The Colorado Avalanche were one of the best stories in hockey during the 2013-14 campaign. Fresh off a draft where they took Nathan MacKinnon with the No. 1 overall pick (no seriously, someone other than Edmonton had the No. 1 overall pick), they immediately shot all the way up the standings and won their division with a 52-22-8 record. Actually, they weren’t that far from taking home the Presidents’ Trophy.
Last season? Not so much.
The Avs stumbled out of the gate, winning just three of their first 14 games. And then they just kept struggling. When the dust had settled, Patrick Roy’s squad sat at 39-31-12 — not awful, but still enough of a drop-off to slide them all the way to last place in the ultra-competitive Central Division.
What exactly was the difference between the two seasons?
There were a number of factors at play, from seemingly everything going right for the club in the 2013-14 campaign, to MacKinnon slogging through his version of a sophomore slump (still 38 points in 64 games though) and Erik Johnson missing nearly half of the 2014-15 season. One stat in particular stood out though: in 2013-14, Colorado was a plus-30 in goal differential. Last season, that number flipped all the way to minus-8.
Some of that hinges on the offense, as the scoring up front dropped off for a variety of reasons. But the defense and goaltending weren’t quite as strong either. Semyon Varlamov was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy in 2014. Last season, he won 13 fewer games, while watching his goals against average rise and his save percentage dip a little.
The Avalanche are tied to Varlamov, as he’s signed through the 2018-19 campaign, and they’re happy to have him between the pipes. What they can alter a little though is the blue line, and they’ve done just that this summer. In fact, there are three very realistic reasons for optimism that Colorado might be stronger on the back end in 2015-16.
1. Erik Johnson’s Health
As noted earlier, the 27-year old defender was sidelined for essentially the second half of last season. A knee issue ended his year on January 21, but he’s fully recovered now and should be good to go.
When trying to forecast a team’s outlook going forward, you can’t predict which players are going to get hurt, so you sort of just have to assume they’ll be healthy until proven otherwise. And if that’s the case with Johnson, it’s already a clear upgrade over where this group was last season. Remember, we’re talking about a former No. 1 overall pick (2006, by St. Louis) and half of the Avs’ top-two pairing.
He was leading the club in ice time (24:35 per game) before he went down, and was also producing some solid offensive numbers (23 points in 47 games) in addition to his tireless work on the defensive end.
2. Francois Beauchemin’s Veteran Presence
The criticism of Colorado’s decision to give the aging D-man a three-year deal is fairly simple: by the third year, he’ll be 37. Some players — particularly defensemen — are still going strong well into their late 30’s, so there might not be an issue at all. But there are no guarantees.
In the present, however, it’s easy to see how this move could help the Avs considerably. Francois Beauchemin is a rugged, all-around blueliner who brings a good amount of quality experience to a pretty young roster and will likely make up the second half of that top pairing with Johnson. He knows what it takes to win in this league, and he’s still capable of doing it.
Plus, he offers strong leadership qualities. That’s a nice addition, both to the locker room and the defense corps.
3. Nikita Zadorov’s Arrival
Along with Mikhail Grigorenko, Zadorov was the centerpiece coming back from Buffalo in the deal that sent Ryan O’Reilly to the Buffalo Sabres in June. At 6’5″ and 230 pounds, the former first-rounder (No. 16 overall in 2013) is tough to miss on the ice. And his upside as a physical defender that can also move the puck was obviously enticing to a Colorado team looking to rejuvenate the back end.
Some feel a top-four spot alongside Tyson Barrie is in Zadorov’s future — perhaps as soon as this year. Even if he doesn’t make the big club out of camp, he’s still just 20 years old. Generally speaking, that’s young for an NHL defenseman expected to play those kind of minutes, so it’s not as if he’d be behind schedule.
If he is able to step in and contribute this season though, that could provide a huge boost for the Avalanche. In other words, it’s one of three pretty clear ways this defense could be better than it was just a year ago.