December 16, 2017

Colorado Avalanche: The Kids ARE Alright

The Avalanche look to improve after a disaster last season

For a quick refresher course on where JT was at the end of last season, click here.

Alright, it’s a new season. The NHL has a new team in Vegas that absolutely owned the opening night ceremonies in a way a team never has, and never will. There is a lot of optimism for the team and the city, in light of the recent tragedy. The Golden Knights are writing their own narrative and it’s exciting to watch. The hockey world has nothing but optimism. The fact that “chemistry” can carry a team of castaways is popular.

Yet the same optimism doesn’t exist in Colorado. Joe Sakic is still an idiot, Matt Duchene is still a prisoner, and the Avalanche are still the laughing stock of the NHL according to almost everyone not in Denver. It’s a tedious, lazy narrative. The Avalanche were the worst team since the expansion Atlanta Thrashers. The team was put behind the 8 ball when Patrick Roy quit via a press release. For a guy that was quoted as “time to put our balls on the table” he failed to find his when he up and quit. Oh and this was a few weeks before training camp and the World Cup of Hockey.  To put this in perspective, it would be like Joe Maddon sending a fax from his RV to Theo that he’s done. And he would do it 3 weeks before spring training and the World Baseball Classic. The new manager would have to deal with not only getting a job moments before the season started but he would also be without his best players when he arrives and training camp opens.  He would have no Rizzo, Bryant, or Baez, to name a few.

This is the world that Jared Bednar stepped into. He had a roster of old, slow dudes with high dollar contracts while he wanted to play fast. His assistant coaches were not guys hew hired. And his best players and the leaders of the team were gone. Oh and then he lost his starting goalie for the season and best defensemen for most of the season. The Avalanche looked like a decent team until Erik Johnson went down. He got hurt, they went in the tank, they never recovered. But yet, according to the national media, he should have been fired.  Yeah. Ok.

Joe Sakic. Turned a roster scraping the cap ceiling with old slow dudes like Jarome Iginla, Francois Beauchemin, Rene Bourque, and Cody McLeod and guys like Andreas Martinsen, Mikhail Girgorenko, Fedor Tyutin, and a bunch of other AHL level talent into a young, hungry, speedy group that includes guys like Sven Andrighetto and Nail Yakupov. Yes, THAT Yakupov, whom we will call “Teri” because his nickname will be TeriYaki. (Thank you Tyson Barrie for that one). He added Matt Nieto to the forward group via the waiver wire and Mark Barberio to the defensemen as well last year.

Joe did this without spending a ton of money or giving up a ton in a trade. He got Andrighetto for Martinsen. Ghetto was one of the few guys that could score and brought speed and skill that was severely lacking. Martinsen, isn’t even in the league any more. Joe made mistakes of handing out long term high dollar contracts to aging veterans in the past and it got the Avalanche nowhere. He did the exact opposite and was chastised for not making a “big splash” and “not improving his roster”.  This is complete nonsense and would be like chastising Theo Epstein for not throwing millions of dollars at a guy like Chase Utley.  Spending money merely for the sake of spending money and to make it LOOK like your trying is what got the Avs into this mess in the first place.  Joe spends money, he’s an idiot. He doesn’t spend money, he’s a lazy idiot.  Yeah. Ok.

This year, the Avalanche are off to a 4-2 start after winning the home opener last night 6-3. This includes 2 empty net goals to give them 4 on the season in 4 games. They had 5 all last year. The jerseys are new and improved, thanks to Adidas. And the guys IN the jerseys are new and improved as well. Jared Bednar made skating and conditioning a big part of camp, and it was necessary after all the 3rd period collapses last year. The Avalanche have looked very strong in the 3rd period so far. The special teams still needs work but the Avalanche were the last team give up a single goal at even strength. The team is brand spanking new. They lost Saturday night and got destroyed in the Corsi numbers but it was only 2-0 after 2 period and the Avalanche still had a chance. Last year, they would have folded in the 3rd and lost 5-0. Saturday, they came back and pushed hard in the 3rd and even had a chance to win it. Simply put, the optics on the team has greatly improved even in losses. Win or lose, they will be entertaining to watch.

Give my man Dario a follow on Twitter. He did some amazing homework on the rosters from last year compared to this year. This is the starting point for optimism for this team.

Add that up, it’s 15 guys from the Avs roster of 23 that are have moved on and only Cody McLeod has an NHL job. Reto Berra came in relief against the Avalanche the other day in net for the Ducks. He was a bad fit and terrible trade for the Avalanche but it’s good to see him land somewhere and hopefully have success.

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Goaltending

Last year: Calvin Pickard, Jeremy Smith
This year: Semyon Varlamov, Jonathan Bernier

From peewees to beer league to the KHL to the NHL. If you don’t have solid goaltending, you aren’t going to win. Although Calvin Pickard was a great guy and fan favorite, he was not a starting NHL goalie. Yes the defense in front of him was atrocious. But Calvin just wasn’t good enough. Don’t believe me? He was drafted by Vegas and then put on waivers. An EXPANSION team, put him on waivers. Then he got traded to the Maple Leafs, which might actually be a brilliant move by them. Then there was Jeremy Smith. Jeremy (expletive) Smith. He sucked in the AHL and sucked in the NHL. This is like putting your Super Bowl hopes in the hands of Scott Tolzien.

Semyon Varlamov is now finally healthy. He had groin surgery last season and has looked as healthy as he has since he should have won the Vezina when the Avalanche made the playoffs largely due to him. Groin injuries suck, trust me… I know. A fully healthy Varlamov has not been seen for a few seasons but if he is healthy, he is an elite goaltender. He’s looked it so far.

Jonathan Bernier is a rock solid backup. He’s had success for the Ducks, Leafs, and Kings. He could be a starter IF Varly were to get hurt. But if not, you have an excellent backup goaltender who may have made the save of the year already. Extended highlights here.

With the young Avalanche team and a defensive core that is still coming together and figuring chemistry out. The goalies will be tested. Hopefully they won’t face 40-50 shots on a nightly basis like in years past. But hey, look. The Avalanche actually outshot a team.  This is worth noting because it hasn’t happened a lot.

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Defense

Last year:  Erik Johnson, Francois Beauchemin, Tyson Barrie, Mark Barberio, Nikita Zadorov, Eric Gelinas, Cody Goloubef, Fedor Tyutin, Patrick Wiercioch

This year: Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, Nikita Zadorov, Mark Barberio, Chris Bigras, Patrick Nemeth, Anton Lindholm, Andrei Mirinov

Last year they were old and slow and couldn’t get the puck out of the zone. It led to teams setting up in the Avalanche zone for a majority of the game and turning the net into a firing gallery. It’s hard to get good number from your goalie and any spark from your offense when your defensemen can’t get the puck out of the zone and to the forwards. Beauchemin is the easy target because he got a majority of the minutes. Tyson Barrie also felt the ire of the Avalanche fans but dude has never had a solid partner to play with and Gelinas, Tyutin, and Wiercioch are terrible excuses for NHL players.

This year, Sakic went with youth. Yes, they are going to make mistakes but you can live with that. So far, and yes it’s early. They have done a much better job at getting the puck out of the zone. You can’t score if you don’t have the puck. And even in the first few minutes of the first game of the season, Erik Johnson was pinching down low and even behind the net. In the offensive zone. He has battle injuries his entire career and losing him last year sent the Avs into a tailspin. So far he has logged the most minutes and even double shifts late in the game. He has looked like the defensemen the Avalanche thought they were getting when they traded for him years ago. He has paired with Zadorov meaning you have two big defensemen that can skate and hit like a Mack Truck.  The Avalanche haven’t had a pair of defensemen like them since the days of Rob Blake and Adam Foote.  You win the 50/50 battles and pucks in the corner when the other team is timid because they know Erik and Nikita are coming to put them through the glass.

Tyson Barrie is tied for second on the team with 5 points so far.  He only had 7 goals last year and has 2 this year including a powerplay goal.  The powerplay was an absolute disaster last year. It has yet to be truly productive yet this season but it has looked remarkably better. There is actual PUCK MOVEMENT now. Barrie has helped a lot with this. Bednar seems to have more faith in Tyson than Patrick Roy ever did.  He seems to have also developed chemistry with Patrick Nemeth. Nemeth was a waiver claim from the Dallas Stars that happened right before the start of the season. Not a ton of fanfare with the signing initially but he has been a solid defender and a perfect partner for Barrie.

Mark Barberio was a waiver claim last year and ended up being one of the better defenders on the team last year. He sadly chopped of his hair and shaved his beard. He has not looked nearly as good this season but he’s still better than what you had last year. If you have a Mark Barberio as a healthy scratch or bottom pairing defensemen, then things are trending upward.

Chris Bigras showed flashes in the past but got hurt and never really made it back to the Avalanche. He shined in camp in the pre-season and earned a spot on the opening night roster. I’d love to see him paired with Barrie (Nemeth could be injured at the moment).  He’s a young guy that not a ton of people outside of Denver knew much about or gave much of a chance. Once again, if Bigras is a bottom pairing defensemen, things are much better than last year.

They other youngsters bring promise. Anton Lindholm has been a solid defender who has some upside. Andrei Mirinov doesn’t speak a word of English and this has caused some issues early on. He’s got a lot of nasty in him and can bring a little bit offensively. These 2 along with Barberio will be cycling in and out of the lineup throughout the season.

Nakita Zadorov did not start the opening night after holding out for more money. He was pissed but Bednar was sending him a message. And he responded in a positive way. Z finally got his first goal as an Avalanche on a bounced clearing shot that ended up in the back of an empty net. It was ugly, but it counted. The Avs didn’t get ANY of those bounces last year. Winning teams seem to get those bounces. Offensive production has been his weak spot but his physical, nasty, defensive prowess is what the Avalanche fans and media have fallen in love with.

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Forwards

Last year: Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabe Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Cody McLeod, Carl Soderberg, John Mitchell, Blake Comeau, Jarome Iginla, Rene Bourqure, Gabriel Bourque, Joe Colbourne, Matt Nieto, Sven Andrighetto, Mikhail Grigorenko, Andreas Martinsen, Ben Smith

This year:  Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabe Landeskot, Mikko Rantanen, Alexander Kerfoot, Sven Andrighetto, Nail Yakupov, Carl Soderberg, Blake Comeau, Matt Nieto, Tyson Jost, JT Compher, Colin Wilson

The Avalanche started off last year with Gabriel Bourque logging Top 6 minutes along with Mikhail Grigorenko. Grigs showed flashes of potential but lacked the heart and skill to make it in the NHL.  Rene is a decent depth player at best and best suited for the AHL not the NHL.  Ben Smith?  Are you kidding me? The only reason he isn’t the worst Smith on the team is that form AHL castaway Jeremy Smith was on the team giving up goals left and right.

This year, the Avalanche have added some free agents as well as some trades and waiver claims last year.  Matt Nieto was a wavier claim last year from the Sharks and was one of the better energy guy last year. This year, he’s a bottom 6 forward or healthy scratch. Sakic turned Andreas Martinsen’s slow physical ass (i.e. Roy guy) into a speedy skilled top 6 forward in Sven Andrighetto. Sven nearly out scored the entire Avs team despite playing 60 less games than some guys on the team.  Sakic made a draft pick trade to get Colin Wilson from the Predators who can play any line, any position. And then best of all, the guy making the least money on the team has been the most money guy ON the team, Nail Yakupov.

Nail Yakupov has been amazing. Much like the Avalanche last year, Nail is trying to turn his career around. Former #1 draft pick has never really stuck anywhere. He’s been through numerous coaches in Edmonton and then went to Mike Yeo in St. Louis who is defensively minded and Nail didn’t fit in. Nail is an offensive catalyst. Bednar and Sakic are letting Nail do what he does best, produce offensively.  Nail has no pressure and he looks great so far. A tremendous locker room guy is looking tremendous on the ice. With all the media driven drama with Matt Duchene, Nail is just what the doctor ordered to help the Avs win and hopefully keep Duchene happy.  There is a great story by Jared Clinton of The Hockey News about Yakupov here.  And Nail has a great nickname via Tyson Barrie.  How can you NOT love a guy like that in your locker room. Considering all the issues with chemistry last year, this could be the MVP.

The line of Kerfoot, Duchene, and Yakupov has been the best line on the Avalanche since the “9 Line” when the Avs went from worst to first in the central.  The “Nine Line” was Landeskog – Duchene – MacKinnon, ironically.

Matt Duchene. Is an Avalanche. Yes. Still. The entire hockey world was quick to ridicule Sakic for not trading him. After a disastrous year last year and Duchene looking like a prisoner. YOU HAVE TO TRADE HIM JOE. But Joe never got what he wanted and Matt is still here. And he’s looked better than ever.  He’s only tied for the lead with 6 points and 3 goals and fourth on the team with shots. Matt is enjoying playing hockey again as long as the media leaves him the hell alone and stops asking him if he’s happy.

Alexander Kerfoot was playing for Harvard last year. He signed a free agent deal in a similar way that the Avalanche lost Will Butcher. He graduated from the NCAA and didn’t sign a deal with the team that drafted him New Jersey and came to the Avs with a chance to prove himself.  Now he’s playing with Duchene and Yakupov and has shown a ton of promise early.

Gabriel Landeskog has been moved to the 3rd line. For the Captain of the team, that’s almost unheard of. Yet, Gabe has taken it in stride. The third line of Landeskog – Compher – Jost/Wilson has been very solid especially defensively. A team that has had it’s struggles with defense, having forwards that can erase the other teams best lines, is a necessity for the Avs to win. Gabe is a physical player and he can play that style on the third line.  He has played very well with Tyson Jost who is currently hurt. Jost can learn a lot from a guy like Landeskog as a top draft pick trying to figure out the NHL game.

JT Compher is an antagonist for the opposition. He just gets under their skin. He was a part of the Ryan O’Rielly trade that the Avalanche allegedly lost even though they got Compher and Zadorov in the deal. He’s also got 3 points early in the season. He’s got upside and is only now beginning to tap into his potential.

Colin Wilson brings a ton of experience over from the Nashville Predators who played in the Stanley Cup final. A team that needs experience to can rely on a guy whose still only 27. He can play any forward position and in any part of the game. He’s good at any of the top 4 lines and can even help out on special teams.  Think of him as Ben Zobrist.

Nathan MacKinnon has not looked like the former #1 draft pick from a few years ago, at least early on. What is nice is that the Avalanche have put him on the power play and he looks to be in the “Ovi spot” for easy slap shots and wristers. Despite the slow start (at least by his standards) he has 4 assists.  He has also looked significantly better in back checking and defense. While he hasn’t played the sexy hockey from years past, he’s looked more poised and stable. Still, he needs to bring sexy back if the Avs want to make the playoffs.

Mikko Rantenen led the Avalanche in goals last year with 20 goals. In fact, he was the only Av to get 20 goals. Which shows you how bad the Avs were last year. He started off last year a little timid with his shot. Once he began to have confidence in his ability to shoot, he started finding the back of the net. He was the 10th overall pick in 2015 in all honesty the Avalanche were lucky he was still available. He’s also tied for second on the team with 5 points early on in the year. He’s on the top line with MacKinnon and Andrighetto

As stated earlier, Sven Andrighetto was amazing for the Avalanche last year. He had 16 points in 19 games on a team that couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. He never really got a chance in Montreal and was given up for a guy that’s not even in the NHL anymore. As the Canadiens continue to make stupid moves and ruin their great franchise while trending downwards, the Avalanche seem to be trending upwards, in the opposite direction.  Seriously, how the holy hell do you give a PK Subban up for a centerman. One of the best Defenders in the game, a franchise player, for a decent center from Columbus.  But anyway, back to Sven.  Sven has the speed and skill the Avs will rely on to rebuild a once great franchise.

Matt Nieto was a waiver claim last year. He went from one of the best teams in the West in San Jose to the absolute worst in the Avalanche. He didn’t sulk but instead came into Colorado with a chance to prove himself.  He had 11 points in 43 games but was stable and reliable unlike most of the Avs roster. Heck he had 7 goals in 43 games while Carl Soderberg had 6 in 80 games. Soderberg has been a solid NHL player for five years. Nieto is now a healthy scratch or fourth liner but it’s a far cry from last year with guys like McLeod, Iginla, or Ben freaking Smith.

Carl Soderberg was awful last year. A guy that you could count on for 40+ points from a third line only had 14 points last year. 14 points in 80 games is what you expect from a Ben Smith, not a Carl Soderberg who had a few good season with a great team in Boston. He has responded this year with anger and purpose. He already has 2 goals.  The 4th line of him, Comeau and Nieto has been rock solid so far. The 4th line for the Avs this year is better than the 3rd line last year, maybe even the 2nd line.

Blake Comeau…passed to a defender behind him while on a breakaway last year. That summed up his season pretty well. Blake is a good NHL player. Blake is smart and the oldest player on the Avalanche at 31 years old.  He’s been in the league since 2006 and is usually good for 30-40 points a season. A depth guy you can count on. Last year was a disaster. This year, he hasn’t recorded a single point but has been all sorts of nasty on the ice. When you play on the bottom line you need to help out defensively and bring the physical game. He’s done both so far early in the year. He’d like to forget last year and is looking likely to do that this year.

Tyson Jost. He played a few games late in the year and gave us the moment of the year for the Avalanche with his grandpa crying almost weeping for joy last year after Tyson got his first goal. Tyson could play in the top 6 as a center or as a winger in pinch but has started the season as the 3rd line center. IF Duchene is sent packing, he would take over the 2nd line center position. Until then, he’s getting a chance to refine his game to adapt to the NHL.  He’s got a goal and an assist early in the season and here’s hoping he stays healthy. He’s still really young only playing in 10 games so far.  He has a ton of upside and potential and it will be fun to see how he develops.

Final Thoughts

The Avalanche have a much better roster than last year. They even have guys that could be in the NHL like Rocco Grimaldi or AJ Greer but there isn’t room for them right now. For a team desperate to have bodies to fill a roster last year, they had to make tough choices this year.  Look at Joe Colborne, he had an opening night hat trick last year for the Avs and failed to make the roster this year and was sent to the AHL and San Antonio.  It’s doubtful he makes it back the Avalanche baring any major injuries.  The Avalanche were actually decent when playing 5 on 5 last year. They have continued to do so this year. The penalty kill and power play were among the worst in the NHL last year and this year has not been much better. The NHL is seriously cracking down on slashing penalties and teams are still trying to adapt to the new rule change. They’ve played the game for 10 to 20 years a certain way and the NHL decided to change that, for whatever reason. Last year the Avalanche would commit a penalty early in the game and go down 1-0 five minutes into the game. This year they haven’t had the same parade to the penalty box but still need to clean up the penalty kill.  The power play hasn’t been terrific yet but it actually has a pulse this year. Last year, it wasn’t even on life support with lazy skating, terrible passing, and worse decision making.  This year the skating is solid and passing is on point. One might even gripe that there is too much passing and not enough shooting this year. Still the Avs are getting good looks and eventually the shots will go in.  It ain’t perfect, but at least it’s watchable.  And that is the story of the Avalanche this year. It won’t always be the prettiest but they will at least look like an NHL team this year. A solid, exciting, skillful NHL team with a lot more speed.  Call me crazy, (I am a Nutt), but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the Avalanche and Golden Knights to make the playoffs. And even though ESPN hasn’t done a 30 for 30 on it yet, the Avalanche and Red Wings could renew their rivalry in a Stanley Cup final.  Yes it’s a pipe dream. But after as many pipes the Avs hit last year, a dream may be in order.

Empty Netter

In every hockey article, just like with the Grandpa Jost video last year. We’ll end with a funny, cute, or impressive video.  Here is a kid waving and dancing with a Boston Bruins player.

 

J.T. Nutt 19 Articles

Staff Writer

JT “the” Nutt graduated from UNI in 2006 and worked at WHO-TV for a few years including Soundoff. JT then spent the past five years covering UNI most recently for On Press Row. He works as a cameraman for the Iowa Wild, Iowa Energy, and Iowa Barnstormers. JT loves the Cubs, UNI, Avalanche, Chargers, beer, hockey, the WWE, and cat memes.

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