– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
And just like that, summer is over and the descent of the leaves from the trees – as well as the descent of temperatures in sporting arenas – signals the start of a new National Hockey League season.
Over the next few days, A Lot of Sports Talk will provide a snapshot into the outlook of a number of the teams in the league during the preseason as part of our 2018-19 season preview, as we take the opportunity of covering a number of preseason games this month and provide an in-depth season analysis of the teams competing on the ice that evening.
We continue our season previews in the Rockies, as the Colorado Avalanche look to build upon a surprising season in 2017-18, one which saw the Avalanche secure a playoff spot on the final day of the season before pushing the Nashville Predators to six games in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The last time the Avalanche had a surprisingly successful season, in 2013-14, that was followed by three consecutive seasons of not making the postseason.
One of the constants from the 2013-14 team to last season’s surprise outfit is goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who now is in a battle for the No. 1 position in goal with former Washington Capitals No. 2 goalkeeper Philipp Grubauer, acquired in a trade on June 22. Grubauer was 15-10-3 with a 2.35 GAA and a .923 save % as his play was influential in helping the Capitals on their way to winning the Stanley Cup, even though Braden Holtby played the majority of the games in the postseason. Varlamov, who was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2013-14, put up decent numbers in goal last season (24-16-6, 2.68 GAA, .920 save %) but missed the last 18 games of last season and all of the series against Nashville with a knee injury. Since 2014, Varlamov has battled in the injury bug, and Grubauer has been pegged as a future No. 1 goalkeeper for a few years now. In a way, Colorado has a good problem to have in between the pipes.
In front of either goalkeeper will be a talented group of defensemen, a mix of youth and veterans led by one of the best in the business, Erik Johnson. Last season, Johnson led the NHL with 30.7 shifts per game, as he routinely is paired up against opponents’ top lines. However, Johnson, like Varlamov, missed the entire series against Nashville due to injury, and injuries have cost Johnson a significant number of games over the past few seasons, one of the main reasons the Avalanche had underperformed as a team for the past few seasons before 2017-18.
It almost is blasphemous that we have gone this far talking about the Avalanche without mentioning the player who was one of the Hart Trophy finalists last season, center Nathan MacKinnon, who paired with left wing Gabriel Landeskog and right winger Mikko Rantanen to form one of the best top lines in the league. Colorado had just enough depth below the top line combination to not be fully exposed in having to rely on that trio so much, but a No. 2 center has to emerge to take off some of that pressure. In steps (probably) Tyson Jost, the 20-year-old who was Colorado’s first-round pick in 2016 who scored 13 goals in 71 games last season and whom the team expects to have a bigger impact this season. Another young center, Alexander Kerfoot, impressed in his first season in the NHL, scoring 43 points (19 goals, 24 assists) and providing five power-play goals.
While there was no way to go but up for the Colorado from their disastrous 48-point season in 2016-17, not many thought that a 95-point season and a playoff appearance was in the cards in the following campaign. The Avalanche are now dealing with expectations and the fact that they cannot sneak up on too many teams this time around. If the top line, which was a bear to handle at the Pepsi Center, performs better on the road than it did last season, there is no reason to believe that Colorado cannot repeat their surprising performance and make a return trip to the postseason in 2019.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from the Sept. 30 preseason game between the Avalanche and Dallas Stars, with all photos taken by Dallas-area photographer Ross James. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 24 pictures in total.