I’ve been pretty hard on the Colorado Avalanche this year. In fairness, it’s been a rough start to the season. However, our boys in burgundy and blue have turned things around lately, winning four straight and going 7-2 thus far in the month of December. But are the Avs contenders or pretenders?
The Case for Pretenders
On paper, not much has changed with the team. It’s still the same players who, “didn’t have the will to win” from earlier in the season. The defense is still giving up far too many shots and they still lack scoring behind the top line. Their record at home isn’t good, they blow more third period leads than any team, and the central remains the toughest division in hockey. The team is on a nice streak right now, but they lost a lot of ground early in the year and it’s tough to make up that ground and then maintain positioning in just nine games.
Also, Nate Guenin is still getting playing time.
The power play, which started the season so well, has gone M.I.A. recently. The penalty kill hasn’t been much better. Nathan MacKinnon hasn’t scored a goal since before Thanksgiving despite being the top line center. Speaking of top line players, Gabriel Landeskog only has one goal in December. Semyon Varlamov is playing well, but he’s bound to get hurt again and then the team will have to rely on Reto Berra. Berra is better than we thought he would be, but he’s never put together a consistent stretch for more than a few games.
Did I mention that Nate Guenin is still getting playing time?
If they can’t get Tyson Barrie signed, there’s a strong possibility that they trade him and if the Ryan O’Reilly deal is any indication, that trade won’t work out well for the Avs in the short-term. Sooner or later, Patrick Roy will once again start shuffling around the lines and it’ll take at least 3-4 games before he figures out what works and what doesn’t.
Finally, Nate Guenin is still getting playing time.
The Case for Contenders
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The Avs finally have a top line that can dominate for stretches during games. The 9 Line is a bonafide NHL top line that I’d put up against just about any other trio in the league and feel comfortable about my chances. Matt Duchene is playing up to his contract, MacKinnon hasn’t been scoring goals, but his passing has been on point, and Landeskog frees up a lot of space for those two with his psychical game. As long as this line stays together, the Avs are in good shape moving forward.
Varlamov is playing like he did two seasons ago where he was a legit MVP candidate. He’s a goalie who can stand on his head and win games and right now he’s doing exactly that for the team. Also, while the defense is still giving up a few too many shots, the quality of scoring chances appears to be down. It definitely helps that they’ve finally found a defensive partner for Erik Johnson who isn’t Jan Hejda.
The team is 7-2 against the central and 11-9 on the road. The central is the toughest division and it’s harder to win on the road, so if they can just figure it out at home and against weaker competition, this team could become scary to play against. Under Roy, the Avs have always done better in the second half of the season. Last year, they were 25-16-4 from January until the end of the season and in 2013-2014 they went 28-11-4 during that same time. If they’re able to pick up 50+ points from the start of 2016 to the end of the season, they should be in the thick of the playoff race.
Don’t rule out Joe Sakic making a deal that puts the team in a better position than they were the previous day. The Avs have roughly $8 million in cap space and a couple of players in the system (Joey Hishon and Duncan Siemens) who other teams might take a chance on since it appears neither will pan out for the Avs.
Contenders or Pretenders?
Since I’m answering this question today, I have to go with pretenders. If the Avs rattle off another three wins in four games and find themselves in the wild card spot, then maybe I’ll switch my answer. However, despite their .500 record, the bad seems to outweigh the good thus far. But maybe that’s just the sport pessimist in me.