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 five of this final preview series will take a look at just how the team will fare this season.
No ratings this time; just predictions: one surprise, one disappointment, something to look forward to, something to dread, and final record. Let’s get to it.
While he certainly has his detractors, Varlamov is just hitting his physical prime and will be behind arguably the most talented team in Denver in years. He had stretches last year where, despite playing behind an abysmal defense that surrendered the fifth most shots per game in the league, he looked like the kind of guy who could carry a team.
He’s got the size, he’s got the ability, and now that he has a little experience behind him, this will be the year where he puts it together and shows that he’s the Avs’ franchise goalie. The numbers may not be there to back it up – this is still not a good team –but watching him night after night will reveal the truth.
The pressure is certainly on for Varlamov, though. Some already want him out of town, believing he had his chance and couldn’t take advantage. There’s also Calvin Pickard waiting in the wings should he falter.
Still, Varly will take that step forward and help this defensively porous Avalanche team get a glimpse of the playoff picture while riding on their goaltender’s shoulders. This is the year Varlamov legitimizes himself.
There are going to be a few. Nathan MacKinnon, just because of the expectations of a top pick, will likely disappoint unless he lights it up. Paul Stastny is on the downswing of his career, as the last few seasons have had him trending downwards.
The real disappointment, however, will be the lack of new, impactful faces on the defensive side of things. During the off-season, many speculated that this would be the year for Stefan Elliott to finally stick with the big club for the whole season. That’s not going to be the case, at least not to start. Others felt that second-round pick Chris Bigras would surprise, making the team out of camp and having a surprising rookie season. That’s not to be.
This is essentially going to be the same defense last year that sunk the team. There are few improvements to be had: Barrie is the youngest and therefore most likely to improve, but I feel there will be a sophomore slump. Ryan Wilson can’t stay healthy. Jan Hejda and Cory Sarich are near the end of their careers and are as good as they’re ever going to be. Matt Hunwick is decent but unlikely to drastically improve and Erik Johnson, the star of the defense, has likely peaked as well.
So how is this unit going to get better? More time together? Sure, maybe a minor improvement but the point here was to improve the unit’s talent and that hasn’t happened in the short-term. It will improve when Elliott sticks, Bigras gets called up, and Duncan Siemens gets his shot. Until then, it’s modest improvement at best.
Varlamov is going to need to be great this year if the Avalanche want to sniff the eighth seed because this unit is by far the worst on the team.
What to Look Forward to
Offensively, this should be a fun team to watch. Matt Duchene is on the verge of being a true superstar and will be looking to take that leap forward this year. His electric skating is enough to excite but he looks motivated and when someone that talented has drive, it can be scary for opponents.
Gabe Landeskog is back, healthy, and looking to have the breakout year that usually comes in year two. He’s skilled and tough; he and playmaker Stastny should make a strong combination.
Their top six overall, extending to their third line, is strong. They have speed, skill, and experience throughout and even have a little bit of experience together (Ryan O’Reilly/Duchene, Stastny/just about everyone). Plus, they get a healthy Steve Downie back in addition to the returning Alex Tanguay. This is a relatively stacked group of forwards.
There’s also a pretty good chance they’ll improve the 24th ranked power play from last year. Can you imagine a unit with Barrie/Johnson, Landy, Duchene, O’Reilly, and Stastny? With a second unit involving Tanguay, Downie, and possibly MacKinnon. There’s no way this unit doesn’t get better and, hot damn, it’s gonna be fun at times to watch them work.
They’ll need to be good to make up for the defense and there will be a few nights where they look incredible, but at the very least, this group should be very fun to watch on a nightly basis.
Surprise, surprise: it’s this defense.
When the team makes no real additions to one of the worst units in the league, it’s hard to have optimism for this group even heading into another year together. All that means is that they’ll be familiar with how each of them sucks.
Just take into account a few stats from last year: 25th in shots against per game (31.4/game), 27th in goals against per game (3.12), 20th in penalty killing (80.3%). They were surprisingly good on faceoffs (9th) but they’re going to need to get better at limiting shots first and foremost if they really want to improve.
But how much can they expect to do so with the same group? And what about injuries? The group already struggled last year but can you imagine what happens when/if Barrie struggles? What if Johnson gets hurt and misses an extended amount of time? That’s a precarious situation to put a group that’s already lacking in talent. If Hejda becomes the number one defenseman, things could get really, really ugly.
There are going to be a few times this year where the defense is so bad, Yakety Sax should be playing on a loop. Hopefully, for the team’s sake, they’ll get Elliott up to Denver full-time at some point and Bigras won’t be far behind. Improving the talent level is step one to fixing this mess and that just hasn’t happened.
Anyone expecting the playoffs this year needs to taper their expectations just a little bit. The forwards should be drastically better thanks to healthy bodies returning, as well as the additions of Tanguay and MacKinnon.
The reality is that, while I expect Varlamov to be good, the defense will not be, at least not for extended periods. There will be growing pains, likely a few injuries that make things even more dicey, and probably a call-up or two.
This team will be competitive most nights and could even have a binocular view of the playoffs late in the season, but it will be brief and fleeting. A year or two, a handful of defensemen, and some experience are what the Avs need but just don’t have.
Still, if you have a pulse and like hockey, you won’t be bored by this team.
Final record: 35-38-9, 5th Central Divsion.
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