2022 NHL playoff preview: Avalanche vs. Blues

2022 NHL playoff preview: Avalanche vs. Blues

For two straight years, the first round has been a formality for the Colorado Avalanche, laying waste to inferior opponents. Last year, it was the maddeningly inconsistent St. Louis Blues, who had a struggling goalie. This year, it was the thin Nashville Predators, who didn’t even have their starting goalie. In both cases, the result was the same: a four-game sweep.

Now comes the real challenge: getting past the second round. This year, the task comes against a familiar opponent – the very same Blues that Colorado so easily dispatched a year ago.

By “very same,” we mean in name and jersey only. These Blues are different. They’re stronger, faster and more potent offensively, thanks to incredible forward depth. They’re not the same team that received only a 12 percent chance of beating Colorado last spring.

The only problem? These Avalanche are also different. They’re even more capable than a year ago, with stronger stars, a deeper supporting cast and an elite goalie. So, while the Blues may be better than last year’s version, their odds unfortunately haven’t changed much.

Of course, if you’re a Blues fan you’re likely reveling in that fact. All year, The Model has underestimated St. Louis at every turn and been dead wrong. It would likely be less comforting to see the Blues favored with the amount of distrust there is right now. While most Blues fans will undoubtedly agree that they come into this series as deserved underdogs, there’s likely a bit of shock to see the odds come in this low. Or maybe it’s just par for the course.

The Model is wrong about the Blues. That was hinted at in the last series write-up, and a series win only furthers that notion. As it turns out, the Blues did have the edge over the Wild, hinted at by their head-to-head matchups over the past few years. But that’s not the case here, where the Avalanche won the season series this year and swept the Blues last season.

Instead, the argument this time likely comes by way of stylistic preference. When the Avalanche were ousted from the playoffs in the past, it was via teams that played a heavier game they struggled to counter. They encounter the same issue against the very heavy Blues, who know what it takes to go the extra mile come playoff time. That’ll likely be St. Louis’ biggest advantage, and if you ascribe to that belief, the Blues are eight percentage points more likely to win.

But even with that, the Avalanche are just far more likely to win – to the point that The Model would have to be extremely wrong about the Blues to consider this series close. The reason the Avalanche are so favored has a lot more to do with them than it does the Blues. The Avs are the best team in the league and would be heavily favored against almost anyone, not just St. Louis.

Offensively, Colorado’s strengths came from shot volume and finishing – and that was without a full lineup for much of the year, with some of its best all missing stretches. In the playoffs, Colorado took that to the next level, improving its shot creation, scoring chance generation and goal-scoring without even spiking its shooting percentage. It’s no surprise a healthy Avalanche lineup with a few deadline acquisitions was so dominant in Round 1. But that also came against a weak team in Nashville, so take it with a grain of salt.

St. Louis outpaced expectations throughout the regular season, scoring at a top-five rate. The drawback of public data is that there are only so many ways to proxy for pre-shot movement without passing stats. According to Sportlogiq, the Blues were one of the best teams at moving the puck to the quality areas at five-on-five. That boosts their expected goal rate to top-10 caliber but still keeps them behind Colorado.

While the Blues took a couple more shots than usual in Round 1, their scoring chance generation slipped, as did their actual goal scoring. That’s something they’ll have to increase if they’re going to stack up against a team with as much offensive firepower as Colorado.

On the back end, the Blues took a step back in their opening series in shot and scoring chance limitation. To their credit, it came against Minnesota, which wasn’t a pushover, even when it couldn’t get all its best offensive threats clicking. Goaltending comes into play here, and St. Louis had support in net, going into this series with two capable options.

Colorado, after being a top team in suppressing quality shots and stopping them, raised the bar in the playoffs again when matching up against the offensively flawed Predators. The test for the Avalanche will be how they maintain that against a deeper opponent that can score in all situations.

Both teams had a bonafide edge in special teams in Round 1, but now things are a bit tighter. Colorado was slightly better below the surface on the power play in the regular season, but the Blues had the results to show for it. And St. Louis only upped its production in the postseason.

The key thing to remember with the Avalanche is time lost throughout the season from top unit mainstays. Now that they’re all back together, the results speak for themselves. Of course, those results all came against the Predators and their shaky goaltending. Given how loaded their now-healthy lineup is, there’s still an edge in this department for Colorado, but the penalty kill it faces is stronger.

The Blues did see an uptick in quality chances and goals against their penalty kill in the playoffs from the regular season, but either way rate better than Colorado did over 82-games. Plus, they can push their opponent by generating short-handed shots. The Avalanche did make a few deadline additions to help their short-handed play and were elite in Round 1 below the surface, but again, that came against Nashville.

The Cale Makar Show was in peak form during Round 1, and that’s one of the biggest differences between the two clubs – albeit one among many.

Makar is a transcendent force from the back end. He spent the year cementing himself as not just the league’s very best defenseman, but one of its best players. That was on full display during the opening round, where he scored three goals and 10 points in just four games to go with a 66 percent expected goals rate. He was flat-out dominant, commanding the ice whenever he stepped foot on it. For the series, he averaged a Game Score of 3.56 – the highest of any player in the playoffs.

There’s a reason his projected value is 4.9 wins, the highest of any defender in the league, but that may even be underselling his worth based on his playoffs to date. Makar doesn’t shy away from the moment and now has 41 playoff points in 39 career playoff games. His ability to elevate his play when it matters is special.

As always, it helps to have Devon Toews next to him – an elite defender in his own right. Having them together shows there’s no such thing as too much skill or puck-moving ability on one pair. The fact that both are so strong at moving the puck up the ice is a big reason the pair is so successful. Combine them with one of Colorado’s top two lines and it’s a nearly unstoppable five-man attack.

By Game Score, Toews was actually Colorado’s second most impactful player of the opening round, behind Makar, with a 2.79 average for the series. It makes sense the duo would rank highly given its extreme on-ice results at five-on-five, but Toews also added his own production with three goals and five points in four games. He’s the stronger of the two defensively, but he’s exceptional offensively too. Even if Makar vanished off the face of the Earth somehow, the Avalanche would still have an elite defenseman at their disposal. Toews’ projected 3.5 wins make him the sixth-highest valued defenseman in the league.

Championship-caliber teams have a lot of different elements to them, but an elite No. 1 defenseman is one of the main pillars of that. Colorado has two such players that fill that void to a high degree. St. Louis doesn’t have one, and it’s not particularly close, either.

The Blues’ top two defenders are Colton Parayko and Justin Faulk. Seeing as both are right-handed, St. Louis doesn’t match its best two backs together on a pair. By keeping them apart, it helps spread some balance between pairings. That said, with injuries piling up on defense throughout Round 1, neither had a particularly consistent partner and both were leaned on heavily.

The Avalanche ran with three defense pairs that played about 61, 50 and 41 minutes of five-on-five ice time, respectively, through four games. The Blues, on the other hand, were forced into mixing combinations due to injuries and deploying seven defenders. The most ice time a pair spent together – and keep in mind, this is over a six-game series, not four – was about 32 minutes.

While he can contribute his heavy shot to his team’s offense, Parayko’s strength is defense. Against the Wild, he was often facing top competition and tried to do his best to take away the middle of the ice from them. The righty blocked shots and closed passing lanes to limit opportunities.

The same problem that hurt the Blues’ No. 1 defender in the regular season hurts him in the playoffs: Parayko’s pairing is imbalanced because of the caliber of defensemen on roster.

The question is who he’ll play alongside in Round 2. Marco Scandella may return at some point, but does it help or hurt Parayko to have him at his side? He could continue skating alongside Nick Leddy, who moved to his left when he returned from injury. That gives Parayko a puck-mover who can distribute to his teammates but who needs the defensive support Parayko can provide. In their very limited sample of time together, the results are rough – a sub-29 percent expected goals rate. They’ve spent too little time together to draw any definitive answers, but it’s not encouraging ahead of a potential match against Colorado’s best.

Faulk is actually the Blues’ most valuable defenseman, projected to be worth 1.6 wins. That’s ahead of Paryako (0.9) and ranks third overall among the position in this series. At five-on-five, Faulk is the only Blues defender to break even in expected goals in Round 1. St. Louis generated more shots and quality chances with him on the ice, and, relative to his teammates, his defensive influence was positive. It helps that he can skate the puck out of his own zone to transition back to offense.

With the walking dead blue line in St. Louis, it’s unclear if Faulk’s usual partner, Torey Krug, will be back for this series – he’s a maybe to return. Basically, everything below Faulk and Parayko is somewhat in flux. Krug’s return would bring back a power-play quarterback and puck-mover, which may help the Blues better keep pace with Colorado’s offense.

Below them, there’s Robert Bortuzzo, who helped limit odd-man rushes and protect the blue line in Round 1. If paired with Niko Mikkola, that’s a very defensive pair with little offensive upside. Calle Rosen made an impact on the scoresheet and chipped in offensively with some iffy play on defense as an injury replacement. Scott Perunovich returned after missing four months and was effective in his minutes as the seventh defender and the quarterback of the top power-play unit.

There’s a possibility St. Louis keeps up with a rotation of 11 forwards and seven defensemen in this series. Maybe the Blues can string together a performance that’s better than the sum of their parts, which at the moment is not great, but the task ahead of them is much greater with the Avalanche’s forward depth in mind.

Colorado has an enormous edge on defense thanks to the top pair, but it goes beyond that thanks to the next four. Unlike the Blues, there are no weak links on paper (although any injury would immediately introduce one with the insertion of Jack Johnson or Kurtis MacDermid).

Both pairs are pretty close in value to the other, but the third pair brought more to the table in the opening round. With Bowen Byram and Erik Johnson on the ice, the Avalanche outscored Nashville, 5-1, and, like the top pair, earned over 60 percent of the goals. Johnson added three assists on top of that, looking like a real impact player. He’s a fine second pairing-caliber defender, but if he can continue elevating his play to that level, that would be a big boost to Colorado’s depth.

It’s a necessary boost if Samuel Girard’s playoff issues continue to persist. After a breakthrough campaign in 2021, his play was a real detriment in the playoffs. Girard didn’t look like the dynamically confident puck-mover he was that year, and his game’s deterioration only continued in 2022. His projected value was cut in half as he struggled to drive play to nearly the same degree he did a year prior (though time on his off-side with Johnson likely didn’t help). There was hope for a bounceback with the addition of Josh Manson on his right side, but the first four games of the playoffs weren’t super encouraging towards redemption.

To Girard’s credit, it’s been just four games, and in those games, the Avalanche still outchanced the Predators on the whole, but a 53 percent expected goals share really pales in comparison to the rest of the team. That presents a vulnerability the Blues might be able to target. One theory about Girard’s struggles is that his lack of size and edge prevents him from thriving in the playoffs. That’s a potential recipe for disaster against the tough and heavy Blues, who may be able to expose the second pair – especially considering how deep their forwards are. It may even force Colorado to break up its vaunted top pair to balance the wealth through the defense corps. Balance is good, but the Avalanche would likely prefer to keep their best weapon from the back end intact. If they want to preserve that, Girard will need to rise to the occasion. The talent is there for him to do so.

Even if the Blues find a way to get by Colorado’s strong defense, there’s the matter of getting by Darcy Kuemper afterward that makes things difficult. One of the big differences between this year’s Avalanche and last year’s version is between the pipes: Philipp Grubauer was good, but Kuemper is elite.

He showed flashes of that in the past with the Coyotes, but injuries deterred him from truly establishing himself as genuinely elite. There was a reason he was so highly sought after on the trade market, but there was still some risk involved. One season with the Avalanche, and that risk is all but forgotten: Kuemper has arrived as someone more than capable of being The Guy.

Kuemper started the season slowly but surged in the second half – and his projected value followed. Only five other goalies have a higher value than he does, and only two of them, Igor Shesterkin and Andrei Vasilevskiy, remain in the playoffs. Colorado is a heavy favorite in this series and every other that may follow because it has one of the best remaining goalies and the best skaters. Colorado didn’t need Kuemper’s .934 save percentage to beat the Predators – they managed with Pavel Francouz in Game 4, after all – but it sure helped make it a fast and easy series. That’s the advantage he brings to the table.

It’s a pretty big edge compared to the guy on the other side, though it’s worth noting the model doesn’t consider past playoff experience – something Jordan Binnington seemed to tap into in his return to the crease midway through the first round.

Binnington projects to be a 0.6 win downgrade from Ville Husso, who had the stronger regular season. But he took over the starter’s net in the second half of Round 1. Husso started the postseason strong, saving 3.1 goals above expected in a Game 1 shutout. But his play slipped and led to the goalie change. Binnington, on the other hand, has saved more goals than expected in each game he’s played, overall earning a .944 save percentage and a GSAx of 3.7. The Blues needed that, considering their injury woes on defense.

How will that match up to Colorado’s offense, especially if that defense leaves its goalies more exposed given the injuries? That’s the question of this series.

Binnington was in this position last postseason against the Avalanche, who swept them. This time, there’s a greater chance he loses his starter’s net if things don’t go well. Just as they did in Round 1, the Blues can turn to their other goaltender as long as there’s enough trust in Husso.

The biggest story of the series likely won’t come from the goaltending battle or the disparity on defense, but rather from the competing forward groups. On each side, there’s a ton of firepower. It’s a question of which side will prevail: Colorado’s stars or St. Louis’ depth.

The Avalanche are projected to earn much more value from their forward group as a whole, but that comes entirely from their five star-level players. Finding a way to slow the main guys down is how the Blues win this series – it’s just easier said than done.

Colorado’s top six is absolutely loaded. That starts with Nathan MacKinnon, sometimes referred to as Playoff MacKinnon around this time of year. His postseason resume is already illustrious, with 75 points in 54 games, one of the highest playoff point-per-game rates in history, and he’s no doubt looking to add to it here. He started these playoffs with five goals in four games against Nashville while being his usual dominant self at five-on-five.

The Blues don’t have anyone on that level, but it’s not just MacKinnon they have to deal with. He’s a package deal with Mikko Rantanen. Though the winger didn’t score in the opening round, he did have five assists while aiding in Colorado’s territorial dominance. That’s a terrific duo that will be extremely difficult to stop. Both are valued at 4.9 wins, giving Colorado three such players at that level. No other team can say the same thing.

That’s the superstar effect.

While St. Louis managed fine despite Kirill Kaprizov doing superstar stuff in Round 1, it becomes a bit more challenging when there are three players all rated better than Kaprizov.

On the left of the dynamic duo is Valeri Nichushkin, who broke out in a big way in 2021-22. He upped his production while maintaining his dominant play-driving ability in a bigger role. Now, he’s thriving as the worker bee on the top line. He had a 70 percent expected goals rate in the first round.

The emergence of Nichushkin has allowed Colorado to spread the wealth a bit from its usual top line, sliding Gabriel Landeskog down to play with Nazem Kadri. That has the makings of a pretty dominant shutdown line, one with elite offensive capabilities as well. Both Kadri and Landeskog scored at a 95-point pace or higher this season. Add deadline addition Artturi Lehkonen to the mix, and the second line becomes a territorial force with plenty of offensive upside. That also allows Andre Burakovsky to slide down to provide a scoring boost lower on the third line.

Good luck against either of the top two lines because they’re two of the best in hockey as currently constructed. Colorado winning depends on its stars being stars, and its big guns usually do. Their consistency is part of the reason they’re all valued as much as they are.

Collectively, the quintet is worth 20 wins — more than the entire Blues forward corps. That’s essentially saying that those five plus seven replacement-level forwards would be enough to beat the Blues head-to-head. This series will help put that to the test, a case study in star power versus depth. Colorado’s bottom six isn’t just replacement-level talent by any means, but it may not be enough to counter the Blues. That leaves the door open for lineup mismatches and makes Colorado very dependent on its big guns. The Avalanche’s stars are capable, but if they go cold, there isn’t much help behind them.

St. Louis’ depth allows for three balanced lines, with 20-goal scorers in every position.

At the top, there’s Brayden Schenn, Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron, who add up to 6.3 projected wins. That’s obviously below what the Avalanche boast, but it’s a trio that shouldn’t be underestimated.

O’Reilly’s two-way play can be a difference-maker. Whoever he’s matched up with during this series may determine how effective that line can be on both ends – if it’s Colorado’s first line, O’Reilly and his linemates may not be able to focus on anything besides defense. In Round 1, that still worked for his line, as it kept its opponents to just 1.39 expected goals against per 60 – the problem was what it generated didn’t quite exceed that. But if O’Reilly and company can stifle that top line from being the offensive threat it can be, then maybe there will be mismatches elsewhere in the top nine that give St. Louis that edge.

The most notable scoring threat on that line may be Perron, who seems to elevate his play when the pressure rises in the playoffs. St. Louis sorely missed him in their postseason meeting last year, and he showed exactly why against Minnesota. Through six games, he tallied nine points between his even-strength play and top power-play deployment.

Below them is the combination that adds the highest value of 8.0 wins. That’s shy of Colorado’s second line but much closer than the disparity between firsts.

The Wild closed passing lanes in Round 1, which limited a huge strength of the Blues’ game – especially for Robert Thomas and Pavel Buchnevich. Even without the Blues’ usual puck movement, especially lateral passes to challenge opposing goaltenders, they did their best to adapt. Buchnevich, for one, worked to generate more from below the goal line, and Vladimir Tarasenko still was a shooting threat. But it wasn’t at the level that this team will need in Round 2. Jared Spurgeon and Jacob Middleton suppressed the Blues trio from generating much from a volume and quality standpoint. If St. Louis can boost its passing rate closer to its regular season levels, its offense can become a whole lot more dangerous.

The Blues should have the third-line advantage with Brandon Saad, Ivan Barbashev and Jordan Kyrou. Relative to their teammates in Round 1, no one had a better influence on their team’s offensive creation than Saad and Kyrou in St. Louis, which shows the time and space they can get when there’s more focus on the threats higher in the lineup. But that means this line has to step up, especially if the matchups work in their favor. Kyrou is going to have to be conscious defensively against the stacked Avalanche, which was a criticism of his game late in the season. And he’s going to have to keep pushing it offensively, as will Saad.

The “fourth line” may only consist of Alexei Torpchenko and Tyler Bozak if the Blues continue to deploy 11 forward and seven defenders, which may leave Logan Brown on the outside looking in. If that’s the path the Blues take, it means there’s more ice time to go around for their top nine forwards. But even with more playing opportunities for their best, it’s still going to be a challenge to thrive against Colorado.

The Bottom Line

There should be no doubt whatsoever over which team is better. Colorado has been the class of the league for two seasons now and has very few holes throughout its roster. The Avalanche have the league’s best collection of star talent, a fleet of elite players that can dictate the pace of play and command a series. They are the Stanley Cup favorites for a reason, and this looks like their year.

But the Blues are no walk in the park, despite what the model may suggest about their relative ability. St. Louis has a bevy of talent throughout its lineup featuring game-breaking skill and the type of tenacity that thrives in the playoffs. The Blues have holes that can be exposed by an uber-talented team, but if everything goes right, it’s not that hard to see a path to victory. It may take a lot of luck, but that’s been on their side for most of the year.

This is Colorado’s series to lose, but as the Avalanche have learned for three straight years in the second round, that will have to be earned, not given. The Blues will make sure it won’t be easy.

— Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, Hockey Stat Cards, Sportlogiq and NHL.

(Photo: Michael Martin / NHLI via Getty Images)


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