After a brutal loss to the Arizona Coyotes in the final game of the 2021-22 season, the Nashville Predators sealed their upcoming opponent: the Colorado Avalanche. A powerhouse in the Western Conference and NHL in general, it’s hard to find anything truly wrong with the Avalanche’s lineup as a whole, especially in the forward core. So, how good are the forwards specifically, and what could their forward lines look like for game 1 and beyond?
Forward Lineup Preview
Valeri Nichushkin - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen
Gabriel Landeskog - Nazem Kadri - Artturi Lehkonen
Andre Burakovsky - Alex Newhook - JT Compher
Andrew Cogliano - Nico Sturm - Darren Helm
(Lines per DailyFaceoff as of May 2, 2022)
At a Glance
The first thing that meets the eye is the return of the team’s captain, Gabriel Landeskog, to the lineup. He had to undergo knee surgery earlier in the season, but he has recovered in time for the start of the postseason as expected. However, he is not with his former linemates, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. Of course, that may not last very long depending on the state of the game, but as of now, it is not the case. Instead, MacKinnon and Rantanen are with the lumbering, hard forechecking forward that is dearly beloved by all analytics users, Val Nichushkin. Since being signed by the Avalanche, he has proven to be an invaluable part of their team and system, and next to the two superstars, he has seen an incredible increase in production with 52 points in 62 games compared to 58 points in 177 games in the three seasons previous.
Speaking of an incredible increase in production, Nazem Kadri is another player that has been all-important to the Avalanche’s success in 2021-22. He had a career season with 87 points in 71 games, which obliterated his previous career-high of 61 points in 82 games. In the early stages of their contention, the Avalanche were missing a truly strong second-line center. Well, they found one. The only question is, can he stay away from getting suspended long enough to get the Avalanche through the second round?
One of the things that the Avalanche have that separates them from other teams is their depth. Alex Newhook has been very serviceable in his rookie season, and his projected linemates, Andre Burakovsky and JT Compher are all having stellar seasons as well. They have both hit career-highs in goals with 22 and 18 respectively and points with 61 and 33.
Finally, the fourth line isn’t going to be an incredibly high-scoring line, but their performance in their most recent game against the Predators (a 5-4 shootout loss) was strong. They forechecked extremely hard, and they are certainly not afraid to throw the body around. That line can also move the puck much better than most fourth lines in the NHL, and it will take everything the Predators have to contain them from grinding one out and getting on the board.
The Avalanche score...a lot. That part isn’t too hard to see. But what do the analytics say? In particular, what do Evolving-Hockey’s goals above replacement (GAR) and expected goals above replacement (xGAR) say about their forward group? Well, the same thing that the box score numbers say: they’re really good.
Colorado’s forwards sit 3rd in the NHL in GAR behind only the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers, while in xGAR, they sit 8th, while Nashville is in 10th. In fact, the Predators forwards actually sit ahead of the Avalanche forwards in xEVO (expected even-strength offense GAR). However, it may have something to do with Cale Makar, the potential Norris Trophy winner this season, not being a forward, and three of their top six players in xGAR playing 65 games or less. It also could have something to do with some of their biggest detractors in these analytics specifically not being on the team anymore or not in the playoff lineup. They are certainly not to be underrated.
The Game Plan
So, on paper they’re incredible. The numbers suggest that they’re one of the top forward groups in the NHL. What do the Predators do to stop them? It is certainly going to be a challenge, but one that they can make easier on themselves if they remain composed and not daunted by the challenge itself. The Predators controlled their own fate at the end of the day, and even though they made the playoffs, they were going to be matched up with one of the two Western Conference powerhouses no matter what.
The biggest thing that the Predators need to do to not be destroyed by this star-studded forward group is stay out of the box. I don’t know how many times it is going to be repeated, but taking stupid, and unnecessary penalties cannot keep happening. It’s fun to watch a player like Tanner Jeannot or Mark Borowiecki beat the brakes off of some poor soul, and the playoff atmosphere will be sure to make that happen at some point in this series. However, the penalties they continue to take cost them games in the regular season, and you bet it will cost them against a team like the Avalanche in the playoffs.
Finally, they need to make life as easy for David Rittich. With Juuse Saros out to an injury, their chances of winning this series decrease dramatically. To ensure that it isn’t a complete bloodbath, their defensive structure needs to be essentially perfect. Otherwise, we all know how this series could end.
The forward core for the Avalanche is always threatening, and I’m sure that head coach John Hynes has incessantly talked about that. But, it cannot be overstated.
One thing is for sure - this isn’t the same team the Predators saw in 2018, and fans of both teams will get to see some incredibly impressive hockey from many of the Avalanche forwards.