This season has been one of the more frustrating years since I began covering the Colorado Avalanche. In previous years, there were obvious roster limitations that meant the team was simply not where it needed to be from a talent perspective, or they had a locker room that wasn’t bought in with the head coach, or all of the above.
The story of this season is really about injuries. When Justus Annunen played last weekend in St. Louis, he was the 40th different player used by the Avalanche this season. Consider that NHL teams have a maximum roster of 23 players and a contract limit of 50 and it’s pretty incredible the Avs are sitting in a position to attack the Central Division standings and chase down the leaders.
Spending time with my wife up here in Winnipeg, I get to enjoy the daily perspectives of those who cover the Jets, one of the teams Colorado is currently chasing. A major theme is focusing on trying to win enough games to secure the division title solely to avoid the Avalanche.
Why wouldn’t a team feel that way? Colorado is still the defending Stanley Cup champion and they are 11-2-2 in their last 15 games. They still aren’t healthy, but they’re close enough that they are playing the kind of hockey that clearly makes the observers of the teams around them nervous.
In Colorado, however, the tune has been one of frustration. Josh Manson and Bowen Byram return to the lineup after lengthy absences? Great! Cale Makar suffers a concussion, misses time, comes back, gets hit in the head again, and is now back on the shelf for who knows how long.
Every step forward has felt as if it has been met with a step back. Yet through 56 games, the Avalanche sit with a greater than 90% chance to make the postseason and could realistically chase down both the Jets and Dallas Stars for not just home ice in Round 1, but the division title and top seed out west.
That isn’t a ringing endorsement of the Avalanche, mind you, so much as it is an indictment of how weak the west is.
Is anyone out west even scary?
Off the top of your head, which team outside of Colorado do you have confidence is the best team?
Starting in the division, Dallas is good but not great. They are led by a Hart-level breakout from Jason Robertson and have young stars at all three levels with Miro Heiskanen and Jake Oettinger as players who could be difference-makers in the postseason. There’s a real question about depth, however, as this is a team that has turned into a Robertson-or-bust kind of squad.
They also lead the league in overtime losses. They have 30 wins in 57 games. Colorado has 31 in 55, for reference. The Stars have been among the league’s healthiest teams all year and are still just barely hanging on to the lead.
Up here in Winnipeg, the Jets have an explosive top-six forward group and a defenseman in Josh Morrissey who is having a fantastic, Norris-level breakout season. Connor Hellebuyck is also back to his elite form. They can scare you because of the goaltending and high-level forward talent, but they remain bad defensively and their forward depth dries up very quickly.
Minnesota and Nashville aren’t serious contenders for anything as currently constructed.
When looking at the Pacific Division, it’s just as jumbled. Vegas leads the pack, but Mark Stone had another back surgery and is out indefinitely. That may open the door for classic trade deadline cap maneuvering, but that remains a team that is merely good, not great, and for the first time in their history has lost their edge at home.
Los Angeles is a fine team but is getting by on the goaltending of Pheonix Copley. Is he having a Jordan Binnington-like miracle run? Maybe! Is that a team that really scares you in a best-of-seven format? Not right now.
Seattle is in the same place as Los Angeles. They have a solid mixture of players that are producing quality results in the regular season, but when the lights come on in the postseason, this is still a star’s league and the Kraken don’t have one. Also, Martin Jones in net? Ask the Sharks how that goes.
The Oilers have an outrageous offense but as we just saw this past weekend, their problems in goal persist as Jack Campbell has not lived up to the hefty free agent contract he signed and their defense remains as porous as ever.
Postseason success oftentimes boils down to the best combination of star power, defense, and goaltending with a sprinkling of quality depth. Which team listed above is best positioned to come after a healthy Colorado?
I don’t have an answer there. The Avs have lost twice to Pete DeBoer-coached teams in the postseason so Dallas has to concern you some. The Jets have Hellebuyck, the best goaltender who will make the playoffs out west, but a bad defense only advances behind superhuman goaltending and we saw the Rangers run out of gas with that formula last year.
The goaltenders in the Pacific are Jones, Copley, Logan Thompson, and Stuart Skinner (over Campbell).
This is all to say that the fast-approaching trade deadline presents quite a quagmire for the Avalanche.
What are the Avs working with at this year’s deadline?
The Avs have issues with the salary cap, although Erik Johnson’s injury (“possibly” regular season-ending, according to Jared Bednar) might just have opened the door for LTIR relief that makes things much easier. They’re also asset-poor, with few prospects that other teams will highly value and only first-round picks this year and next to offer up (no 2nds or 3rds until 2025).
There just isn’t a ton of wiggle room for the Avs. Making an impactful depth move will be challenging because of the lack of picks between rounds one and five and giving up a first simply for the sake of it is always bad business.
Sean Behrens is the most prized prospect in Colorado’s system but the Avs traded away top D prospects in Justin Barron and Drew Helleson last year, leaving Behrens as the only blue line prospect remaining who appears to have an NHL future, although early returns on Ryan Merkley after arriving via trade from San Jose are encouraging enough that one could still dream on his future, too.
It’s going to be challenging is what I’m saying. They aren’t looking to remove from their NHL roster and their draft assets and AHL players aren’t bursting at the seams. Because of the dearth of talent, guys like Jean-Luc Foudy may be more valuable to the Avalanche than in a trade.
The bottom line, however, is that this deadline represents a tough first-time challenge for new GM Chris MacFarland. He’s going to have to get creative in order to add impact to a roster that has been healthy in exactly zero games so far this season. How do you fill in the blanks of a roster that hasn’t even played together?
We’re going to find out the answer to that question over the next 10 days. What we do know is that MacFarland is working with the most-feared roster out west. That’s a pretty good place to start.