Hello again, Avs faithful. Good to see you.
After 105 painstakingly long, agonizing, hockey-less days, the Colorado Avalanche hit the ice again Thursday in what was their first organized team-wide practice in three-and-a-half months. There were some new faces and some familiar ones, too. Their collective goal, however, remains the same. And according to head coach Jared Bednar this a more motivated, hungrier team than the last.
Like last season, the Avs open the year among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup (tied with Vegas), at least according to some. But as we know, being the favorites or whatever holds little weight (certainly not 34.5 lbs. of it) when it becomes crunch time.
So, back to the drawing board, again.
While this season’s roster will look a little bit different, the fact that the Avalanche remain Cup favorites for the second consecutive year is a good sign—with or without the likes of Philipp Grubauer, Brandon Saad, Ryan Graves, Joonas Donskoi, et al.
That means the aforementioned’s replacements are up to snuff, whether some fans agree with that or not. Still, questions loom about whether or not some of these newcomers—or young guys—can help get the job done. It’s one of the many things I’ll be keeping an eye out on from Avalanche training camp over the next week. For example…
Who fills that second-line hole? Can Alex Newhook do it?
With no clear replacement at the 2LW position (where Saad slotted in last season), what will this depth chart battle look like throughout training camp.
When we spoke with coach Bednar on Wednesday afternoon, I asked if could trust in a young guy like Alex Newhook to play those minutes. Bednar told me “it’ll be up to him” if he wants it or not. Adding, he wants to try him there, give him top-six minutes, put him with dynamic, offensive-minded guys and see if it sticks. Sounds like it could be his job to lose and that might be the preferred spot for him. That’s a tall task for a young gun. I’m looking forward to seeing how he handles the assignment.
Bednar also mentioned more veteran guys that are capable of playing on that second line, such as Tyson Jost, Val Nichushkin and J.T. Compher. Bednar said he’s expecting the latter to have a “bounce-back season.”
Martin Kaut and Shane Bowers
I asked coach Bednar if he views this season as a make-or-break one for Martin Kaut. He told me he wouldn’t quite go that far, but “this will be an important training camp for him, for sure.”
Time is running out for the young Kaut, who has failed to secure a spot on the roster as he enters his fourth year of NA pro hockey. Though he’s only about to turn 22, I can’t help but feel this might be the final year for him in the organization if he’s unable to at least get a call-up and play more than a dozen NHL games this season.
I mean, look at Logan O’Connor, who usurped Kaut on the depth chart quickly, earned a full-time NHL contract this season and just signed a three-year extension.
Shane Bowers is another young Colorado Eagle that I look forward to seeing his growth. Coach Bednar was in Arizona for the rookie tournament and said he was the most impressive and improved forward out there. I think we finally see Bowers make his NHL debut this season.
Earning his spot in the call-up line starts this week at training camp.
Is Darcy Kuemper truly an upgrade? How will Pavel Francouz look after taking an entire season off?
The Avalanche lost their Vezina Trophy finalist goaltender in Philipp Grubauer, who opted to sign with the Seattle Kraken. Sakic had to act fast and find a replacement, which he did in Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper.
I’ve been saying it all along: Darcy Kuemper is an upgrade over Grubauer. Hear me out…
Kuemper has a higher save percentage (.922) than Grubauer over the last four seasons combined, and he’s actually second among goalies (who played at least 100-plus games) in save percentage over the last four years.
Kuemper has a superior goals-against average (2.35) over the last three years, as well.
And no goalie has faced more shots and made more saves than Kuemper has over the past four seasons total (max of 140 games played).
Not bad, eh?
That’s all the more impressive considering Kuemper was able to accomplish all of that behind a pretty sub-optimal defense in Arizona. Now, the Avs’ new netminder gets to reap the benefits of a very good Avalanche defense that finished with league-best shot suppression. I’m sure Kuemper is very excited for this season.
Speaking of defense…
How will the blueline shake out? Erik Johnson? Bo Byram? Ryan Murray?
The loss of Ryan Graves is a shot to the Avs PK and shot-blocking. Good news is, Erik Johnson is back and fully healthy after missing a good chunk of the 2020-21 campaign. Not only does EJ play the same game as Graves does—and figures to slot in that same position—EJ’s veteran presence cannot be overstated. See: Thursday’s opening of training camp. Guess who EJ was paired up with…Bo Byram. That’s a perfect D-partner for the young Byram. Look what Johnson was able to do to Sam Girard’s game a few seasons back.
Byram, by the way, is a guy coach Bednar says he hopes pushes for a top-four spot. That’s certainly something to watch out for this camp.
Another interesting addition is Ryan Murray, a former second-overall selection. Most would agree that Murray hasn’t quite had a “second-overall pick” kind of career thus far, however, Sakic has a way of taking former first-rounders and turning them into something. I like this addition a lot and I’m excited to see how it plays out.
Here’s my early prediction for D-pairs:
Makar – Toews*
Byram – EJ
Girard – Murray
* With Toews missing the first few games of the regular season, obviously he won’t start here. I think once healthy, this is how the D-pairs will look.
GM Joe Sakic brought in a number of exciting, intriguing PTO options, namely veteran D-man Jack Johnson and forward Artem Anisimov.
Anisimov is particularly intriguing. He’s a guy that’s averaged 15 goals a season over his 12-year career. He’s coming off a down year in Ottawa, where he only played 19 games. However, there could be some veteran value there for the hulking 6-foot-4, 199 pound 33-year-old center. He could be a decent depth option. Depends on how he performs in camp though. PTO players hardly make the cut…
Jack Johnson is another fun what-if kind of player. A veteran of nearly 1,000 NHL games, Johnson has been around the block and he’s a very trusted stay-at-home D-man. Truthfully, though, I’m just not sure where he fits in the equation.
Attitude and effort
Plain and simple, I want to see a pissed off hockey team. One that is competing hard in every drill. One that makes coach Bednar question every roster spot because there’s so much competition. One that scraps and claws.
Attitude and effort in training camp often set the standard for the rest of the season. The core of this Avalanche team is still very much there, and they should all be sick of all of these second-round exits each season. Go out there and earn it.
Instead the favorites or whatever, as was the slogan for last year’s team, the guys in the locker room should be replaying Nathan MacKinnon’s soundbite from the final game of the season…