The Nashville Predators were outmatched against the Colorado Avalanche. They played most of the first-round series with their third-string goaltender, and the Avalanche’s depth advantage was palpable. Even in Game 4 of the sweep, when Nashville played well and Colorado struggled, coach Jared Bednar’s team prevailed.
But if Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Gabriel Landeskog and co. want to reach new heights this year, they’ll have to go through much tougher teams than Nashville, starting with St. Louis in the second round. The Blues beat Minnesota 5-1 in a final game 6 Thursday, their third straight win.
In anticipation of the second round matchup, four league scouts have pondered what they see in the Avalanche, the matchup, what it would take to slow down the West’s No. 1, and more.
Note: Some answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Who is the Avalanche’s most underrated player?
Pathfinder 1: Probably Devon Toews to some degree. I don’t think Landeskog is underestimated as a captain, but I think he’s the greatest driver on the team. Most people would think it’s probably MacKinnon or whatever. I think it’s the captain.
Pathfinder 2: Valery Nikhushkin. Swiss Army knife. Can contribute up and down in the lineup.
Pathfinder 3: You are all appreciated. This is such a deep team and everyone contributes and everyone benefits. I wouldn’t tell anyone. You are just that good.
Pathfinder 4: They have a lot of superstars, and then they have a very nice complementary core of players who are good hockey players who would probably get a lot more ice time on non-playoff teams or bubble teams. There are probably a few, like Nichushkin. Check out where he came from in Dallas and as a young boy. It looks like he really fits into Colorado and can play up and down the lineup.
Another guy I really like is JT Compher. He’s a guy who can fill up when needed in the top six. They have the great luxury of having players like MacKinnon and Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, but if for some reason either of those guys can’t be out there at the last minute, Compher is one of those guys that can and is capable of getting out there, if it is defending a one-goal advantage or defensive situation, or attempting to score to end the game. You can’t just rely on your star players because other teams also have star players or great defensive players and they will put together a game plan to take out your stars. You always need second place and play in general and these are two guys who can bring that with them.
What or who is the Avalanche’s biggest X-Factor?
Pathfinder 1: I just love Colorado. I love the way this team is set up. I think Calgary could give them a little bit of competition, and I think St. Louis could. There’s something about St. Louis about the way they play the cycle and they’re big and heavy – that’s going to really test some of the Colorado D’s. I think the addition of Josh Manson was great and huge. But Samuel Girard, how will he react to some of these big boys, matchups? They could challenge the Avalanche, but I don’t really see anyone beating them.
Pathfinder 2: Darcy Kumper. Brought in as the last piece and expecting it to go a long way in getting over the hump.
Pathfinder 3: MacKinnon is the lead dog. He’s the lead pony, but if he doesn’t go, they’re not a team that everyone else won’t go. They have a lot of self-starters over there. But he’s an impressive player and it seems like he’s on a little mission right now.
Pathfinder 4: For me it’s goalkeeper. I think it’s goalkeepers on both sides. Pavel Francouz is a decent No.2 but I think they need Kuemper to be healthy. Jordan Binnington proved he could win a Stanley Cup, but he hasn’t played like this since, and Ville Husso has so little work to do. It’s a lot more pressure, especially going into the second round. As for Kuemper, I don’t think he had really long runs in the playoffs. They played in Arizona and didn’t win much there. Anyone can tell they’re preparing the same way, but as Game 1 begins and you’re moving through the series — especially on a team that’s expected to not just go the long haul, but this year probably the Stanley Cup wins – the pressure adds up. This is where the mental game comes into play.
Is there a way for the Blues to slow down the Avalanche?
Pathfinder 2: You can slow down the Avs with forecheck, limit the transition chances, and try to extend the game at the end of the Avs with heavy low play. You must do it without penalties.
Pathfinder 3: Maybe deflate the tires of their plane? That’s a pretty strong hockey team. I just leave it like that.
Pathfinder 4: In today’s game, the Blues are considered a slightly stronger team, so I think physicality is the answer. But if they try to skate around a little too much physically, the speed and skating of Colorado might expose them. They still have a good chunk of players from their cup-winning team on the team. The coach, Craig Berube, is still there. You know what it takes to win. They know what it takes to go the long haul. It was only one round, but Ryan O’Reilly had a really good first round considering he’s had a very average season in terms of points. And you have some of these young people: Jordan Kyrou, who is a really good player. Even in their fourth row – Alexei Toropchenko – they bring some energy. Tyler Bozak is on that fourth row; he’s a veteran who can help these young guys. I think they are a bit more mobile with Nick Leddy in the back in D. Justin Faulk doesn’t move that bad compared to Alex Pietrangelo. Of course, if Torey Krug is out, that’s a void to fill because he’s a veteran who knows how to play in the playoffs.
What is the most interesting element of the matchup?
Pathfinder 2: The team that was there versus one trying to make that move. Talent versus pedigree. Also Kuemper against Binnington.
What do you think of the Avalanche’s trade deadline?
Scout 3 by Artturi Lehkonen: He was a good player. The Canadiens have struggled quite a bit this year, but he’s always been a positive player to me, even at their worst times there, and it seems like he’s made a good move since leaving. Maybe a bit higher up the line-up than I thought but you saw him at a low point where the Canadians were before they changed coaches so that was nice to see.
Pathfinder 4: I liked Nico Sturm in his role in Minnesota. It’s basically the same role: fourth line, penalty killer. He’s the size. When you can use people on penalties who are adequate penalty killers who can do the job of minimizing your star players’ exposure to those difficult minutes, it really benefits a team. Lehkonen, he seems to fit in there quite well. Andrew Cogliano, he’s a veteran. He’s a guy, whether he’s on the lineup or off the lineup, he works hard. He chases the puck. He’s not a big guy but he’s not afraid to go into the tough areas and he can provide some energy and be solid on penalties.
Manson, he’s an old school defender if you have him in your third pair – he kills penalties, physicality and he’s pretty easy with the puck. He complements some of the attacking guys, notably Makar and Girard. Toews is also a great two-way guy. Manson really added to the depth they already had.
Thoughts on MacKinnon?
Pathfinder 1: MacKinnon’s speed – nobody skates like him. I personally think he’s better than Connor McDavid. I just think he makes everyone around him better.
How would you describe Makar in a word or two?
Pathfinder 2: other level.
Pathfinder 3: I need two words: Absolutely incredible. I was a fan watching him. I wasn’t a working Boy Scout. What an incredible talent.
Pathfinder 4: There are several words you can use, but he’s a superstar. He has so many adjectives you can use, be it “superstar” or “dynamic”. I don’t want to name a name like Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey because Cale is going to be one of those guys, but the next guy that comes up is going to be, “He’s like Cale Makar.” He’ll be until the day he’s in retire, be special.
Is there a way to slow him down?
Pathfinder 1: He’s such an elite skater. Ryan O’Reilly will beat him, and O’Reilly is so smart, but he can’t keep up with him. Pavel Buchnevich is smart. But no. Cale doesn’t give a shit if he gets hit or not. He is very elusive. He’s hard to beat. The only guys that could do that would be MacKinnon or Landeskog, but they play with him.
(Top Photo by Cale Makar: Dustin Bradford / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)