The Colorado Avalanche nabbed a few headlines when they swung a deal that sent Stefan Elliott to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Brandon Gormley.
More than anything, it seemed like one of those both-players-need-a-change-of-scenery deal. Arizona got a right-handed defenseman who led all AHL players at his position with 19 goals last season. And Colorado got a new blueliner as well — a former first-round pick (No. 13 overall in 2010) who was considered a top-five talent in his class by some scouts.
It’s not a trade that’s going to make or break either team, but it does give the Avs another young player with upside. Factor in the move that sent Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn to Buffalo back in June for Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko and J.T. Compher, and suddenly the organization has added quite a few youngsters with upside in the last three months.
Upside only helps you so much when the games actually start. And Patrick Roy’s squad is facing quite the uphill battle this season. Two years ago, they won 52 games and took down the Central Division crown. Last season, they won just 39 games and plummeted all the way to last. Overall, they went from 112 points to 90 — a 22-point drop.
That’s a significant swing over the course of just two seasons. And it begs the question of just how good this group really is. The answer is likely somewhere in the middle, probably closer to the 90-point end of the spectrum than the 112-point area at the moment. There are plenty of reasons for optimism: Nathan MacKinnon seems primed to bounce back from his sophomore slump, Matt Duchene is normally good for more than the 21 goals he just produced and, again, there are quite a few players who are in the very early stages of their careers and figure to improve to varying degrees.
Colorado could make a jump in terms of quality of play and still not see much in the way of a rise in the standings.
That’s not a knock on the Avalanche, by any means – it’s simply a reminder of just how difficult of a division they play in. The Stanley Cup champion and both Wild Cards came out of the Central in 2014-15, not to mention four clubs that turned in 100-point campaigns. When the dust settled, only Colorado and Dallas missed the postseason.
Taking a step back and looking at the division as a whole, none of the five playoff teams from last year have really suffered any major setbacks. In fact, if any club has to weather the storm of a salary cap crunch and off-ice distractions, it’s the Blackhawks — and nobody honestly thinks they’re dropping off much, if at all.
That leaves the Stars, who have clearly upgraded in some key areas with the intention of winning right now. So the Avs have some ground to make up in a hurry. Particularly when considering just how strong their Central rivals are in some key categories.
Colorado can score. In fact, even in a down year, six players on the roster notched 50-plus points. Problem is, everyone in this division can score. Their 2.55 goals per game put the Avalanche in a tie for No. 22 in the NHL in that department. Not great, but not hideous. It placed them a distant last in a division where the other six teams were all among the league’s top 17 though. And while Gabriel Landeskog and Co. may be better in 2015-16, it’s going to be almost impossible for them to leapfrog all those other clubs and suddenly turn this into an advantage.
Chicago has Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Minnesota has Ryan Suter. Nashville has Shea Weber. St. Louis has Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo. Winnipeg has Dustin Byfuglien. See the pattern here? Colorado possesses an intriguing defense corps, if Erik Johnson stays healthy and some of the young guys continue to evolve. But it doesn’t have the sort of blue line that can match those sort of names yet. There’s definitely upside and, as a whole, it’s a group with the potential to be better than the back line that, say, Dallas has assembled. Overall, however, some of the very best D-men in all of hockey reside in the Central.
Semyon Varlamov was great two seasons ago, and good goaltending can be the great equalizer. Corey Crawford has Stanley Cup rings, but is by no means considered a dominant netminder. Devan Dubnyk was the biggest story of the second half last season, but he needs to prove he can do it on a year-to-year basis. Outside of Pekka Rinne in Nashville, no goalie in the Central is consistently among the very best in the world. There are a lot of quality options to go around in this division, but Varlamov has shown in the past that he can be better than a lot of them when he’s on top of his game.
The Avalanche ranked fifth in the NHL on the penalty kill last year, shutting down the opposition 84.6 percent of the time. Problem is, their 15 percent conversion rate on the power play was better than only one team in the entire league. The bright side is that’s a clear area where they can make up some ground if they pull it together with the man advantage — a distinct possibility, as they ranked fifth overall (19.8 percent) just one year prior. Of course, the key is improving on that number without suffering any sort of regression on the PK.
Much like he did in his playing career, Roy burst onto the scene in a big way as a first-year coach, taking home the Jack Adams in 2014. Last year? Not so much. If he can rediscover that ability to get the absolute most out of his guys, he could have a real nice future behind the bench. And remember, his team still notched a 90-point season while sitting in last, so it’s not as if they were terrible. That would have put them ahead of four teams in the Metro. But there are some well-established coaches in this division as well, so it’s yet another area where receiving high marks is a necessity, not a luxury.
Colorado is going to have to find a way to surprise some people if the plan is to make it back to the postseason in 2015-16. Then again, the Avalanche have done that before. The key is going to be how well they are able to hang around as the young guys in the lineup establish themselves.
Because there simply isn’t much of a margin for error in the Central.