Last season was, to put it mildly, an absolutely disaster for the Colorado Avalanche. They posted a 22-56-4 record, not only worst in the league but the worst in the salary cap era (dating back to the 2005-06 season). Their top scorer (Nathan MacKinnon) managed only 53 points, and virtually every lineup regular posted a minus rating, led (?) by Matt Duchene and Tyson Barrie (both -34). In goal, Semyon Varlamov suffered through the worst season of his career, managing only an .898 save percentage in 24 games. So given all that, should there be any reason for optimism in 2017-18? In a word, yes.
As witnessed in their opening night 4-2 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, the Avs are a far better team than last season would suggest. MacKinnon, Duchene, Barrie and sophomore forward Mikko Rantanen have the talent to turn the Avs’ power play into a dominant force, and their performance against the Blueshirts’ stout defense on Thursday night was an important step in the right direction. Former first overall pick (by the St. Louis Blues) Erik Johnson got the lion’s share of the ice time alongside Barrie on the top defense pair, posting a +2 rating along with four hits. Most importantly of all, Varlamov rebounded in a huge way against the Rangers, stopping 37 of 39 shots (.949 save percentage) to lead the Avs to an upset win.
Without a doubt, Varlamov’s strong play against the Rangers was critical for the Avs’ confidence, demonstrating that he’s finally healthy and perhaps ready to resume his position amongst the league’s top netminders. If he falters, Jonathan Bernier (former Kings prospect and failed Leafs starter) could provide the Avs with a capable safety net, though his ugly performance for the Ducks in last year’s playoffs (.873 save percentage, 3.28 goals-against) definitely gives cause for serious pause.
Of course, the pink elephant in the room is Duchene. Long rumored to be on the trading block, it was quite surprising that he suited up for the Avs on opening night. But given how well the team performed, perhaps winning will be the salve that keeps Duchene happy in an Avs uniform. With Duchene (26), MacKinnon (22) and rookie Tyson Jost (19) up the middle, the Avalanche could be very well-positioned for the long haul. And if Rantanen and mid-season trade acquisition Sven Andrighetto can progress in their first full seasons in Colorado, the team’s offensive talent will certainly be in the top half of the league. Given how well the team played on Thursday night, it will be hard for GM Joe Sakic to justify dealing him away for futures; if a deal goes down, Sakic would almost certainly need to acquire a blueliner to provide support for Barrie and Johnson. The Avs’ biggest weakness is on the blue line, but a strong start from rookie Andrei Mironov would help immensely, as would continued solid play from Chris Bigras (one assist, +1 rating).
No, the Avs probably won’t be Cup contenders in 2017-18. But it’s certainly reasonable to expect them to compete for a playoff spot, particularly if they can continue to progress from what was a pretty fantastic (and for many pundits, unexpected) start.