The coroner is in. Let us run the autopsy on the regular season champion.
The skinny: What. Just. Happened? It was the only words that Avalanche fans could likely muster as their team’s Stanley Cup hopes fell by the wayside against Vegas. They were a team that everybody (myself included) thought had a legitimate chance at the Stanley Cup this season. The regular season and first round only fueled the fire, seeing the Avalanche win the President’s Trophy for the most points in the regular season and sweep the St. Louis Blues. The fantasy matchup against the Golden Knights was supposed to be their magnum opus; a battle against a worthy opponent that would cement them as heavy Cup favorites.
It started that way at the beginning. The Avalanche dominated the Golden Knights 7-1 in Game 1 before stealing Game 2 in overtime. They were looking to cruise past Vegas and lock up another quick playoff win. Not only did that not happen, but the Avalanche did nothing to counteract Vegas adjusting to their gameplan. Four straight losses later, and the Avalanche saw another promising season come to a premature end. So how did things turn out like this? Let’s look at the details…
The MacKinnon line: Nowhere could you see the momentum shift in this series than examining Colorado’s top line’s production. They were stellar in the outlier Game 1, combining for five goals and eight points in the blowout. In the remaining five games, they would score three more goals and nine points between them. Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog would be shut out for the rest of the series and, while Mikko Rantanen did score the game-winner in Game 2, he had multiple opportunities to put games out of reach. Past those three players, the only other skater to score more than once against the Golden Knights was Brandon Saad with four goals. It’s one thing for your top line to struggle in scoring, but when all but two players are struggling to get any offensive production, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Defensive miscues: This one feels strange, as the Avalanche had one of the best defensive corps throughout the season. Norris Trophy finalist Cale Makar was the star attraction, but they got positive production from the likes of Devon Toews, Samuel Girard, and Ryan Graves. It had to be a disconcerting sight, however, for the defense to struggle as mightily as they did in this series. Makar and Toews weren’t bad, but they didn’t play like their usual selves (half of Makar’s total production in this series came in Game 1). The rest of the defense struggled, however, with Girard and Graves suffering most of all. The two didn’t record a single point in the final four games of the series, also recording a combined -14 (Girard, in particular, would record a -9). Both were directly responsible for the Avalanche going down in four straight, most noticeably when Graves was stripped of the puck and allowed Mark Stone to score on a breakaway in overtime in Game 5. Graves is now at risk of being exposed and selected by Seattle in the Expansion Draft, but Girard will have to improve and make up for this difficult series.
Nazem Kadri: Is it safe to just consider Kadri a dirty player and call it a day? It would be one thing if his high hit on Justin Faulk in the first round was an isolated incident, but he doesn’t get suspended eight games if that was the case. This is the third time in the last four years where Kadri has gotten himself suspended in the playoffs, with his team losing during his absence (Toronto traded him at a discount for a reason). Sure, Kadri hasn’t been the same player the last couple of years, but do you really not think that he would be an asset for a series like this? The Knights are very much a physical team, with players like Ryan Reaves, William Carrier, Keegan Kolesar, and Brayden McNabb being unafraid to throw their weight around. In a series like this, Kadri’s own brand of physicality would have forced the Knights to stay honest and potentially open things up for the Avalanche. Instead, Kadri indirectly cost his team a playoff series, and there have to be serious questions about his reliability at this point.
The crystal ball: It isn’t quite panic time for the Avalanche yet. They do have Landeskog and Philipp Grubauer about to hit unrestricted free agency, and Makar preparing for his first major extension, but Colorado has the cap space to make things work without having to shed serious salary. Even MacKinnon has gone on record to say that he’s willing to take a discount if it means helping the Avalanche build a contender, which should provide Colorado fans some relief. Still, Joe Sakic has stayed the course for a long time, and it may be only a matter of time until he’s forced to make a big move to push this team over the top. If Grubauer does walk in free agency to a team that overpays him, it may start with finding a new franchise netminder.
The real question, however, is what does this recent disappointment do for Jared Bednar’s job security? This is the third straight season that Bednar and the Avalanche have fallen in the second round and, this time, there’s no excuse for coming up short. The Avalanche are a team that have their Cup window open, so they need to find a way to produce results. Should they come up short next season in another year where the Avalanche are legitimate contenders, Colorado may have to look at shaking things up behind the bench and replace Bednar with a coach that would mesh with their current stars.