Elimination Eval: Colorado Avalanche

For the second season in a row following their first cup since 2001, the Colorado Avalanche have fallen out of the playoff race. After a first round exit to the Seattle Kraken last season, the Avalanche got over that hump this year and took care of a strong Winnipeg Jets team in six games. However, just as they had in the three years that preceded their 2022 Championship, Colorado wouldn’t make it past the second round as they fell to the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Semi-Final. Run back the tapes. 

Things weren’t off to the best of starts in Round 1 as Colorado was struggling immensely in keeping the puck out of their own net. Alexandar Georgiev was having a rough go and it was extremely noticeable. Rangers own “goalie guru” in Steve Valiquette even mentioned in an interview somewhere lost in the twitterverse where he spoke on Georgiev’s struggles, indicating that he knows the former Rangers goaltender very well and could tell something was off. According to Vally, he was of the belief that Georgiev was overused throughout the regular season and as such, was running out of gas when it mattered most. Based off of what we saw in Game 1, that logic was sound. 

Well much like anyone who has ever doubted him, Georgiev proved Vally wrong and pulled it together to help the Avalanche win four games in a row to take care of the series with relative ease. While their netminder certainly helped them out from time to time, it was really Colorado’s forward group that was carrying the weight as their top two lines were not only coming up with a surplus of goals on a nightly basis, but were doing so against one of the top goalies in the league, Connor Hellebuyck. With some time to recoup before Round 2 kicked off, the Avalanche awaited their next opponent, the Dallas Stars. 

In another conversation of rest versus rust, the Stars hosted the Avalanche riding high off their Game 7 win that sent the reigning champs packing. What better way to jump right into another playoff series then with a Game 1 that would require an answer in overtime? Dallas did not seem to mind in the slightest that they had to play again so soon after Round 1 seeing as they came up with three unanswered goals across the opening period with Colorado. Of course the Avalanche are too good a team to just roll over and chalk it up to not being their night. A pair of goals within five minutes in the second and another from Nathan MacKinnon in the third sent this one to overtime, setting the tone for how this series was bound to play out. 

About halfway through the twenty minutes of bonus hockey, it was Miles Wood using his speed to catapult his way into the zone to put a shot past Jake Oettinger, putting an end to the night and giving Colorado the early edge in the series. Game 2 would be less of an intense start but it would quickly amplify as the game continued. Miro Heiskanen got Dallas on the board for the lone goal in the first but another surge from the Stars quickly made it a 4-0 game by the end of the second period. Right then and there, the Avalanche had a decision to make. Were they going to continue to let Dallas run the show? Or were they going to pull off another comeback and flip the narrative? 

For an instance, it looked as though Colorado was going to do it again. Three goals from Joel Kiviranta, Brandon Duhaime and Val Nichushkin brought the Avalanche within one but an empty netter from Esa Lindell kept them from completing another incredible comeback. With the series now tied, Game 3 would hold big implications for how this series would play out and unfortunately for Colorado, things would start to slip out of reach. A late first period goal from Logan Stankoven gave Dallas the lead heading into intermission but Mikko Rantanen was there to respond for the Avalanche. However, giving the lead back up a couple of minutes later would cost them as they gave up a pair of empty netters trying to get back into things. 

Game 4 became the low point in the series for Colorado for a number of reasons. Not only would it leave them on the brink of elimination, but word came out just prior to the game that they were going to be without one of their top offensive contributors for not just the series, but for quite some time moving forward. Valeri Nichushkin has a bit of a history in recent years and not the kind of history you want your players to have. There was a situation last year in the playoffs where team doctors found an intoxicated woman in Nichushkin’s hotel room which resulted in the player leaving the team for what was cited as “personal reasons.”

Flash forward to this year as the Avalanche are preparing for a crucial Game 4, word comes out that Nichushkin won’t be available as he would be entering Stage 3 of the NHLPA’s player assistance program. Stage 3 means Nichushkin will be suspended without pay for six months as it was reported that he had failed a drug test. Now I’m not sure exactly what if anything this has to do with last year's situation and it certainly isn’t my place to speculate. Whatever is going on, hopefully there isn’t anything more serious to the events that have occurred and hopefully Nichushkin gets the help he needs to get on a better track. 

As if losing Nichushkin wasn’t enough, the Avalanche were still down in this series and needed to find a way to turn things around. Another explosive start from Dallas gave them a three goal lead just over the midway point of the game. Finally Casey Mittlestadt was able to come up with an answer but another one from Evgenii Dadonov in the third helped put the Avalanche to bed. Every game was a must win/can’t lose from that moment on. They’d find a way to stay alive in Game 5 thanks to a big night from Cale Makar, but that would all come crashing down in Game 6. 

Just as this series started, it would come to an end in overtime, however this one required two additional periods of bonus hockey. Mikko Rantanen stepped up and got the Avalanche on the board early in the second but Jamie Benn came up with a big answer even earlier into the third. From that moment on, it just had the feeling that the next goal would be the final decision maker. For what it’s worth, Georgiev was great for the Avalanche. Coming up with nearly 40 saves to keep the thing going, he and his team battled hard. As fate would have it, it would be a former friend of the Colorado Avalanche putting an end to their season as Matt Duchene would go on to be the double-overtime hero. The Stanley Cup Playoffs, for as beautiful as they can be, they’re often just as ruthless. 

So what now? We’re talking about a team that was just lifting the Cup two seasons ago. Surely they aren’t content having just gotten there once but at the same time, there isn’t necessarily immense pressure for them to do it. For that alone, I’d say you can consider the Avalanches season pretty in-between success and failure. The further away we get from 2022, the hungrier they’ll get but there isn’t much for this group to hang their heads over. The whole Nichushkin situation couldn’t have helped things and perhaps will shed light on some questions for this team moving forward but with all said and done, it was a good run this year in Colorado. 

One of the most fascinating trades at this year's deadline was their swap with Buffalo sending Bowen Byram over in exchange for Casey Mittlestadt. That’s a move I really liked for both teams and still like a whole lot for Colorado. He will be a restricted free agent for the Avalanche who are set to have roughly $16 million in available cap space this summer which should be more than enough to keep him around for the foreseeable future. It’s hard to hate the thought of a one-two punch of MacKinnon and Mittlestadt but there’s no question this team has some other holes to fill. 

In terms of UFA’s, Colorado is at risk of losing Jonathan Drouin, Andrew Cogliano, Brandon Duhaime, Yakov Trenin, Joel Kiviranta, Sean Walker, Jack Johnson and Caleb Jones to the open market. They’re also expected to lose Zach Parise who will probably retire sometime in the off-season. On top of that, they’re going to be without Nichushkin for at least the first month or two of the regular season which is going to leave a lot of question marks for how they enter camp in September. In terms of a projected lineup, we’re looking at 

Lehkonen - MacKinnon - Rantanen

*Landeskog/? - Mittlestadt - ?

Wood - Colton - ?

? - Wagner - O’Connor

Toews - Makar

Girard - Manson 

? - ?

The biggest question for this team has to center around the status of their Captain. Yes, people forget Nathan MacKinnon is not their captain. However, Gabriel Landeskog, who hasn’t played for the Avalanche since they last lifted Lord Stanley’s hardware. Landeskog has been recovering from cartilage transplant surgery in his knee ever since and given how much time he has missed, you can’t know for sure if he’s even going to be back let alone at full capacity. It’s highly unfortunate but it is part of the conversation we need to have regarding this team. You lose him and now Nichushkin for the second time, you start to wonder just how much retooling needs to be done. 

On the plus side, they have a great foundation. Their top four of Makar, Toews, Manson and Girard is as good as it gets but of course there’s only a couple of years left on some of those contracts too. With Ross Colton in the conversation, your center depth is in a pretty good spot, it’s really just the wings and a third defense pairing you have to worry about, at least for now. Alexandar Georgiev will be entering the final year of his contract which could raise further questions this time next year, although the team might also have something in Justus Annunen. It isn’t going to be an incredibly exciting free agent pool this summer but with whatever budget Joe Sakic and Chris MacFarland have to work with, they’re going to have to find some guys to fill out their forward group and third pairing. 

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Jonathan Drouin re-signs in Colorado seeing as he was able to revamp his career a bit, playing alongside his good buddy in Nathan MacKinnon. Drouin seemed eager regarding the potential of returning and given this team’s outlook, it would make sense for him to come back. I’d expect Walker, Trenin, Duhaime and Kiviranta to all look for a pay raise in free agency. Andrew Cogliano is approaching the retirement conversation but could chase one last ring somewhere else, maybe a reunion with the Oilers? Jack Johnson could fall into that same category but he and Caleb Jones could also be candidates to return on an affordable deal. 

As far as prospects go, there are some names that hold potential for this team’s future. Calum Ritchie and Mikhail Gulyayev are among the top of that list but will likely require another couple of years to develop. Sean Behrens is a University of Denver product that could be a fun story for the Avalanche but again, likely needs some time before becoming an NHL option. Oscar Olausson, John-Luc Foudy and double name legend Ivan Ivan could be some forward options as well but at any rate, this team has some work to do this summer. 

As I mentioned, the further removed this group gets from 2022, the hungrier they’ll get but at the same time, more questions will arise. They have a good amount of business to tend to this summer but if you want to make a case for them continuing to be one of the most dangerous teams in the West, all you have to do is say MacKinnon, Makar, and Rantanen. They have a great core of defense to build around, they have great centers, how they fill in the pieces will help move the needle one way or another.