he’s back. This time, though, he’s the old man trying to teach the kids a thing or two.
He hasn’t been the same scorer he was way back when – a 70-80 point guy – but he’s a long ways from being washed up and given the fact that he’s going to be playing with two very talented guys, we could see a nice little resurgence from Tangs.
The real question though is this: will Landeskog be able to handle all the passes coming from Tanguay and Paul Stastny? Stastny, the undoubtedly talented, formerly very productive center returns as the second line center.
Stastny is a talented playmaker and has shown that in the past with three 70+ point seasons capped off by a pair of 50 assist seasons. The guy knows how to dish a pass or two. Problem is, he hasn’t looked the same in three years. With this being a contract year, can he snap out of it or is this trend indicative of what’s to come?
Provided injuries don’t play a part, this line has more boom or bust potential than the top unit. Stastny is the true wildcard of the group and its success will likely ride on his ability to return to form.
The Bottom Six
Colorado’s bottom six is also a bit of a wild card depending on just how new coach Patrick Roy wants to use first overall pick MacKinnon. He’s already made it clear that Mack will start on the third line but after that, it’s all unknowns. Will he let Mackinnon play his game or will he coddle him? Will his ice time be limited? So on and so forth.
Regardless of the questions, Mack is obviously talented as the “first overall pick” label should indicate. He’s already one of the best skaters in the league despite not having a single meaningful game under his belt and his skill set projects to an elite scorer. He’s the kind of guy who creates offense for himself, makes others better, and just flat out dazzles. Whether he does any of that this season remains to be seen.
On his right side will be the returning Steve Downie. Since joining the Avalanche, it’s been rough sledding for the 26-year-old winger. He had a strong debut following his trade to Denver in 2012 but was shut down due to a lingering shoulder issue. He would come back at full health for last season only to suffer a torn ACL in his second game of the season.
When he’s actually in the lineup, Downie has demonstrated an ability to be effective. He’s not the biggest guy but he throws his body around with wreckless abandon and can bee a bit of a pest. Not only that, but he possesses actual offensive ability. Having this kind of skill alongside MacKinnon should benefit both parties greatly but should also aid the development of the young pivot.
To MacKinnon’s left is Jamie McGinn. Not quite on the same talent level as his linemates, McGinn is an energy guy through and through. He gives 110% every shift and has the type of drive that can swing the momentum in a game.
More importantly, he’ll go into the dirty areas that the team would probably like MacKinnon to stay out of. He’ll win the battles along the wall, in the corners, and try to get the puck to his more talented linemates. He’s not going to score much – not everyone can – but he’ll bring an edge to this line and the forwards as a whole.
Rounding out the bottom six will be the line of Cody McLeod, John Mitchell, and Mark Olver. The latter isn’t very big but he’s a strong skater that can cause issues on the forecheck; a must for the fourth line. McLeod is the physical member of the group; he’ll hit and hit and hit while also proving that he’ll defend teammates by stepping in to scrap when needed. Mitchell, who scored at a .50 points-per-game clip last year, likely won’t repeat his scoring effort from last year but brings a solid two-way game to the lower half of the lineup.
Overall, the Avalanche have a lot of talent in the top six with the potential to boom or bust. Stastny is the biggest wild card of the group: will his decline of late continue or will he bounce back with improved linemates and a contract on the line?
The Avs should be able to compete in most games thanks to their unfamiliarly strong forward groups and should be more towards the middle of the pack than last in the league like last year’s group.
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