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Rivalry Week Part Two: It’s time to worry about the Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche are on pace to be the next NHL powerhouse if the Blues can’t stop them.

NHL: JAN 02 Blues at Avalanche Photo by Russell Lansford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The St. Louis Blues are one of the best teams in the NHL. There’s simply no debating that. After six failed postseasons over the last decade, the Blues finally found their footing and won the Stanley Cup last year. With a nearly unchanged roster, they were on pace to repeat this season. They were the clear favorites in the Western Conference, even if many fans outside of St. Louis had differing opinions. The Blues ranked first in the Conference and had full confidence headed into the postseason, prior to the league’s stoppage.

But in the shadows, quickly catching up to St. Louis, were the Colorado Avalanche. They were on an insane 14-4-2 tear in the 20 games they played in before the hault, even despite key injuries holding them back. If there was going to be any team to rival St. Louis for the Western Conference title, it would’ve been Colorado.

The Avalanche are scary. Their dominance at the “end” of the season blatantly showed this. They’re not to be taken lightly. But Colorado’s potency this year isn’t what makes them truly terrifying. It’s their future. Simply put, the Avalanche are going to be the NHL’s next powerhouse.

The Colorado/St. Louis rivalry is about to get a lot more exciting.

Colorado is Getting Scary

The Current

Every fan around the league knows what makes Colorado so scary right now. The team is loaded. Nathan MacKinnon has emerged into one of the best players in the league - easily a top 10 candidate - after a few years of keeping fans guessing. Mikko Rantanen has become MacKinnon’s right-hand-man in that rise to glory, flexing an incredible dominance himself. Rounding out the team’s top-line is Gabriel Landeskog’s continued potency, effectively giving Colorado one of the scariest top lines in the league.

But nearly every competitive team has a spooky top line. Even the Edmonton Oilers, who have no Cup hopes, can boast an incredible top line featuring Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Luckily for Colorado, they have plenty of terrific talent in their depths. Thanks to a crafty 2019 summer, they can boast Alexander Burakovsky, who exploded for 20 goals and 45 points this year. They also have Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, Tyson Jost, and Valeri Nichushkin; the former two providing terrific offense while the latter-most has a serious case for a Selke title. To boot, every other Avs forward seems to be playing far above their expectations. Even Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scored a career-high 22 points in this shortened season, the first time he’s ever had more than 20 in a year.

And then there’s their defense. Somehow, on top of two star forwards in MacKinnon and Rantanen, the Avalanche have also landed two of the best young defensemen in the league: Cale Makar and Samuel Girard. Both are seriously incredible talents, with the former all-but-guaranteed to win the Calder Memorial Trophy this year. And, again, unsuspecting players like Ian Cole, Erik Johnson, and Nakita Zadorov are somehow still incredibly potent on the lineup, giving the team a reliability that simply can’t be beat.

Combined with reliable, albeit not jaw-dropping, goaltending, Colorado has one of the most well-rounded lineups in the league.

The Future

But clearly that lineup has yet to cause the Blues many issues. St. Louis managed to win two of the three games the two teams played against each other this season (although the one loss was a 7-3 crap-fest). While the Blues can definitely thank the injury bug for disrupting Colorado nearly all year, there’s still a testament to St. Louis’ victory in the series.

It’s not the present lineup that’s scary, though. It’s what Colorado is set to become. The future is filled with breakout performances in Colorado. MacKinnon, Burakovsky, and Nichushkin are only 24-years-old. Rantanen is 23. Makar, Girard, and Jost are all 21. At very young ages, the Avalanche still managed to strong-arm the league. The lineup is only going to get that much better as they gain two-to-three years of more experience and, surely, more wins.

The team’s prospects worsen things significantly. Leading the charge is Bowen Byram, one of the highest-anticipated defensive prospects that the NHL has seen in a few years. He’s an incredible talent that many think should’ve had his rookie NHL season this year. Instead, the 2019 fourth-overall pick returned to the WHL and continued his reign of terror.

Byram can easily match Makar’s pace and production with a few years under his belt. He’s also left-handed, while Makar is a righty, meaning the Avalanche have locked down one of the future-best defensive pairings in the league already; with the equally-terrific Girard providing a punch of his own on pairing two. Likely alongside Girard is Conor Timmins, who was a very highly-regarded prospect until he missed the entirety of the 2018-19 season with injury. Still, Timmins bounced back with a strong 27 points in 40 AHL games this year, leaving hopes high for him in Colorado.

So a Colorado defense that’s a bit plagued with aging talent - and weirdly, former Blues - is going to be replaced with a young, high-hope core very soon. This comes alongside the team’s already set-in-stone offense, and a few exciting offensive and goaltending prospects, giving the Avalanche a strong list of soon-to-come reserves.

The Team’s Dark Secret

But still, the strong prospects aren’t as scary as the ace that’s up Colorado’s sleeve. Somehow, some way, the team’s general manager, Joe Sakic, has built all of this incredible talent while still having $5.4 million in cap space this season. Assuming a flat cap, the Avalanche have a tremendous $22 million in cap space this off-season. They do need to re-sign quite a few players, including Burakovsky, Vladislav Namestinkov, Nichushkin, Jost, and Ryan Graves.

But if Colorado can manipulate some deals - like Sakic does so well. For example, MacKinnon’s cap hit is only $6.3 million - or part ways with a few players, they could easily have anywhere from $5 million to $10 million in cap space. That’s a lot of money for a team that’s considered by many to be Cup contenders.

And knowing the cold-hearted Sakic, he’s not going to let this money sit around if he knows he can use it. The sky is the limit for Colorado. Some beat writers have started wondering if the team can acquire the maybe-on-the-block Sam Reinhart, while others are pointing at free agency and players like Robin Lehner, Mikael Granlund, Mike Hoffman, Alex Galchenyuk, and even... Pietrangelo. Even if the latter would never happen... right?

Jokes aside, the Avalanche are poised to have serious money this off-season, with a tremendous free agent class to pick from. With some cunning deals, Sakic could very, very easily add an elite topic to his already jaw-dropping team.

How Do the Blues Shape Up?

If an elite scorer like Hoffman, a great passer like Granlund, or an all-around terrific Sam Reinhart can get added to the Avalanche lineup, it may be lights out for the Western Conference. Especially in two-to-three years, when the team can embrace their true form.

It’s not exciting to hear about for any Blues fans, surely. But it’s the scary reality that the team faces. After years of being in the Western Conference shadows, second to dynasties like the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, there’s a very strong chance the Blues are again forced into second place behind a long-term powerhouse.

St. Louis’ Prospects

But the Blues aren’t left in the dust. While Colorado has only a handful of high-end youngsters, the Blues can boast one of the strongest prospect pools in the league. Robert Thomas’ emergence into the league headlines this group. The now 21-year-old Thomas has already shattered the expectations set for him and is going to be a scary-good player in a very short time. Jordan Kyrou, Klim Kostin, and Nikita Alexandrov are all also five-star prospects that are sure to make waves in little time at all.

As is the most-recent Hobey Baker Award winner, defenseman Scotty Perunovich, who has set a very high bar for himself after his terrific 2019-20 season. Jake Walman and Mitch Reinke are two other blue-liners with bright futures: Walman boasting great two-way ability and Reinke a scary offensive threat. Tyler Tucker, a former sixth-round pick, has similarly burst onto the scene, with many expecting him to make a charge for the NHL shortly.

There are plenty of other terrific talents lurking in the Blues system. Nolan Stevens, Keean Washkurak, Hugh McGing, and Alexei Toropchenko will all rival an NHL role; and at least one will become a league-mainstay.

But the best part of the Blues system is their goalie prospects. There is really no way to stretch it out: Joel Hofer and Colten Ellis are two of the best goalie prospects in the world right now, the former especially. Both are expected to be deserving of an NHL role in just a few years, giving incredible backup to the already great Jordan Binnington.

In the End

This great prospect system backs a lineup featuring Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly, Jaden Schwartz, Pietrangelo, Binnington, and Vince Dunn (hopefully). It’s a seriously star-studded roster already, one that’s proven good enough to win a Cup with little doubt. Each player rivals a top-five role at their respective position, without a doubt. In a few years, with the added ability of an experienced Thomas, Zach Sanford, Kyrou, and plenty of prospects, the Blues will surely be able to hold their own among the league’s ever-improving elite.

While placing a bunch of faith in prospects is an easy way to break your heart, the Blues youngsters make it hard to not get excited. If they can pan out as expected, they’ll keep the Blues competitive for a long time to come. Unfortunately, the team will be cap-strapped in this time, meaning they likely won’t match any large-scale acquisitions that Colorado make.

And, admittedly, expecting the Blues to remain on top in light of Colorado’s incredible future is a bit of wishful thinking. But St. Louis’ future is bright in its own right. The rivalry between the two teams has existed for a bit but it’s about to reach a flame even stronger than the feud with Chicago or Nashville. Get ready for plenty of Blues/Avs playoff matchups and a lot of hurt feelings.