After letting the dust settle from a disappointing game six loss against the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s clear the Colorado Avalanche still have work to do. Yes, they have a Vezina Trophy finalist, a Norris Trophy finalist, and a Hart Trophy finalist on the roster, but none of those individual awards mean much when you’re not playing hockey in June. Nathan MacKinnon said it best when following the series-ending loss he said, “It’s my ninth year in the league and I haven’t won sh*t.” But there’s still hope. Joe Sakic has put together a team built to compete for the next decade, although it’s not clear what will propel this young team to a Conference Final.
Below is a list of things the Colorado Avalanche should address if they want to be serious Stanley Cup contenders for years to come.
It’s debatable whether Nazem Kadri fills this role, but he can’t do that sitting up in a skybox wearing street clothes. It was pretty obvious that when the Knights were down and out during the first two games of the series at Ball Arena that they just wanted to set a mental tone. They wanted to show that despite dropping the first two games on the road, that they were going to be a nightmare to deal with as the series progressed. And guess what, that’s exactly what happened. They never gave up and punished Colorado physically and successfully got in their heads. It was like a different team got off the bus to play games three through six.
Matt Calvert is absolutely the player who had this role until injuries sidelined him for the season. Same with Logan O’Connor who got on the ice and made a noticeable impact, but it was too little too late. The bottom-six forward group needs a makeover in the worst way to give the team a little bit more grit and make the Avs hard to play against. It was rare to see checks finished or turnovers forced against Vegas, but they were sure getting that done against Colorado.
A big trade-deadline acquisition
This take may be pretty subjective, but Joe Sakic has to take some blame for not risking it all for his team who was primed to be a Stanley Cup contender. Sure you can say Saad and Toews were solid acquisitions, but they weren’t “all-in” type deals. When your team needs to get by an obstacle, you have to take big swings toward the fences. Every general manager who has won a Stanley Cup at one point or another has known their time to push all of their chips in the middle and that generally includes trading top prospects and picks for rentals.
Sakic may look to recent years where teams traded valuable picks away and it didn’t help the team, but with your goaltender and captain on expiring contracts 2021 seemed like a good year to take a risk. It also depends on the market and assessing if the rental players are a fit for your team. Regardless, the Avs got another year of experience in the postseason, but bringing in more firepower to give the team a boost is never a bad idea.
A veteran defenseman
The Avs have a desperate need for a veteran blue-liner to help tutor their group of young, talented defensemen. You could say this is the job of Erik Johnson, but with his recent injuries, it’s hard to rely on just him. You need somebody back there to calm the waters when things are going your way. You need someone to pull your guys out of a scrum when you have a lead or someone to start some trouble after the whistle when you need a jumpstart.
It was evident that key mistakes were made by the defensive core, but there’s not much room for error in the playoffs. It’s about living and learning out there and for someone like Ryan Graves to have so much responsibility, it’s hard to learn on the fly. The Avalanche just need a third-line guy who has been to a Stanley Cup and can tell the Avalanche exactly what they need to do to go deep in the playoffs. Whether that’s playing smart and simple hockey in close games or sacrificing the body in key special teams opportunities, someone needs to be a role model out there for the young Avs.
Stars need to rise to the occasion
In the playoffs, it’s the goal for the other team to shut the opposing team’s top line down. There are no surprises there, and Vegas did a great job limiting Nathan MacKinnon’s opportunities in the series. It took until game six for the Avs stars to come out and start playing playoff hockey, and still, it wasn’t enough. It’s not clear whether there was a level of complacency since the Avs didn’t do much losing in their first six playoff games, but the top-six forward group didn’t act like they were fighting for every inch of ice against Vegas. They didn’t hound the puck or put a lot of pressure on the Vegas defenseman. It just wasn’t there.
It’s hard to tell if this issue is due to players buying into Jared Bednar or just a lack of playoff experience, but Bednar has to be on the hot seat this season. He failed to make the necessary adjustments in four straight games to challenge the Knights. The strategy improved towards the end of the series as Colorado became more desperate, but the Avs were still sent home in embarrassing fashion losing four straight. The Avs looked motivated and they said all the right things, but it never translated on the ice. Their level of competition has to change, especially when they’re playing a talented team like Vegas who refuses to be out-worked.