Colorado Avalanche 2021–22 season preview: Does a top-heavy forward group work?

  

Welcome to part two of my Colorado Avalanche 2021–22 season preview, this time focusing on the forwards on the roster.

If you missed part one, looking at the Avs’ defense, you can read it here.

Led by Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, the Avalanche have one of the most dynamic and exciting lines in hockey, and again, these three are going to be very important. But, what about elsewhere? How does the club stack up further down the line up this year?

A top-heavy approach

When it comes to top-end talent, there is not another team in the league, other than the Tampa Bay Lightning, that has a top six like the one in Colorado. Yes, there is a lot of talk about the top line, but behind them, Nazem Kadri is a very solid second-line center, while Andre Burakovsky could well join the top three as being elite this season; more on him later.

Behind them, we do not really know what comes next, as there are plenty of question marks. Valeri Nichushkin is going to start the season in the top six; will that work? Will the team get scoring from Tyson Jost to replicate the first half of last season, where little went in, or the second half, when he was a regular points scorer?

Then we move onto the rookies. Will Alex Newhook and Sampo Ranta do enough to stay in the lineup? Can they contribute enough offensively to create a third line that has some purpose with Jost, or do they both struggle in what will be their first full season of NHL action?

I must lastly mention J.T. Compher, who really struggled last season. He scored 18 points in 48 games, which shows the kind of expectations we all have on him now. A bounce-back year would be timely for the Avs this season, given they have so many question marks elsewhere in the bottom six.

When you look at the questions to answer, and compare them to the comfort of having both Joonas Donskoi and Brandon Saad in the lineup last season, there is a legitimate concern that the Avalanche will trouble the opposition a little less than we are used to seeing.

Expectations for the top line

It should not all be on the shoulders of three players, but given the questions down the lineup, the Avs’ top line simply has to deliver this season. I am not talking about having very strong seasons; I am talking about being completely dominant throughout the season.

Here are three questions that will be answered:

  • Will Landeskog replicate his point-per-game pace for the last two shortened seasons over 82 games?
  • Will Rantanen hit 50 goals?
  • Will MacKinnon score 100 points?

If none of those three come true, there is going to be a lot of pressure on others. Having said that, the more that are correct, the easier the burden becomes on the likes of Compher, Jost, Newhook and Ranta.

Kadri cannot afford to disappear

Kadri will anchor the second line and probably has a little more on his plate this season. It is a common theme of this preview, and I will say it again, the more that Kadri produces, the less pressure placed upon the bottom-six youngsters.

Last season, the 31-year-old struggled with just 11 goals from 56 games. During that time, he went on a spell from April 7 until May 1—almost a month—without a single point on the board in 11 games. He simply cannot do that this season; the second line has to be a consistent source of points.

During the postseason against Vegas when Kadri was suspended, Jost was elevated to the second line, and to put it bluntly, he was crushed by Vegas. The Avalanche asked him to do something that he cannot, and that is why Kadri needs to act as the buffer and provide consistent second-line play.

Kadri is in the final year of his deal in Colorado, and while he will not be getting the potential big pay day as the two I am about the mention, hopefully this will be enough to get Kadri firing for a full season.

Contract years for Burakovsky and Nichushkin

They always say that players will perform better when money is on the line, and the Avs will be hoping that is the case for Burakovsky and Nichushkin this season.

Both are in contract years, and both have the ability to command significant raises during the offseason next summer. If things go right, it would be no surprise to see Burakovsky cement himself as the main man on the Avs’ second line for years to come, with a pay raise to match. There is the potential that Nichushkin simply prices himself out of Colorado, as someone will likely offer him the chance to earn $1.5–2 million more per year than he currently is doing.

In terms of this season and helping the team perform well, Burakovsky holds the key: Is this the year he finally breaks out and shows dominant second-line play?

He is a goal scorer with a fantastic shot and 30 goals should be in his sights after 20 and 19 over the last two shortened seasons. Assuming his assists remain roughly the same, there is hope that Burakovsky could grab 30 goals and 30 assists this season, potentially more. If that moves up just a little further to 35 and 35, all of a sudden, the Avalanche have a second-line player on 70 points for the season.

Continuing the theme I have spoken about throughout this article, for every goal that Burakovsky scores over 30, that is one goal less that this likes of Newhook and Ranta need to score.

Nichushkin is a tough one to work out, because it is unknown how long he will stick around the in the top six. Assuming he gets most of the season there, he should be aiming for 40 points at minimum, a respectable total for someone who would be the lowest scorer of the top six.

Can the Avs deliver?

This is the question we all want to know the answer to!

The answer may well be yes, but as you can see from this article, there are a number of different elements that have to come together for this team to succeed.

The defense could be better than last season if healthy, meaning there should not be as much pressure on the forward lines. Couple that with huge seasons for at least two of the big three, and the Avalanche could be set to go deeper than they did last season and finally break the second round of the playoffs.

Can they go all the way? You need a ton of luck for that, but I head into the new season with optimism.

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