Just like that, hockey season is almost upon us. With rookies reporting for camp on Sept. 7, the Colorado Avalanche are just days away from the start of the 2018-19 season.
Back in May, we took a look at the four major things the Avs needed to address this summer. While it’s possible they still make a change or two, it’s likely the Avalanche are set and ready to go for camp. Let’s revisit those four items and see what Colorado did, if anything, to address those needs.
Need No. 1: Improve the secondary scoring
The Avs were a top-heavy team last year, depending on their top line to carry them most nights. Their second line for the majority of the year, in terms of usage, was the trio of Matt Nieto, Carl Soderberg, and Blake Comeau. The Avs chose not to re-sign Comeau this summer, replacing him with Matt Calvert, who only put up 24 points compared to Comeau’s 34.
Beyond Calvert, the Avalanche did not do anything to address their secondary scoring needs. They chose to stay away from the big-name forwards on the free agent market and ultimately were quiet in the trade market as well. At the moment, they’re banking on their young forwards in Jost, Kerfoot, Compher, and Kamenev to improve and help bridge the gap from the top line down.
Verdict? Fail…with a catch: While Colorado didn’t make any moves to address this weakness, they may not have needed too. If Tyson Jost takes the step that the team expects from the former 10th overall selection, that might be all they need. The real wild card in all of this is Vladislav Kamenev. A very good player at the AHL level, the 22-year-old Russian hasn’t had much of a chance to show what he can do in the NHL. A broken forearm more or less ended his season in November of last year, and he’ll come to camp with a fresh start, hoping to make his mark in the best league in the world.
Need No. 2: Find a long-term solution in net
When we last saw the Avalanche playing hockey, they had Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond in net. The only reason Hammond was playing was because Jonathan Bernier sustained an injury in Game 4 of the opening round and was unable to return the rest of the series. Neither one of those goalies was re-signed by the Avalanche.
Instead, Colorado was extremely creative this summer in their attempt to shore up the goaltending in the organization. On draft day, they got came out of left field and acquired Phillip Grubauer from the Washington Capitals. Grubauer has been successful in the NHL in a backup role and will be expected to push the incumbent starter Semyon Varlamov for the #1 role, if not steal it outright. A month before acquiring Grubauer, the Avalanche signed Pavel Francouz from the KHL. The 28-year-old Czech Republic native is coming off two monster seasons in Russia, and will immediately step into the number-one role for the Avs new AHL affiliate in Loveland. On top of all this, the organization used two draft picks on goaltenders in June, proving that you can never have enough goaltending depth in the organization.
Verdict? Pass: While it’s not a guarantee that Grubauer turns out to be a surefire number-one goaltender in the NHL, he has the tools and the pedigree to do so, and the Avs deserve a lot of credit for their creativity and aggressiveness in acquiring him. In addition, if Pavel Francouz proves to be as successful in the AHL as he has been in the KHL, the Avs may have set themselves up in net for the next several years. The returning Varlamov, who is coming off a strong season himself, is already in Denver practicing with his teammates, and likely will be a very motivated goalie this upcoming year.
Need No. 3: Overhaul the development system in the organization
This one is tricky to judge because we won’t know the actual answer for a few years. The Avs, however, did not appear to make any huge changes to their development system, and, if anything lost a big part of it. The previous Director of Player Development David Oliver accepted an assistant coaching position with the New York Rangers and is no longer in the organization. According to the Avs website, they have not found a replacement, so you have to wonder what is going on there.
The one move the organization did make was naming Greg Cronin the Head Coach of the new AHL Affiliate Colorado Eagles. Aaron Schneekloth, the previous head coach of the Eagles when they were in the ECHL, was retained in an assistant role, as well as his previous assistant Ryan Tobler. Cronin has been an NHL assistant for the last 7 years in Toronto and Long Island, and last year was responsible for the Islanders defense, which allowed the most goals in the NHL. He has head coaching experience in the AHL and NCAA with varying degrees of success, but the jury is still out on if he is the right guy moving forward for Colorado.
Verdict? TBD: We really will not know if Cronin is successful in helping to develop the Avs future for a few years, but his track record leaves a lot to be desired. The Avalanche having not named a new Director of Player Development yet is a huge concern, but it’s possible they have someone lined up for the job before camp opens. Either way, the Avs have a ton of talent likely headed to the AHL this year in Conor Timmins, Igor Shyvryov, Martin Kaut, and Ty Lewis, among others, and they are banking on those being contributors in the NHL in the near future. Player development has been a huge issue within the organization, and hopefully, Cronin can help right the ship. Only time will tell.
Need No. 4: Extend Mikko Rantanen and Nikita Zadorov a year early
The Avs really didn’t have a lot to worry about this summer in terms of contracts that needed to be extended. They re-signed the few restricted free agents they had in Patrik Nemeth and Matt Nieto, extended some unrestricted free agents in Mark Barberio and Gabriel Bourque, and brought in a few outsiders in Calvert and Ian Cole. None of the players listed above are impact players and aren’t going to swing the pendulum too far in either direction.
Seeing as how the organization didn’t have a great deal of work to do this summer, it was an ideal time for them to look at locking up some of their key players moving forward. Mikko Rantanen is coming off a monster season in which he put up over a point a game while playing on arguably the best line in the NHL. And Nikita Zadorov led the league in hits while showing more offensive prowess and playing a huge role on the blue line after Thanksgiving. Both players still have a year left on their current contracts, but could be extended early if the team wanted to be proactive. To date, neither one of them has been signed to contract extensions.
Verdict? Fail: It was unlikely for the team to sign Zadorov to an extension a year early, given he still has some issues with consistency, but what is the reasoning for Rantanen? In the three years he has been in the organization, Rantanen has backed it up with an AHL Rookie of the Year award, a solid rookie season, and a PPG season in the NHL as a 21-year old. Do you really need to see more?
This was the perfect opportunity for the Avalanche to lock up Rantanen early to hopefully keep the price down, but they have not done so. If he has another really strong year, you have to imagine the price will just continue to go up, and given what he’s shown since being drafted, there’s no reason to expect otherwise.