The Colorado Avalanche aren’t ready to compete for the Stanley Cup. No one is saying they will. Even if their current players are hoping to squeeze their way into the playoffs, they’re still more likely to finish somewhere in the bottom half (or even third) of the league. But there is still that hope.
In August, PHR ran an article entitled Colorado’s Tumultuous Twelve Months which chronicled the fall of the Avalanche after Patrick Roy left the team on the precipice of the season, and all the heartbreak that followed. The 2016-17 version of the Avalanche was one of the worst teams in NHL history, and their reward—dropping to fourth overall in the entry draft—was the final blow. But, as we wrote then, there was reason for (say it with me) hope.
Add in that Matt Duchene is still likely to bring a big return at some point, Jonathan Bernier could be a trade-deadline asset, and the team could be surprisingly successful in short order. While a playoff spot still seems like a distant goal, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The defense still needs work—the team doesn’t even have Nikita Zadorov under contract yet—but with another lottery chance in what’s shaping up to be an incredibly deep draft in 2018, the Avalanche could have a quicker turnaround than many expect.
The Avalanche did cash in their Duchene-shaped poker chip, using him as a catalyst for the massive three-team trade this past weekend. In return, not only did they set themselves up well for the 2018 draft—the same one that is still looking incredibly deep—but did a lot of the heavy lifting on the defense rebuild. Samuel Girard, the centerpiece of the Duchene deal, is a blue-chip prospect that is perfectly built for the new NHL. When you describe his best qualities, Avalanche fans may think you’re talking about someone else.
Excellent mobility. Quick decision making. Superb puck skills. Are we talking about Girard or Cale Makar, the other top defensive prospect obtained in the last few months?
Makar is spending the year at UMass-Amherst, where he recently scored his first collegiate goal and seems to take on more minutes and more responsibility on a nightly basis. Head coach Greg Carval recently called him “remarkable” and spoke about all the intangibles Makar brings to the team, even as a freshman. When he’s ready to turn pro, there is no doubt he’ll be a difference-maker in the NHL.
That August article also mentioned two other names, Nikita Zadorov and Jonathan Bernier. The former did eventually sign, inking a two-year deal with the team that told him “prove it.” It’s not gone swimmingly early on, as Zadorov has been a healthy scratch and generally ineffective in his role. By no means does he look out of place in the NHL, but hasn’t shown that shutdown ability both Buffalo (who drafted him 16th-overall in 2013) and Colorado (who included him as the centerpiece of the Ryan O’Reilly deal) believed he could.
In Bernier’s case, his season has gone much the way his career has. At times he looks outstanding, able to shoulder the load as a starter in the NHL. But then there is the other Bernier, who can allow six goals on 28 shots and look small and defeated in the net. It’s just five games for him this season as the backup to Semyon Varlamov, but even if he has his occasional stinker he’ll still be worth something at the deadline as an expiring, relatively inexpensive contract.
Which brings us to the final (and perhaps most important) piece of good news for the Avalanche. In Elliotte Friedman’s latest 31 Thoughts column for Sportsnet, one of the smaller notes was about Colorado’s salary structure going forward. With the departing of Duchene and his $6MM hit, the team now has approximately $26MM in cap space (via CapFriendly) for next season with 17 players already under contract. In a league that cap space is king, that is a perfect situation for a rebuilding club. Colorado will be able to pick and choose the contracts they want to sign over the next few years with only Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Erik Johnson locked in past the 2019-20 season.
So what does this all mean? Are the Avalanche the new model for a rebuilding club? No. Not everything has been perfect, not by any means. But for all the horror that was last season, when the team was continually going on losing streaks of four, five or even nine games, there is—to borrow from that August article—a light at the end of the tunnel. Suddenly, a defensive prospect system that was completely bare is stocked with two legitimate top names. A forward group that was dominated by disappointment and trade talk has now catapulted the team to the top half of the league in scoring and features several budding stars.
Add in the fact that they’ll likely pick four times (at least) in the first 60 selections come June, and there’s one thing on the minds of Colorado Avalanche fans.