NHL.com is examining where each team stands in preparation for the 2021-22 regular season, which starts Oct. 12. Today, five questions facing the Colorado Avalanche:
1. Will Darcy Kuemper be the answer in goal?
When Philipp Grubauer opted to leave the Avalanche and sign a six-year contract with the Seattle Kraken on July 28, the Avalanche acquired Kuemper in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes that same day.
Kuemper was 10-11-3 with a 2.56 goals-against average, a .907 save percentage and two shutouts in 27 games last season. The 31-year-old had an .892 save percentage in nine games after missing 19 with an MCL strain sustained March 10 but had a .916 save percentage in eight games to help Canada win the 2021 IIHF World Championship.
The Avalanche had hoped to re-sign Grubauer, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the NHL last season. When that didn’t happen Kuemper became the best option. Colorado has Stanley Cup aspirations, and it will be up to Kuemper to prove that he can be the answer.
2. Can they push past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Colorado has been eliminated in the second round of the playoffs three straight seasons but is a favorite to win the Stanley Cup, which it has not done since 2001.
The Avalanche have the talent and especially the offensive ability to go far, which puts a target on their backs and could invite questions about the coaching staff and front office if they’re not able to take a step forward this season.
“There’s always next year. It’s all we talk about, I feel like,” center Nathan MacKinnon said after their six-game loss to the Vegas Golden Knights last season. “This year I thought we were the best team in the League. For whatever reason, couldn’t get it together. I’m sure in training camp next year we’ll figure it out, dissect things and come back better.”
3. How will the Avalanche replace the contributions of forwards Brandon Saad and Joonas Donskoi?
Saad signed a five-year contract with the St. Louis Blues on July 29 and Donskoi was selected by the Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft.
That leaves some holes for the Avalanche to fill. Saad scored 24 points (15 goals, nine assists) in 44 regular-season games and seven goals in 10 playoff games last season, and Donskoi scored 31 points (17 goals, 14 assists) in 51 regular-season games and five points (three goals, two assists) in 10 playoff games.
Among the options to replace them are veterans J.T. Compher and Valeri Nichushkin, and rookies Alex Newhook and Sampo Ranta.
4. Can Cale Makar win the Norris Trophy?
The better question might be whether the 22-year-old can continue the upward trajectory that has made him one of the best defensemen in the NHL entering his third season. Makar scored 44 points (eight goals, 36 assists) in 44 games last season after he scored 50 points (12 goals, 38 assists) in 57 games and was voted the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year in 2019-20.
Makar finished second last season in voting for the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the NHL, behind Adam Fox of the New York Rangers. With another season of experience, it’s possible that Makar could be even better this season.
5. Can Ryan Murray regain his form?
The Avalanche signed Murray to a one-year contract Aug. 2 after the 27-year-old had 14 assists and averaged 18:37 of ice time in 48 games with the New Jersey Devils last season.
Colorado is hoping Murray can regain the form he showed earlier in his NHL career, including three 20-points seasons during his seven seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who selected him with the No. 2 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.
Though Murray did not have his best season in 2020-21, the Avalanche hope he can play on their second or third defense pair and help contribute with his vision and passing.