Ah, the tell-tale signs of fall – the wind bites, the leaves brown, and the start of the NHL regular season rapidly approaches. What better time to fire off several bold predictions for the Colorado Avalanche as they embark upon their journey through the 2021-22 season. This collection of takes ranges from the merely eyebrow-raising, to the downright audacious. With sharpened pitchforks firmly in hand, let’s dig in.
Prediction Number One: Jared Bednar Is Fired
Before the peanut gallery pounces, rumours of Bednar’s imminent firing arose in the aftermath of Colorado’s disappointing capitulation at the hands of their Western Conference rivals, the Vegas Golden Knights. His uninspired coaching adjustments in response to the territorial dominance exhibited by the Golden Knights in their second-round series underlines the main argument against Bednar’s continued employment.
After ruthlessly dominating Vegas in Game 1, the Avalanche wilted under their opponent’s successful attempts at a resilient counter-insurgency. A barrage of physical torment and relentless forechecking hindered Colorado’s ability to initiate their patented blitzkrieg formation, abruptly neutralizing the most dynamic aspect of their attacking strategy.
Detractors point to the laughable protest offered up by the West division — it contained four of last season’s bottom ten teams — as a decisive factor in why the team could not adapt to adversity when its primary avenue to success was thwarted. The old adage rings true, practice makes perfect, and when one fails to establish a reliable contingency plan, chaos reigns.
The crux of the issue is a roster drowning in offensive talent consistently fails to slay their demons and, fairly or not, Bednar bears most of the blame for repeated post-season collapses. He’s the easiest to replace and doing so graciously extends the roster a (limited) lifeline, but subsequently decrees that General Manager Joe Sakic is the next casualty of unmet expectations.
All things considered, a hasty dismissal would mark an unfortunate end to Bednar’s eventful tenure as the longest serving coach in franchise history. He steered the organization from oblivion, transforming a roster which limped to a franchise-worst 48 total points in 2016-17 into the formidable juggernaut which ravages the league today. If anyone deserves to bask in the triumphant culmination of this lengthy project, it’s Bednar. Even so, the infamously callous industry of professional sports spares no man.
Prediction Number Two: The Avalanche Break Their Franchise Wins Record
In browsing the list of Colorado’s franchise bests, the record for total wins in a single season jumps out as a suspiciously achievable target for the 2021-22 campaign. The Avalanche’s performance in 2000-01 acts as the benchmark, with the eventual Stanley Cup champions compiling 52 wins on the way to 118 points – another franchise record.
The keen observer asks, how does a club which stumbles at every significant playoff hurdle intend to break a record set by arguably the greatest iteration of the team in franchise history? Quite easily actually, as last season’s group romped to the postseason after accruing 39 wins in a shortened 56-game season – on pace for 56 wins over a full 82-game campaign. Although this season sees the NHL’s Californian triumvirate of basement dwellers exit Colorado’s division, the Golden Knights go with them. Their departure upgrades the Avalanche’s divisional status to to that of apex predator, even as the overall strength of the division improves.
It’s important to note that, unlike the 2001 edition, the modern-day Avalanche benefit from the post-lockout implementation of the shootout, a change that more frequently provides opportunities to accumulate wins in place of anti-climactic ties. That’s not to diminish the accomplishments of a legendary outfit stocked with Hall of Fame talents in Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Rob Blake, and Patrick Roy, and Ray Bourque (the NHL pre-salary cap was wild), but to highlight the competitive advantage currently enjoyed by Nathan MacKinnon and company.
The trio of promising youngsters in Alex Newhook, Bowen Byram, and Logan O’Connor are the reinforcements drafted in the wake of notable departures in Brandon Saad (St. Louis Blues), Joonas Donskoi (Seattle Kraken), Pierre Edouard-Bellmare (Tampa Bay Lightning), and Ryan Graves (New Jersey Devils). In net, Darcy Kuemper’s history of strong play behind a weak Coyotes’ team implies that the impact of losing of Philip Grubauer can be mitigated, and that the Avalanche can still rely on the backbone of a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Although far from a perfect offseason, feelings of despair should not permeate the halls of Ball Arena with several breakout candidates waiting in the wings.
As the franchise recovers from their offseason haemorrhaging, restructuring the remaining pieces into a lineup which challenges the Avalanche’s all-time mark is a hefty proposition. Even with reduced depth, the continued development of their highly-regarded prospects and feeble challenges from relatively meek divisional competition gestures at the eventual setting of a new record. Bet on it. Or don’t, I’m not your financial advisor.
Prediction Number Three: Alex Newhook Wins the Calder Trophy
Barring the arrival of a highly-touted mega-prospect a la Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, claiming the honour as the NHL’s most impressive rookie is often a result of circumstance. The annual Calder Trophy race is surprisingly unpredictable, as the deployment of ice-time, the presence of competent line mates, and the arbitrary roulette of injury luck governs which newcomer etches their name into the annals of history.
As the Avalanche nurse bruises from the stinging blows of their offseason activity, Alex Newhook eyes an attractive promotion to Colorado’s second-line. Andre Burakovsky and Nazem Kadri accompany the lofty designation, a pair of skilled marksmen salivating at being the potential beneficiaries of Newhook’s prophetic playmaking abilities.
Put in a good shift at even-strength, and a steady dose of deployment on special teams surely follows. No matter if Colorado rewards Newhook with a brief cameo on the top unit or he coordinates the efforts of the secondary battalion, the fresh-faced forward has a chance to amass a glut of points on the man-advantage. The Avalanche finished with the 8th most efficient power play (22.7%), and there’s no reason to believe that they’ll regress anytime soon, even with the erosion of their supporting cast.
In fact, they may be due for a boost in results. Colorado generated a predatory rate of 7.98 expected goals for (xGF) per 60 minutes (a cumulative tally of the quality of chances a team produces) when their opponents were left shorthanded, the second best mark last season according to Natural Stat Trick. Although the presence of exemplary underlying numbers driving the process are no guarantee of future success, the foundation for an incendiary power play is set.
Whether or not Newhook experiences a windfall of shooting luck is a mute point. The high floor of the Avalanche offense suggests he is among the likeliest of the Calder candidates to be handed a starring role in such a high-leverage position, although Montreal’s Cole Caufield and Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras are worthy rivals to the throne. You may disagree – fairly I might add – but they don’t call them hot takes for nothing.
Colorado Is Full of Peaks and Valleys
The biggest question remains unanswered – which version of the Avalanche materializes in 2021-22? Is it the one which rampages to another Presidents’ Trophy, or one which fumbles under the pressure of heightened expectations as an esteemed member of the NHL’s exclusive crop of Cup contenders? Fans should buckle up for what promises to be a turbulent season which bursts with the potential for vicious mood swings – unbridled jubilation one moment, plummeting despondency the next. In any case, just how enjoyable is a season that goes exactly to plan anyway?