Colorado Avalanche’s Depth Making Early Statement

NHL: OCT 14 Avalanche at Capitals

Colorado’s top line was so dazzling last season that it garnered all the attention — from both the media and the opposition. Nathan MacKinnon (8 points in 5 games) solidified his spot among the very best in the sport, Mikko Rantanen (9 points in 5 games) continued his ascent into stardom and captain Gabriel Landeskog (6 points in 5 games) unlocked his full potential alongside two brilliant offensive forces. These were exciting times for the Avalanche, but as a member of the squad not named MacKinnon, Rantanen or Landeskog, the “one-line team” narrative probably grew irritating.

The Avs’ outstanding trio has gotten off to another strong start in 2019-20, but lesser-known pieces have also stepped up to the plate to provide vital secondary scoring. That has yielded the second-ranked offense in the league and a 5-0-0 record.

General manager Joe Sakic was understandably aggressive in his pursuit of depth over the summer. After all, Colorado’s lack thereof cut its feel-good playoff run short in the spring. First, Carl Soderberg was dealt to Arizona in order to create breathing room amid Rantanen’s contract negotiations. The team then shipped Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot to Toronto in exchange for two-way center Nazem Kadri and fringe blueliner Calle Rosen. In free agency, Sakic signed speedy winger Joonas Donskoi and dependable pivot Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Finally, he took fliers on former first-round picks Andre Burakovsky and Valeri Nichushkin.

Kadri (4 points in 5 games) is without question the biggest name among the newcomers. While the 29-year-old struggled in a third-line role behind Auston Matthews and John Tavares in Toronto, he’s the clear No. 2 behind MacKinnon in Colorado. Any semblance of an identity crisis should no longer exist. He brings steadiness, skill and experience to the table, but he occasionally lets his temper get the best of him. In fairness, that nastiness is precisely why opponents hate playing against the playmaking pest as well. On the power play, he’s assumed bumper duties before and can offer the club a more direct alternative when opponents clamp down on the seam passes. Following a quiet couple of games, he’s posted four points in his past two outings and appears intent on creating the 1-2 center punch the Avs sorely need to contend for a title.

The biggest surprise early on is Burakovsky (5 points in 5 games). The 24-year-old winger has always possessed all the tools to thrive in the NHL: good size (6’3”, 201 lbs), decent skating and a blistering shot. He just couldn’t seem to put them together in Washington. Well, sometimes players simply require a change of scenery. Through five games in Colorado, Burakovsky appears rejuvenated and dramatically more confident than he did with the Caps. He’s trusting his skill and his instincts, and it’s paying off. Expecting him to maintain this pace is unrealistic, but if he can hit 20-25 goals and 45-50 points, that’s a significant contribution to a team that features a lethal top line.

Donskoi (3 points in 5 games) and Bellemare (2 points in 5 games) are doing their part too. While neither is counted on to light the lamp, they’re both as reliable as it gets defensively. The former is a high-energy winger who skates like the wind and can hold his own with talented linemates. The latter is a stout defensive presence who was an integral component of Vegas’ DNA — that chip-on-our-shoulder, us-against-the-world mentality that propelled the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season.

With all the new faces on board, it’s easy to overlook how their arrival can affect the Avs who were already there. The scoring burden on Tyson Jost (2 points in 5 games), J.T. Compher (1 point in 2 games), Matt Nieto (2 points in 5 games) and Colin Wilson (0 points in 3 games) has been lightened and they can now settle into their roles without the pressure of finding the back of the net. That’s especially valuable for Jost, the 2016 10th overall pick who has yet to develop into a high-end forward at the pro level.

One forward who has certainly embraced the new-look roster is Matt Calvert (3 points in 5 games). The 29-year-old is a terrific blue-collar veteran who hustles his tail off and lays it all on the line for his team. Not only is he a great example for Colorado’s youth, but there’s quiet offensive upside to his game. He’s uncovered some of it to open the campaign and could deliver 30-35 points despite defensive usage. He and Bellemare aren’t dictating the action by any stretch (35.1 CF%, 44.4 SCF%, 66.7 HDCF%, 46.6 xGF%), but they’re keeping the Avs from getting into trouble in high-percentage areas. That conscientious, grounded quality is particularly useful on a high-flying squad.

Of course, we can’t discuss Colorado’s upgrades without mentioning Cale Makar (6 points in 5 games). The 20-year-old blueliner is as dynamic as they come, an elusive and electrifying playmaker who can routinely create something out of nothing. His pro readiness was likely the only reason Sakic was comfortable with dealing Barrie away. The 28-year-old Maple Leaf has been one of the finer offensive rearguards around for years, but Makar is…special. He seems destined for a Calder Trophy nomination, yet even that’s underselling his impact. He’s learning NHL defense with each passing contest and has thus far posted a 52.4% expected goal share at 5-on-5. With the puck, he’s shockingly polished. He blends natural offensive gifts with superb poise and hockey sense, and that self-confidence inspires confidence in his teammates. Whether it’s his ability to initiate the breakout or attack from the blue line, they know he can get the job done.

We shouldn’t be surprised, though. This kid debuted in the playoffs last season and was downright terrific.

Now, it’s obviously very early in the year and there’s no telling how long these positive returns will last. Kadri is probably good for 50-plus points, but Burakovsky’s career high is 38. Can he reach 50 with a bigger role? If Donskoi and Calvert’s production wanes, Jost, Compher, Nieto, Wilson and perhaps Nichushkin (1 point in 5 games) will need to deliver the goods.

All in all, however, Colorado couldn’t have hoped for a better start. The top line is rolling along, yet it can still take it up another notch or two. On the back end, Makar is justifying every bit of the preseason Calder Trophy hype. In fact, he may well be the front-runner at the moment. Behind the big guns, a mixture of newcomers and veterans are setting out to prove the Avs are far more than a single line. Sure, they may never display the sort of puck dominance that Carolina does, but they may not need it.

If they can follow up the top unit’s haymakers with decent output elsewhere, that should be enough to put opponents away on a regular basis.

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