With Avalanche practice gearing up ahead of the Stanley Cup Final, fans have started packing the seats at Family Sports Center, bringing signs in hopes of grabbing their favorite players’ attention. At Friday’s skate, a group of summer campers walked by a window overlooking the ice and gasped when they caught a glimpse of practice.
“Is that the real Avalanche?” one youngster said.
“This is such a big deal,” chimed in another.
Added a third: “I’m going to faint.”
As always, defenseman Cale Makar was one of the most popular players in attendance. He’s the leader of the defensive corps and, in teammate Devon Toews’ mind, the best blueliner in the world. He’ll lead off this set of player evaluations, which looks at how every defenseman and goaltender and goaltender has done this postseason, sorted by total points. If you missed the reviews on forwards, you can see them here.
14 games, 5 goals, 17 assists (22 points)
The good: To start, Wayne Gretzky called him the best player on the ice in a third-round series that featured Connor McDavid. That praise came with good reason: Makar led the series in points (9), played as good of defense as Colorado could have hoped against Edmonton’s top players, and made key plays when the Avalanche needed them most. He ended the round with a five-point game in Game 4, helping Colorado cap off a sweep.
Makar also had a monster first-round series against Nashville, notching even more points (10) than he did against Edmonton. After Game 4 against the Predators, Nathan MacKinnon said his defenseman might be the best player in the league. Oh, and he kills penalties, too. Only Devon Toews has logged more penalty-kill minutes this postseason for the Avalanche.
The bad: Makar looked a little off early in the St. Louis series. He was still generating chances and had moments of impressive skating, but coach Jared Bednar mentioned that he’s someone who he believes sometimes needs time to get his feel back after a long layoff, which Colorado had going into the Blues series.
What to watch in the Cup Final: Colorado will have a long layoff once again. The Cup Final won’t start until June 15 or June 18. Will the time off shake the Avalanche star? And, should the Avalanche win, will his play earn him the Conn Smythe Trophy?
—Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) June 7, 2022
14 games, 5 goals, 8 assists (13 points)
The good: Similar to Makar, Toews has been brilliant this postseason. He has a strong shot that he’s put to use, scoring multiple big goals, and is one of the team’s most consistent defenders. And, as mentioned in the Makar section, he’s led the team in penalty-kill minutes this postseason. No matter what happens in the rest of his Colorado tenure, he’ll always be worth the two second-round picks general manager Joe Sakic gave up to acquire him.
The bad: Toews is one of Colorado’s most steady players, but he has made multiple uncharacteristic turnovers so far these playoffs, including one that led to a goal against the Oilers. That hasn’t stopped him from being incredibly productive, but those are the types of plays that can be costly in big games.
What to watch in the Cup Final: He missed a few games late in the season and has taken multiple maintenance days during the playoffs.
14 games, 0 goals, 7 assists (7 points)
The good: When the Avalanche lost Samuel Girard to injury, they needed someone to step up. Byram proved more than ready for the task. He has six points in seven games since Girard went down, and he’s tied for third among NHL players this postseason with a plus-12 rating. Considering what the rookie went through with his concussion problems during the regular season, these playoffs seem like a best-case scenario for him.
The bad: He hasn’t scored a playoff goal yet, but it feels like it’s coming.
“Bo has had so many great chances,” Makar said. “It’s only bound to go in at some point.”
What to watch in the Cup Final: Byram has shown an ability to rise to big occasions. After a pedestrian training camp this fall, he scored in the season opener and looked like a Calder Trophy front-runner before suffering a concussion in November. And after Girard went down these playoffs, he emerged as a force for Colorado. He’s a big-game player, and there are no bigger games than the ones coming up for Colorado.
14 games, 2 goals, 4 assists (6 points)
The good: Manson had one of the biggest goals of the postseason for Colorado. Though the Avalanche dominated the Blues shot-wise through three periods in Game 1, they found themselves in an overtime game. And in the Stanley Cup Final, overtime games sometimes bring out unexpected heroes. That night it was Manson, who weaved a shot through traffic and past goaltender Jordan Binnington. He also blocked a Jordan Kyrou shot in front of an empty net in Game 6 of the Blues series, saving a goal and keeping Colorado within a tally of St. Louis.
Josh Manson for the win in overtime pic.twitter.com/255oUgYVn1
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) May 18, 2022
Sakic gave Anaheim a second-round pick and Drew Helleson to acquire Manson at the deadline, and he’s been steady since arriving in Denver. The Avalanche accounted for more than 50 percent of the five-on-five expected goal share with him on the ice the first three rounds and have created more scoring chances than they’ve allowed. He also brings a physical presence the team sometimes lacked last season.
The bad: He had a brutal Game 1 against the Oilers, making defensive miscues that led to multiple goals and finishing with a minus-four rating. But Colorado found a way to win, and Manson rebounded with a goal two nights later.
What to watch in the Cup: How does his pairing with Jack Johnson look against either Tampa or New York? They’ve had ups and downs in the postseason so far, and they’ll need to be on their game in the Cup Final.
14 games, 1 goal, 4 assists (5 points)
The good: Johnson is the longest-tenured current Denver athlete, and he now gets to play in a Stanley Cup Final. His emotion was apparent after the Game 4 win in Edmonton: He looked like he was holding back tears in his postgame press conference.
On the ice, he played some of the best hockey Bednar has seen from him since the coach arrived in Colorado ahead of the 2016-17 season. He and Byram have been a dynamic pairing, and Johnson beat Kyrou up the ice to help set up Darren Helm’s last-second winner in Game 6 against St. Louis. And after missing the playoffs and all but four games of the regular season in 2021, he’s played in every game this postseason.
DARREN HELM SENDS THE AVALANCHE TO THE WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL‼️ pic.twitter.com/tr6AQCC28Q
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 28, 2022
The bad: Like with Byram, this postseason has been close to a best-case scenario for Johnson. He whiffed on what looked like a tap-in goal against St. Louis in Game 1, but Colorado can’t have many complaints when it comes to his play.
What to watch in the Cup Final: If the Avalanche manage to win, will he be the first person to whom captain Gabriel Landeskog hands the trophy?
7 games, 1 goal, 2 assists (3 points)
The good: Girard seemed to find his game early in the St. Louis series, scoring a big goal in Game 1. For someone criticized for his lack of physical play in last season’s playoffs, he didn’t look at all out of place against the Predators or Blues.
The bad: Early in Game 3 against St. Louis, Ivan Barbashev crushed Girard against the boards, breaking his sternum. He’s out for the playoffs: a brutal turn of events for the defenseman, who was playing perhaps his best hockey of the season at the time of the injury.
What to watch in the Cup Final: He has a good singing voice. What would it take to get him to perform between periods during one of the home games?
7 games, 0 goals, 0 assists (0 points)
The good: Johnson came into the lineup after Girard’s injury. He wasn’t noticeable for most of the Oilers series, and I’m not saying that in a mean way. The Avalanche are strong enough defensively that, for the most part, all they need out of Johnson is to avoid big mistakes. The fact that he managed to do that against superstars like McDavid and Leon Draisaitl is encouraging for the Avalanche.
The bad: He struggled toward the end of the St. Louis series, turning the puck over in Game 6 to Brayden Schenn, who led a two-on-one rush with Kyrou that resulted in a goal.
What to watch in the Cup Final: Johnson scored the first goal of the Avalanche season. No matter if they win or lose the Cup, he could have a chance to score the final goal of the year, too.
6-2 record, .897 save percentage
The good: Kuemper looked steady to start the Nashville series, just like he had the second half of the season. He had a .934 save percentage in two-plus games against the Predators, but in Game 3 took a stick to the face that forced him to miss the rest of the series.
The bad: The netminder struggled when he returned from injury. He did not have a good series against the Blues, posting a sub-.900 save percentage over six games and a negative Goals Saved Above Expected mark, according to Evolving-Hockey. He ultimately left Game 1 of the Oilers series with an upper-body injury. The Avalanche declined to say if it was related to his previous injury, though The Athletic reported he was struggling with his vision.
Kuemper recovered enough to back up Pavel Francouz in Game 4, and he has been a full participant at pre-Stanley Cup practices. He said he feels 100 percent and is seeing the puck well.
What to watch in the Cup Final: He was the starter all year and had a strong season. If he’s truly healthy, will he start Game 1 of the Cup Final?
6-0 record, .906 save percentage
The good: Colorado could have been in a disastrous position after Kuemper went down in Game 1 of the Oilers series, but Francouz steadied the ship. He notched a shutout in Game 2, then made a huge save against McDavid late in Game 3 to help the Avalanche to another victory. After the team won Game 4, Kuemper skated straight to him to celebrate.
“I would describe it as relief, happiness,” Francouz said of his feelings at that moment. “We made another huge step closer to our goal.”
The bad: Francouz didn’t play particularly well against Nashville, and he had a rough Game 4 against Edmonton. But, just as he picked up the Avalanche in Games 2 and 3 against the Oilers, his teammates picked him up in Game 4, scoring four third period goals and another in overtime to win 6-5.
What to watch in the Cup Final: He was the No. 2 netminder all season but was the winning goalie in four Western Conference finals games. Will he start Game 1 of the Cup Final?
(Top photo of Cale Makar: Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today)