Tonight is the first regular season game of the year. Camps, scrimmages, and preseason games told as much as they could. When the puck drops tonight, it’s for real. There are plenty of questions yet to be answered, but Avalanche fans have a lot to watch for and hopefully a lot to look forward to. With opening night so tantalizingly close, here are the last observations from the Avs’ summer, and what to expect going into the next 82 games.
Gabriel Landeskog is going to earn his new contract. Barring any major injuries (stop and knock on all the wood you can find), the Captain is going to turn a lot of heads. Listening to him in interviews, he seems to have a chip on his shoulder. If there was one person who was the most unhappy with his disappointing season last year, it was him. He came into camp and set the tone for all of his teammates: they may not win the Cup this year, but it won’t be through lack of effort. His work ethic has been something to behold, and it has definitely payed off. Landy is even bigger and stronger than he was in his Calder-winning freshman campaign, and he is incredibly mature for a guy who can not even legally buy beer in the US yet. In the final preseason game against the Kings, (which was a regular season game in all but the point value, with full lineups for both teams and a seriously competitive atmosphere) Lando threw his opposition around and absolutely owned the ice, delivering devastating hits and smashing home two goals in the crease. He basically did whatever he wanted against one of the most physical, defensively-oriented teams in the league; this wasn’t Calgary. If he can do that night in and night out, he’ll be a damn good player and incredibly entertaining to watch.
Semyon Varlamov has the potential, now it’s just a question of living up to it. Varly proved this preseason that he has the ability to steal games and be the goaltender the Avs saw when they traded away three draft picks to get him. However, he also had one game in which he looked like last year’s Varly; far too susceptible to nerves, and too hard on himself at the wrong times. Varly’s biggest knock has always been his inconsistency, and this year he will need to fix that if the Avs want any chance of sniffing the post-season. He needs to steal them games, not let them get away, and he is capable of both. He has the best help money can buy with Francois Allaire, Patrick Roy, and Jean-Sebastien Giguere all on his side, but at the end of the day a lot of the Avs success will be riding on which Varly shows up.
Nathan MacKinnon is going to be interesting to watch. Some expect him to have a fifty point season. I personally think that is a little hopeful, as he will be playing sheltered third line minutes, at least to start out. That being said, if the kid plays the way he did against LA in Vegas, he may very well reach that number. Everyone is blown away by how fast he is. He closes gaps and gets to places no ordinary person would even bother trying, and what’s more, he is incredibly steady with the puck. He moves fluidly, but more than that, he plays dynamically, carrying the puck in a way that people can not help but comment on. He threaded the needle on more than a few plays against the Kings, both passing and receiving the puck, and if not for some impressive goaltending, he very likely would have had more than one point. He’ll have to hold up to a full 82 game schedule, physically and mentally, and there just is no way of knowing how he will cope with frustration if and when he faces it. That being said, he looked frustrated in camp, worked through it, and turned it into a game that shut his detractors up quick, if only for a night. He has some learning to do, but pretty much everyone agrees that this kid will be special, and it may be sooner than people think.
Overall, this is a hard season to predict for the Avs. Realignment has put them into a new division that is more physical and defensively oriented than any other (yes Chicago is very offensive too, but there’s a reason they won the Cup last year, and it probably has to do with the fact that they have a world-class offense AND defense). This could either hurt the Avs or help them; if they can get their scoring and speed going, undeniably the two biggest upsides to this team, then gritty teams like Nashville, St. Louis, and Minnesota will be at a loss without the offense to match. However, if those teams can assert their defensive dominance and shut down the Avs’ scoring core, than they will be frustrated. There are so many wildcards to account for, most of them on the back end; will this finally be Eric Johnson’s year, how will Tyson Barrie perform in a full season, will Ryan Wilson ever be healthy again, will Stefan Elliott or Duncan Siemens get called up when the inevitable injuries occur, will Varly adapt to his new style or will he flop, etc. Not to be overlooked is the presence of head coach Patrick Roy. He too is a rookie of sorts, with tonight being his first game as an NHL head coach. Some think he won’t be able to control his legendary temper, and will lose his team. Personally I think he is the best fit, and may be the proud owner of a Jack Adams in a few years. He has already instituted an atmosphere of winning, and he’s got the plans and the drive to back it up. It’s a difficult thing to describe without seeing for yourself, but watching his press conferences and video of him in practice is immensely encouraging.
If the team can get more out of its defense this year, if Varly can hold up his end, and if the team can whether the full 82 games, then they very well may surprise a lot of teams. That’s a lot of “ifs”; the realist in me sees this team and thinks that they are right on the bubble, but this isn’t yet their year to make it back to the playoffs. The hockey fan in me, however, is seeing something intangible. The looks in the players’ eyes; the tones of their voices; Patrick Roy’s legendary competitiveness and incredible knowledge of the game. It’s something difficult to put into words, but there seems to be something the players and coaches know that no one else does, and I’m incredibly excited to see that. I have no rational reason to expect this team to make the playoffs, but they’ll be a fast, high-flying team that will be a blast to watch.
And you never know…