Now that we’ve taken brief glimpses at the other three divisions on the NHL, it’s time to hone in on the Central Division, which features the teams that stand tallest between the Blackhawks and a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. We end the series with a Western Conference favorite, the Colorado Avalanche.
Last season: 39-13-4 (82 points), first place in West Division
Key losses: G Phillip Grubauer, F Brandon Saad, D Ryan Graves, D Conor Timmins, F Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
Key additions: G Darcy Kuemper, D Ryan Murray, F Mikhail Maltsev
The Avalanche, for a second straight season, had a disappointing end to a hockey season based on their expectations after losing in six games to the Golden Knights in the second round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s the third straight time that the Avalanched exited the postseason in the second round, which may be weighing on young star Nathan MacKinnon.
Now the Avalanche will move on without several members of their roster for the past few seasons, including goaltender Philipp Grubauer. The Avalanche are likely betting they can get similar results out of Darcy Kuemper behind the Avalanche’s well-built defense, but even that defense has taken some hits during the offseason.
Gone are young defensemen like Ryan Graves and Conor Timmins, but the Avalanche will still roll with one of the best blue lines thanks to the presence of players like Sam Girard, Cale Makar, Devon Toews and Bowen Byram. Erik Johnson, a veteran workhorse, will likely be a bottom-pairing defenseman this season if Byram can prove himself. On many other teams, Johnson would be firmly in the top four.
Colorado lost one of its best playoff scorers in Brandon Saad, who’s now playing for the Blues. Joonas Donskoi, who was a part of the Avalanche’s notable scoring depth, was selected by the Kraken in the expansion draft. The Avs also lost more depth in Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, one of the best fourth-line centers and penalty killers in the league, but could attempt to replace him with offseason signing Darren Helm. Or Colorado could run out a younger fourth line, as Bellemare was largely surrounded by young talent like Alex Newhook in the playoffs.
But the Avs retained most of their key components and should still have one of the best power plays in the league. The Avalanche’s man-advantage units scored the second-most goals last season after the Oilers with 47.
The Avalanche re-signed captain Gabriel Landeskog to a long-term contract in the offseason and signed young Makar to a similar long-term deal. The Avalanche also signed veteran free agent defenseman Ryan Murray to a one-year deal and traded for Kurtis MacDermid.
Arguably the Avalanche’s biggest question is now in net, where Kuemper must stay healthy — something he hasn’t done in quite some time — for Colorado to truly contend deep into the playoffs. Kuemper, when healthy, has largely been excellent over the past few seasons, but that changed in 2021, when he finished with 27 games and a .907 save percentage.
Maybe that’s because of Arizona’s defense and it will be easier to play behind Colorado, but Kuemper will need to improve to make the Avs better this season.
In the stronger of the two Western Conference divisions, Colorado is the early favorite to win the division and make it to the Western Conference Final. A lot can happen over one season of hockey, but the Avalanche have been genuine contenders for a few years now. While the 2021 offseason was not the kindest to them, they still have a productive offense and well-assembled defense.