It’s been an impressive past few months for the Colorado Avalanche, who went from an NHL laughingstock to a playoff contender over the span of one short offseason. Preserving many of the players from that team and collecting a few key additions via free agency and the NHL draft, the Avs lost a single game in October and exited the month of November an impressive 19-6-0.
The team has come back to earth a bit since then, but one thing is for certain: There’s a lot more to celebrate in Denver this season than there was six months ago. These players (and one demonstrative coach) have been the key difference-makers in that process.
On a team where only three full-time players have positive Corsi ratings, it follows logically that strong goaltending is the biggest reason why a team that gets outshot so badly is winning so many games.
That makes Varlamov, despite his brief legal troubles, the team’s de facto MVP. Off-ice distractions notwithstanding, he’s 17-8-4 with a .926 save percentage and 2.38 GAA.
Colorado’s only point-a-game player right now, Duchene has 36 points after appearing in 36 of the team’s 39 games. After only scoring 28 points in 58 games in 2011-12, he upped his game by posting 43 points in last year’s lockout-shortened season and is making the $30 million contract extension he signed this offseason look like a savvy move.
Johnson was a surprising Olympic snub, having played for the United States team in numerous international competitions. Well-rounded if not a game-breaker, he leads Avalanche defensemen in points with 17 and is a plus-10.
Hejda, meanwhile, leads Colorado defensemen with a plus-13 rating despite posting minus ratings in each of his first two years with the club.
Opening the season with seven straight wins, including two shutouts against perennial playoff contenders Boston and Pittsburgh, must have come out of the blue for Giguere, whose best work came half a decade and two teams ago.
But despite losing his past three decisions, Giguere’s work backing up Semyon Varlamov has been nothing short of remarkable.
With only 12 points in 36 games, McGinn has not been worthy of top-six forward status this year; depth center John Mitchell is outscoring him, and Alex Tanguay has only three fewer points despite missing over 20 games.
Sure, he’s a plus-six, compared to a minus-13 last year, but that’s because nearly everybody on the Colorado roster is a plus player. I’m sure McGinn would trade that improvement for a scoring rate closer to the 22 points he put up in 47 games last year.
As if there was any doubt that the first overall draft pick of 2013 would be the team’s best new acquisition, MacKinnon has slotted into the Avalanche lineup as a reliable top-six forward. He has 24 points in 39 games, tying him for fifth on the team with the injured P.A. Parenteau. Expect him to have more opportunities to shine with Parenteau gone.
Honorable mentions include Andre Benoit, one of the team’s better scoring defensemen, and penalty-killer/Stanley Cup winner Maxime Talbot.
Colorado’s head coach and vice president of hockey operations is doing everything he can to return the team to its Stanley Cup-winning form of the 1990s and 2000s, and so far it seems to be working. Players are willing to listen to the goaltending legend, and the sometimes uncontrollable fire that still burns within him has to be inspiring; who wouldn’t want to play for a coach that nearly tore down the divider between him and his opponents in anger during his first NHL game on the bench?
Roy, Joe Sakic and Adam Foote, three prominent players from those Cup-winning years, are leading the team back to the top—it’s just that this time, they’re wearing suits and directing a younger generation of stars.
Chris Leone has written for Bleacher Report since 2008 in multiple capacities. Follow him on Twitter @christopherlion.