Sports fans would not be sports fans without their expectations. Whether they are high, low or middling, expectations abound on social media, the local bar or suburban home. With the 2020-21 NHL season starting, fans, writers and even the organizations themselves and setting the bar for how they believe teams and players should perform.
The Colorado Avalanche have very high expectations, for the first time in a while. Since struggling as an NHL afterthought for over a decade, the Avs have built a roster that could first contend for the playoffs and that now should contend for the Stanley Cup. There has been adamant praise around the hockey world for the way Joe Sakic has constructed his roster and for the impressive season that roster produced last year. It was okay that they lost early in the playoffs each of the last 3 years, as they were still exceeding or meeting expectations.
But that type of result is no longer good enough, according to the team. They believe they have skill and depth at every position necessary to compete with the top clubs in the league. But for the Colorado Avalanche to meet their lofty expectations, each player on the team will have to strive to meet their individual expectations.
From Nathan MacKinnon to Shane Bowers, those goals to meet are different for everyone on the team. But any one player meeting or exceeding what they are capable of could be what pushes the Avalanche over the edge. So what should be expected of the Avs this year? Here’s what I believe they need to do to succeed:
- Nathan MacKinnon needs to be the stud everyone believes him to be. He has evolved into a consistent difference-maker for the Avalanche and should have no problem meeting this goal. But, in a shortened season, having a few off nights could really sting. MacKinnon has the potential to win the Hart this year, but he must stay locked in to get there.
- Mikko Rantanen has to score around 30 goals this year. Rantanen has finishing talent, but has the tendency to only shoot at chances that have a good chance to go in. Increased shot volume mixed with his accuracy should help him contribute to the Avs’ first wave of attack.
- Cale Makar has to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. Many standout rookies have had difficulties in their 2nd year as a pro. MacKinnon, after winning the Calder in 2013-14, struggled mightily the year after. Makar must remain the dynamic power he is on the blue line. The Avalanche haven’t been the same since he’s joined the team and if he remains consistent or somehow gets even better, that greatly improves their Cup odds.
- Gabriel Landeskog has to lead the team through the inevitable, difficult circumstances the Avs will face. Cup winners never have it easy — that’s part of the reason it holds so much respect. Landeskog, as captain, will be the player the team has to look to during tough battles that lie ahead.
The Second Wave
- Nazem Kadri has to continue to boost the powerplay. He scored some big goals in the Edmonton bubble, particularly against the over-matched Coyotes. The Avalanche power play was a buzzsaw in that series and in the exhibition games, but both Kadri and the powerplay cooled down against the Stars. Kadri was still very good, but if he can be a consistent factor on the powerplay, they become a lot more threatening.
- Brandon Saad, in his first year with the Avs, has to score around 20 goals. There is every reason to believe Saad should be an excellent fit in Colorado’s system, but there are no guarantees in the NHL. All he has to do is regularly contribute and take some heat off the big guns.
- Andre Burakovsky has to have a few good chances to score every night. He proved his shooting talent last year with a career campaign. He is a finisher. If he is given or is able to develop enough opportunities during a game, his ability to finish them will help him have an encore performance.
- Samuel Girard and Devon Toews are not known for scoring in the same way as others already listed. But their ability to control the defensive zone and transition the puck up the ice will be a critical factor in the Avs success. If they continue their excellent play, the Avs will find themselves boasting an elite defensive group.
- Valeri Nichushkin needs to score enough to prove the Avalanche right. He was an excellent, cheap addition to the Avalanche last season. After finally scoring and breaking a seasons-long goalless drought, he suddenly became a big threat on offense to coincide with his elite defense. That offense dried up in the bubble, so he’ll have to reignite that flame to be the player the Avalanche believe him to be.
- Joonas Donskoi also has to live up to his contract. The Avs brought him in to be a second liner, and after starting strong, he tapered off and found himself with a 3rd line role at the end of the year. If that’s where he’s placed again, he stills needs to be a threat other teams have to watch.
- Ryan Graves needs to be ready to play tough minutes. With Toews being paired with Graves’ regular partner, Makar, Graves will have to learn to thrive in a different role alongside the likes of Girard, Johnson, Timmins or Cole. Graves had some difficulties in the bubble, so it will be interesting how he does with more expected of him.
- Philipp Grubauer has to play the number of games he should as the “the starter”. Grubauer has played well for the Avalanche, but has battled injuries that has limited his availability to the team. In his third and final year of his contract, Grubauer has to prove he can relied on in the crease.
- Pavel Francouz has to prove last season was not a fluke. He played poorly against the Stars in the bubble, but an injury was hampering his abilities. After serving as a capable backup and even threatening Grubauer’s job last year, Francouz has to stay strong in 2020-21.
- Matt Calvert needs to stay healthy in the playoffs. He is a fan favorite and the Avalanche are noticeably better when he’s active. He’s gone down with injuries during the playoffs each of the last two years, and both times, Colorado lost momentum and bowed out. Calvert on the ice is a difference maker.
- Pierre Edouard Bellemare needs to continue to play smart hockey, being in the right places to impact the game. He help stabilize the 4th line last year, and he’s fully capable of bringing that stability again.
- Tyson Jost has to find his role with the team. The scoresheet has been elusive to him in his young career. However, he does a lot of other things well on the ice. On a team with lots of scoring, Jost can still be a difference-maker on the penalty kill, in transition or in the defensive zone. He just needs to find where he flourishes.
- J.T. Compher has to play with intensity. When he’s locked in, he is capable of making a big impact in a game. While he somewhat struggled as the 3C, when he’s focused and attacking he becomes far more noticable.
- Ian Cole and Erik Johnson have to provide stability on the back end. Both are starting to age and may no longer be at their peaks, but each still provides tangible and intangible value to the Avs. Johnson, in particular, needs to stay healthy in what is a critical year for him.
- Conor Timmins has to prove he belongs in the NHL. He has been unlucky in that his good play has been marred by ill-timed concussions. His health is most paramount, far above his play on the ice. Hopefully he can finally be a full-time player and help the Avalanche.
The Taxi Squad
- In a season that will be filled with unknowns and unexpected circumstances, Dennis Gilbert, Martin Kaut, Shane Bowers, Hunter Miska, Logan O’Connor, Kiefer Sherwood and (before too long) Bowen Byram will have to be ready to make an impact on any given night. Their contributions will be critical to the team, particularly in the middle of the season when injuries are prevalent and rest for some players is needed. There’s no better way to prove your worth than stepping up in a time of need. The 2020-21 season will provide many of those times.
The Colorado Avalanche are capable of winning the Stanley Cup this season. But to reach that peak, and meet the expectations they and many others have given them, it’ll take the full roster’s commitment to reach the goals they’re capable of.
For the first time in a long time, the pressure’s on. We’ll find out who’s ready to meet it head-on.