Hello, fellow Avalanche fans and Rink Rats! I can’t tell you how good it feels to be punching the keys again for The-Rink.com! It’s been a long few months for most of us, but it sure feels good to have something to look forward to. And with the Stanley Cup Playoffs now rebooting in August, an unexpected break may have been a silver lining for an Avalanche team that was desperate to get healthy. With key players out like Philipp Grubauer, Nazem Kadri, Matt Calvert, and Mikko Rantanen, the Avs were set to hobble into the playoffs but instead they’re nearly 100% healthy.
This week, Nathan MacKinnon was nominated for the Ted Lindsay Award and Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, while the Avalanche star rookie defenseman Cale Makar was nominated for the Calder Trophy. Both players are well deserving of those nominations but seem to have bigger plans in mind.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) July 15, 2020
Before the Avalanche officially get into playoff hockey, we wanted to take a look at a few questions surrounding the team. Our experts JJ Seaward, Lucas Rozell, and Marie Sexton discuss everything Avalanche hockey and some general NHL topics. We’re all really excited to be back and providing you excellent coverage of our favorite team the Colorado Avalanche!
Which player who is returning from injury will make the biggest impact in the playoffs?
JJ: While there are plenty of good options, I believe the return of Mikko Rantanen will bring the biggest impact for the Avs in this year’s playoffs. His return marks the return of the big three headed monster of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog, but he also adds to the overall depth for the Avs as he can fit anywhere in the lineup. No matter where he plays, he will make an impact for the Avalanche.
Lucas: This one is difficult because I think a few players are going to have a strong impact. Obviously, the return of the first liners Rantanen and MacKinnon is going to impact the team greatly, as MacKinnon carried the team on his back for most of the season. Other than the stars, the first name that springs to mind is Kadri – he’s been a really consistent force this season and I think he’s good at tying a line together. Burakovsky has also been a pleasant surprise this season and I’m hoping to see him make a big impact on his return, preferably on a line with MacKinnon.
Marie: I’d like to preface my first answer by saying I’m an AHL girl. I watch the Avalanche when they don’t overlap with the Eagles, but I don’t know the ins and outs of the team the way I do with the Eagles. But of the guys who were injured, I think Kadri will have the biggest impact.
How much of Timmins, Byram, and Bowers will we actually see? And will any Eagles see any ice time?
JJ: I think it will all really depend on how they perform in the summer camp leading up to the Avs exhibition showdown against the Minnesota Wild on July 26th. There is no doubt that all of them could make an impact, but it will depend on if Bednar believes they are ready. From what I have heard, Byram has been making a solid impression so far. I do believe some Eagles will definitely see at least some ice time, but only time will tell on how much exactly.
Lucas: I think this will depend on both training camp and the series go for the Avalanche. The safer bet is to go with the squad that’s already had a really good year. While the newcomers had good seasons of their own, throwing them into these unusual playoffs would be an interesting move, unless they really impress during camp. I could realistically see Bowers slotting in the easiest, especially if some of the other fourth line forwards fail to impress.
Marie: I doubt we’ll see much of the forwards. The Avs are just too deep up front. Maybe Logan O’Connor gets a bit of time on the fourth line, but unless somebody gets hurt (let’s hope not!), I don’t see the Eagles forwards getting any ice time. Defense is another story. Zadorov is a wild card who appeared to be in Bednar’s doghouse before the break. Sometimes Cole is on fire, but other times, he’s a bit of a liability. And Barberio just isn’t that strong of a player, in my opinion. On the other hand, Timmins improved immensely this year. He and MacDonald are easily as good Barberio, and less likely to commit a costly penalty than either Cole or Zadorov. Connauton and Lindholm aren’t flashy, but they’re strong, reliable players. I think any one of these guys could find themselves part of the third defensive pairing. As for Byram, I’ve seen all the hype, but I’ve also learned not to trust the hype because 99% of the time, it’s completely overblown. Yes, Makar managed to step into the playoffs last year and did great, but he’s an anomaly. In my experience, guys coming out of college at the end of the season are never as ready for the pros as people think. Those players almost always struggle being thrown into the AHL playoffs and don’t make much of an impact until the following season, Shane Bowers being a perfect example. So unless Byram is really as good as Makar (which I doubt), then I wouldn’t expect him to play.
What level of competition do you predict the round robin will have?
JJ: I am a firm believer that every stage of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be help to the highest possible levels of competition. With teams being completely healthy, we will be in for some extremely good hockey games. In order for teams to advance past any stage, they will need to perform at their fullest potential to come away with the series victory — this will all start at the round robin games.
Lucas: I believe there’s going to be a fair amount of competition. The teams were prepared to fight until the end to be at the top of the standings before the pause, so I definitely think that level of competitiveness is going to continue here. It’s a pride thing and it’s also a matter of getting into the right mindset for playoffs after the break.
Marie: The first time I really paid attention to hockey was the year the Avalanche won their last Stanley Cup. We watched the Finals, and it was undeniably exciting. I reluctantly conceded that maybe my husband was right and we should start watching hockey more often. I was psyched. Right up until the new season started in the fall and my husband turned on a game. Being early in the season, it was nothing like the intensity I remembered from the playoffs. “Why are they all skating at half speed?” I asked my husband. “Is this a preseason game or something?” Of course, I understand now that a) it’s a long season, and b) it takes some time to work up to playoff level intensity. That’s all a very long-winded way of saying, I expect them to take it more seriously than a preseason game, but I think it’ll look more like early-season hockey than postseason hockey.
Will the Avs have a goaltender controversy?
JJ: Like Avalanche goaltender Pavel Francouz mentioned to Ryan Clark the other day in a post skate interview, it appears as if Phillip Grubauer and Francouz are ready to do whatever they have to do in order to win the third Stanley Cup in Avalanche history. While this is obviously exactly what fans want to hear heading into the playoffs, anything is obviously possible during the playoffs.
Lucas: Ideally, the goaltending situation plays out like it did during the season – ride the hot goalie. The best option is always going to be the goalie that’s the most likely to succeed, but who’s to say who that’s going to be after such a long time away. I like Francouz and Grubauer as a tandem and I think the fact that they can each step up when the other struggles that played a role in the success the Avalanche enjoyed this year.
Marie: Well, if by “controversy” you mean, will everybody on Twitter be arguing over it, then yes. I expect Grubauer and Francouz to get roughly even time in the first couple of rounds, but I think Francouz emerges as the stronger (and more consistent) of the two.
Could we see Zadorov benched at some point in the playoffs?
JJ: I would hope not, but it will all depend on a few different variables. We have seen Zadarov be an imposing and intimidating factor in games throughout the year, but we have also seen times where he had a lack of judgment. Whether it be from missing assignments leading to goals against, or not playing physical, there have been a few common errors in his game that have led to him being benched. With these specific playoffs being all about wearing the opposition down, I am going to take a stand and say that no, we will not see him benched. He knows how he needs to play, and will do whatever he can to help the Avs win.
Lucas: This one comes down to attitude. We’ve seen Zadorov with some splendid performances this season and I think he’s had moments of brilliance as a shutdown defenseman. If that slips, though, or if he continues to have issues with Bednar, we might see an appearance from one of the younger defensemen that are looking to earn a roster spot.
Marie: Yes. There are too many other hot defensemen available. Admittedly, none of them play the same style of game as Zadorov, but that also means they’re less likely to be called for costly penalties
Do you think the Avs will be at an advantage as a skating team coming out of the break?
JJ: If everything goes smoothly, and there are no injuries for the Avalanche heading into the official first round, then I definitely see the Avalanche having an advantage. The Avs will be playing against some of the tougher competition battling for the top spot in the Western Conference, and with a healthy lineup, the overall depth of the Avalanche could prove to be too much for any team.
Lucas: Absolutely. The Avs have a lot of talent in one roster and they look to be working hard during this training camp period. With everyone back from injury, I see this team going back to their basics, running a very fast and skilled game.
Marie: It’s good to have injured players back in the lineup, but I don’t necessarily think that gives them some huge advantage because all the other teams are in the same boat.
How much pressure is on the Avalanche right now to win the Stanley Cup?
JJ: This is by far the most amount of pressure the Avalanche have had to win the Stanley Cup since probably the 2000-01 season. The Avalanche have all of the pieces to come away with the Cup this season. Coupled with depth throughout the lineup, and MacKinnon with a clear goal in mind, this is the best possible shot the Avs have of capturing Lord Stanley. Anything short would be a failure.
Lucas: I think the pressure is high, both from the fanbase and within the team itself. This team has improved over the past few years and had themselves a great regular season, even though it was cut short. The guys in that locker room definitely want to win. The fanbase wants them to win, too, as they always do. I think, as a fan, you look at the depth this team has and you want to see them go all the way. I’m not sure if we’re going to see this assembly of talent again soon for this team and it’s easy to get into a “now or never” mindset.
Marie: Obviously everybody wants them to win it, but I don’t feel like it’s now or never for them. They’re a team on the cusp of becoming absolutely exceptional. If it’s not this year, it’ll be next.
Who is the biggest threat to the Avs in the Western Conference right now and why?
JJ: I believe the biggest threat towards the Avalanche in the Western Conference has to be the Dallas Stars. Going 0-2-2 against the Stars this season, they are the one team who has had the Avs number during the regular season. However, if last year’s playoffs have told us anything, playoffs are a completely different beast and anything can happen. I would not count the Avs out in a best of seven series against the Stars.
Lucas: I think the Stars are going to be an issue for the Avalanche. They didn’t win a game against the Stars this year, which can’t be said of the other Western Conference teams. Unless something clicked over the break, I think the Avalanche style of play and the Stars style of play are going to continue to clash.
Marie: While the Blues may be the better team, the Avs have struggled a lot more against the Stars this season. So yeah, I’ll go with the Stars.
Matt Nieto stepped up last year in the playoffs. Who could be this year’s dark horse?
JJ: While there are plenty of dark horses on the Avs roster, I believe big Valeri Nichushkin will continue to surprise people. Built as a true workhorse, Nichushkin has made a resurgence in his career after recording 27 points in the regular season. Due to his playing style, he is exactly who fans could see playing the role of difference-maker for the Avs.
Lucas: I’m seeing Kadri or Nichushkin as important players this year. I think Kadri’s game is consistent and skilled and he’s been a force to contend with on the ice when he’s been healthy.
Nichushkin emerged as an interesting player on the team this year, finally breaking his scoring drought and starting to contribute a lot. I think the way he contributes to the play is a key in overcoming some styles of defense the top line can’t contend with.
Marie: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Jacob MacDonald. I know, it’s a long shot, but MacDonald scored 16 goals and 26 assists this season in the AHL, finishing first in goals and fourth in points amongst AHL defensemen. Granted, he scored a lot of those points while playing forward rather than defense. But he’s a versatile player with a strong shot, and I think he could emerge as this year’s dark horse. (Conor Timmins may be the safer bet. But “safe bet” and “dark horse” don’t really go together.)
Will the return to play Stanley Cup plan work or will we see issues with COVID impacting it?
JJ: I would say that there will be no issues, but it is definitely difficult to make a statement in regards to how events will go nowadays, so let’s just all cross our fingers that everything goes as planned and enjoy playoff hockey. 2020 is an unpredictable boogeyman.
Lucas: I should be up-front and say that I don’t really agree with the return to play. I love hockey, but the plan hasn’t been well thought-out, with players getting sick and ignoring regulations. That said, I think issues with COVID will impact it, certainly. I think the staff is being put at risk, which will impact arena flow. I also think that at least one player is going to get very sick, at which point we’re going to need to reevaluate if we’re willing to put the players at risk to this extent.
Marie: I’m going to throw some positive vibes into the universe and say of course the plan will work! (In reality, I give it about a 50/50 chance).