The Colorado Avalanche begin their 2018-19 season at home Thursday night against the Minnesota Wild. Coming off a surprise playoff appearance last season, the Avalanche have some burning questions that need to be answered this year. Our Mile High Sports team takes a look at some of those burning questions and do their best to answer them.
Semyon Varlamov is set to start the year as the Avs’ No. 1 goaltender. With Philipp Grubauer waiting in the wings, how do you anticipate the Avalanche handling the situation in net throughout the year?
J.J. Jerez: I believe coach Jared Bednar is a numbers guy, and he’s not going to let emotion control his decisions. He has a luxury many coaches would love – having two capable goalies – and he’s going to simply play whoever is making the big saves and winning games. What do they do when both are playing well? Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it, because the Avalanche face a challenging start to the year; nine of their first 14 games are on the road.
Evan Rawal: Coach Bednar has already indicated they will have plans one-to-two weeks in advance, but those will always be subject to change based on who is playing well. My personal belief is that Grubauer will ultimately become the starting goaltender, but I do think Varlamov will have a good year, as he will be playing for a new contract, whether that’s with the Avalanche or another team.
J.J. Seaward: I personally see Varlamov and Grubauer roughly evenly splitting the season with each other. However, the play of Varlamov will definitely be watched as Grubauer will be hungry to possibly take over that No. 1 spot. If the Avs lose Varlamov due to injury once again, then I definitely can see Grubauer turning into “the man” for the Avs.
Shawn Drotar: Grubauer will be the Avs’ main man… next season. In this season, I expect the two to roughly split time, especially making sure that Varlamov doesn’t have to play in back-to-back games. If the Avalanche feel that Grubauer gives them the best chance to win now, however, look for general manager Joe Sakic to dangle Varlamov in a trade back East.
The Avs are a team that will, once again, rely heavily on their youth to carry them. What young player do you think will take the biggest step forward this coming season?
Evan Rawal: Samuel Girard. The coaching staff is wasting no time putting him on the top pair to start the year, as they saw what he was capable last year as a teenager. While he’s a joy to watch with the puck, his play in the defensive zone is what continues to impress me. By the time the calendar rolls into 2019, I think he will be seen as the best defenseman on the team.
J.J. Seaward: Following his continued development and his play during the preseason, I believe Alexander Kerfoot will continue to bring his game to the next level. In preseason, he indicated that he’ll shoot the puck more, and if that’s true, this will help with the Avs’ lack of secondary scoring.
Shawn Drotar: Girard. He’s a shockingly heady player for his age, and his relative lack of size hasn’t been a detriment yet. He quickly became a key part of the Avalanche’s young core; by the All-Star break, he might just become invaluable.
J.J. Jerez: Tyson Jost. As a freshman in the NCAA, he scored over a point per game and those are the expectations he has for himself. With 22 points in 65 games last year, Jost feels like he underachieved, but at only 20 years of age, he still has plenty of room to grow. As he continues to get in tune with the NHL game and all that comes with it, he will make strides towards being the offensive weapon Avs fans hoped he’d become.
The top line for the Avs is set. Beyond that, there are question marks up front. As it stands now, do the Avs have the secondary scoring in place to continue their ascent, or will it be something that holds the team back?
J.J. Jerez: It seems as though they are relying on the young guns to take a monstrous leap forward. If those young guys (Tyson Jost, Alex Kerfoot, JT Compher) fail to do so, there are going to be major issues, mainly because the Soderberg, Nieto and, as of now, Gabriel Bourque line is primarily used for defensive purposes, so the offensive support will need to come from somewhere. Aside from Sven Andrighetto, who’s currently on the IR, there isn’t too much of an offensive threat outside of the top line.
Shawn Drotar: They have the ability to a be good-scoring team through their top two lines… but turning potential into production is the trick. The young line that J.J. just mentioned is critical; play well, and the pressure will continue to lift from the goal-scoring machine that the MacKinnon line has become. Fail to score with regularity, however, and the Avalanche will drop more than a few games that they should have won over the course of the season – because even Nathan MacKinnon has off-nights.
J.J. Seaward: Although it does need a little bit more work before the Avs touch an elite level, I do feel that the Avs have addressed some of their secondary scoring issues. Going hand-in-hand with the previous question, Kerfoot is a bright light who should give Avs fans hope for some secondary scoring — and I feel the other young guns will follow suit.
Evan Rawal: While both Jost and Kerfoot, the most important pieces to the secondary scoring up front, looked very good in the preseason, I’m still a little bit skeptical. If anything, I believe the additional secondary scoring may come from the defense, with Johnson, Barrie, Girard, and Zadorov helping the most. The bottom six looks like a real problem in terms of ability to create offense, particularly if they continue to flank Carl Soderberg with less-talented wingers.
Ultimately, the Avalanche play in the toughest division in the NHL. If you had to guess right now, do you see the Avs making or missing the postseason in 2018-19?
Shawn Drotar: The Central is so good that the Avs could make another leap forward… and still finish third. And I think that’s exactly what they’ll do.
J.J. Seaward: With much of the other Central division teams making improvements to their rosters, I feel like it could possibly once again all come down to the final game(s) of the regular season for the Avalanche playoff hopes. With this said, I can imagine the Avs squeezing in with a wild-card spot for the second consecutive year to qualify for the playoffs.
Evan Rawal: I do believe the Avalanche will make the playoffs again, and I think they’ll do it on the backs of their defense and goaltending. While there is a lot of hype around teams like St. Louis and Dallas in the Central to steal a playoff spot, I’m not buying either of those teams due to their inconsistent goaltending. The top line will provide enough offense for the team to get by, while the defense really will make a name for themselves this year.
J.J. Jerez: Missing the playoffs. The combination of internal pressure to improve upon last season and an unfavorable schedule to start the year is going to be an obstacle this young team isn’t fully ready to overcome. There is potential to squeak in as a wild-card team again, but they will have a tough time against division foes the Jets, Predators and Stars, who all are better teams on paper. However, this team has embraced the underdog role before.