The Colorado Avalanche have their best chance at a Cup in 2021

The National Hockey League is set to embark on the 2020-21 regular season on Jan. 13th with the ongoing global pandemic limiting the regular season to 56 games and temporarily realigning all four divisions due to the closed border between the United States and Canada.

There are no guarantees that a regular Western Conference team will meet a regular Eastern Conference team in the 2021 Stanley Cup Final due to the adjusted playoff format as a reflection of the intra-divisional play required throughout the regular season.

While the defending Stanley Cup champion, Tampa Bay Lightning, are bringing back most of their roster that won it all in 2020, there’s another team with perhaps as good of a roster— if not better— that could beseech the throne as the league’s best team.

It’s the Colorado Avalanche.

Good news, everyone!

Though they were defeated by the eventual Stanley Cup runners up, Dallas Stars, in six games in the 2020 Second Round, the Avalanche are seeking to avenge their shortcomings and win their first Cup ring since 2001 (which would be their third overall).

Nathan MacKinnon finished the pandemic shortened 2019-20 regular season with 35-58—93 totals in 69 games and was a finalist for the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP in the regular season.

Though Edmonton Oilers forward, Leon Draisaitl, took home the hardware with 110 points last season, Draisaitl plays on a team with Connor McDavid— the best Canadian player in the league.

MacKinnon, on the other hand, finished 43 points ahead of the next highest scorer on Colorado’s roster.

Defending Calder Memorial Trophy winner as rookie of the year last season, Cale Makar, notched 50 points in 57 games while battling an injury. The next highest scoring forward on the Avs last season was Andre Burakovsky with 45 points in 58 games.

Avalanche captain, Gabriel Landeskog, had 44 points in 54 games and, if you’re sensing a trend here, it’s that Colorado has not been able to get through a full 82-game season without avoiding injuries.

But they’ve managed to be a dominant force in the regular season in the face of such adversity.

The good news for the Avalanche? This season is only 56 games.

If they can get through that unscathed, then the theory is that they’ll be fresher and hitting their stride at exactly the right time as the playoffs begin in May.

The bad news? Well, keep reading…

In addition to Makar, the Avs blue line has the likes of fellow young defenders, Samuel Girard and Ryan Graves mixed with veteran experience in Erik Johnson and Ian Cole.

Former New York Islanders defender turned newcomer for the Avs via a trade, Devon Toews, joins Connor Timmins and 2019 4th overall pick, Bowen Byram, as part of the quality core on Colorado’s backend that’ll be fighting for playing minutes while shutting down the opposition.

That’s not even mentioning the addition of Brandon Saad in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks to help bolster the top-six forwards with Nazem Kadri entering his second year with the organization and Mikko Rantanen solidifying what might be considered two first lines between Burakovsky-MacKinnon-Rantanen and Landeskog-Kadri-Saad.

In short, the Avalanche are in their best position to succeed since Patrick Roy retired in 2003.

Who’s going to stop them… no really, who’s in net?

Roy’s retirement, however, brings up the only shortcoming for Colorado.

Consistent goaltending has been an issue for the Avalanche, despite Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz’s best efforts.

Grubauer posted an 18-12-4 record in 36 games played (36 starts) last season and had a 2.63 goals against average, as well as a .916 save percentage and two shutouts in that span.

That’s nearly identical to his 18-9-5 record in 37 games (33 starts) with Colorado in 2018-19, when Grubauer had a 2.64 GAA, a .917 SV% and three shutouts, but worse than his numbers as a 1A option and backup while with the Washington Capitals.

He’s been an average starting goaltender at best and an above average backup at worst.

The true definition of “fringe starter”.

Francouz, on the other hand, just completed his first full regular season of NHL action with the Avs and had a 21-7-4 record in 34 games (31 starts)— recording a 2.41 GAA, a .923 SV% and one shutout in that span.

Colorado’s tried to make this tandem of goaltenders work, but there’s a glaring issue that rolls around come playoff time of who to start and for how long— in addition to the injury bug that has plagued the Avalanche in the crease since the later years of Semyon Varlamov’s presence in net to the current goaltending regime of Grubauer and Francouz.

Grubauer posted a 5-0-1 record in seven postseason games in 2020, while notching an impressive 1.87 GAA, as well as a .922 SV% and one shutout in that span. He had the hot hands in the crease going until he reaggravated an injury from earlier in the year when he had to be removed from the 2020 Stadium Series loss against the Los Angeles Kings last February.

Francouz had balanced time with Grubauer until it became apparent that the playoff starter would miss the rest of the time in the Edmonton bubble last summer, but then even Francouz suffered an injury and the Avalanche were forced to rely on Michael Hutchinson.

It’s worth noting, however, that in Francouz’s first taste of Stanley Cup Playoffs action, he went 2-4-0 in six games and had a 3.23 GAA, as well as an .892 SV% and one shutout.

So Grubauer, by default, is the “it” starting goaltender in Colorado.

It’s a fragile situation, though.

The team can produce with or without a couple of forwards or defenders in their lineup because of the strength of the overall roster. They can’t produce if they’re down a goaltender.

Adam Werner and Justus Annunen are still at least two or three years away from competing for a large role in the NHL, which means that the pressure to win now is all the more increasing before the inevitable salary cap crunch due to looming extensions for Landeskog, Makar and others topples the Avalanche down the mountain.

— Nick Lanciani (@lanci53)

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