AVALANCHE

Early season struggles may teach the Avalanche valuable lessons

Nov 4, 2021, 6:31 AM | Updated: 9:51 am
DENVER, CO - JANUARY 26: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson (6) skates during a game betwee...
(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

They’re the defending President’s Trophy winners. They’re the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup for the second season in a row. But they’re also 4-4-1 and are in a three-way for ninth place in the Western Conference playoff chase.

They’re the Colorado Avalanche, and they weren’t supposed to play like this.

Certainly, the team is dealing with a litany of injuries — high-scoring forward Mikko Rantanen, two-way defenseman Devon Toews, reliable scorer Andre Burakovsky, big winger Valeri Nichushkin and backup goaltender Pavel Francouz are all missing from the lineup. But the Avalanche have a surplus of talent, and it hasn’t consistently shown through during a baffling, worrisome start that has them on pace for only 82 points on the season; the same total that the team finished with last season, in a truncated schedule that had 26 fewer games.

Nevertheless, there are promising signs for the Avalanche. There are opportunities that the injuries have granted to the team’s least-experienced players could pay dividends when the gantlet that is the Stanley Cup playoffs arrives in May.

First and foremost, defenseman Bowen Byram has arrived. The top prospect — who is still technically a rookie and a Calder Trophy candidate thanks to how few games he played in the last regular season — has been the Avalanche’s best all-around blueliner, racking up three goals and five assists in nine games. His eight points have him tied for fifth-place on the team, and tops among defensemen, and his plus-5 rating is second on the team behind only captain Gabriel Landeskog.

The Avalanche needed J.T. Compher and agitator Nazem Kadri to step up and replace some of the offensive production lost in the offseason when the team lost Brandon Saad to the St. Louis Blues and Joonas Donskoi to the expansion Seattle Kraken. Early returns are good for both players; Compher and Kadri each have eight points, but Compher’s five goals lead the Avalanche, and his more assertive play has stood out. Kadri, who still has to be careful on the ice given his history of penalties and suspensions, has been effective on the offensive end without sacrificing his physicality and burr-under-the-saddle play that frustrates opponents on a nightly basis.

Obviously, when a top team can’t stay over the break-even mark, there are concerns — and the Avalanche can likely start addressing those soon. Too many players on their roster should probably be with the AHL Colorado Eagles in Loveland instead of being overmatched on the NHL level, but skaters like Kurtis MacDermid, Martin Kaut, Jayson Megna and Sampo Ranta, and goaltenders like Jonas Johansson — who is 0-1-1 in his two starts with an awful 3.03 goals-against average — won’t have to stay with the Avalanche when their injured players return. Those returns may come quickly; Toews is expected to make his season debut on Saturday in Columbus, while some combination of Cale Makar, Rantanen and Burakovsky could join him — all three are considered day-to-day, while Francouz is now considered week-to-week. The Avalanche are likely to be a much healthier team in short order, and by December, they may start to jell.

Things are trending in the right direction, especially given that November gives the Avalanche a chance to get cooking with a relatively easy schedule that also provides plenty of days off. However, the Avalanche have yet to address their biggest issue this season — a distinct lack of urgency.

Too often, the Avalanche don’t seem to realize that every team views them as a benchmark, and that they’ll get each team’s best every night. They’ve come out in most games flat, been outskated in 5-on-5 situations with alarming regularity, and haven’t been careful enough with the puck in neutral ice or focused enough in their defensive zone. This Avalanche team is built to prevent nights like Wednesday’s, when they blew a 2-0 lead to visiting Columbus before tying the game at 4-4 with two extra-attacker goals late… only to lose 72 seconds into overtime on the 37th allowed shot of the game.

The stylized ‘A’ on their burgundy-and blue sweaters may as well be targets on their chests; the sooner the Avs realize that their intensity — night after night — needs to match or exceed their opponent’s, the better. There’s little need to explain what will happen if they don’t; it’s been on display during the opening weeks of the season, but if they do, the Avalanche’s hard road in its first 10 games will have been worth it — and the reward may very well be another Stanley Cup championship parade down the streets of Denver.

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Shawn Drotar (@sdrotar) is the on-air host of “Sandy and Shawn;” weeknights from 9p-midnight on 104.3 The Fan.

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