With a dominant top line, an impressive array of young players on the roster and prospects on the way, it's time for the Colorado Avalanche to level up. Here's everything you need to know about the Avs heading into the 2019-20 NHL season:
The big question: Are the Avs ready to level up?
In the 2017-18 season, the Avs arrived ahead of schedule and made a surprise playoff run. In 2018-19, they showed they could sustain it, and again exceeded expectations. The challenge this season? Living up to the hype.
The Central is a grinder of a division, so the Avalanche don't have an easy task. Cale Makar looked like a natural in the playoffs, jumping in days after his college season ended and scoring in his first game. Colorado is excited to welcome the rookie defenseman for his first full season as a pro. Also new this season: Philipp Grubauer finally assumes the No. 1 role in net.
Offseason comings and goings, cap situation
General manager Joe Sakic made quite a few tweaks to the roster. That includes adding three top-six forwards. Nazem Kadri, acquired via trade with the Maple Leafs, slides in at second-line center behind Nathan MacKinnon. Joonas Donskoi, who signed as an unrestricted free agent, and Andre Burakovsky, acquired via trade with the Capitals, both add secondary scoring potential on the wings. For depth, Sakic signed penalty-kill specialist/fourth-liner Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in free agency and traded for bottom-pairing defenseman Kevin Connauton.
The big loss is Tyson Barrie, the team's top defenseman. Sakic dealt Barrie as part of the Kadri trade; the team was worried about having to pay Barrie as an unrestricted free agent next summer. Alexander Kerfoot also left in the Toronto trade. Semyon Varlamov signed with the Islanders, which allows Grubauer to become the unquestioned starter. The Avs have around $5.07 million in cap space after signing restricted free agent Mikko Rantanen.
The Avalanche will have the league's best power play. The Avalanche are one of the most fun teams in the league to watch in 3-on-3 overtime -- always tune in to a Colorado game if it's in OT -- but they will be just as entertaining on 5-on-4 this season. Thinking of a top unit featuring MacKinnon, Makar, Kadri, Gabriel Landeskog and Rantanen is tantalizing.
Breakout candidate: Samuel Girard
There's going to be a lot of attention paid to Makar this season. But don't sleep on Girard. The 21-year-old now has a new eight-year contract in hand, and should flourish now that he's solidified as a top-four defenseman.
The top line. This is one of the top three lines in hockey, if not the best. The chemistry MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen established is undeniable, as is their productivity (a combined 261 points last season). Now the Avs just need to get Rantanen to finalize a new deal.
Back half of the defense. Sakic made it his offseason priority to add depth forwards and relieve some pressure from his top line. The GM might need to address depth on his blue line soon. The unit looks weak in its back half, and -- particularly after parting with Barrie -- doesn't feature anyone who can eat a ton of minutes.
Avalanche in NHL Rank
3. Nathan MacKinnon, C
16. Mikko Rantanen, RW
There were top-10 finishes across the board, led by prospects (No. 2) and cap/contracts (No. 2), with owner/GM/coach (No. 6) and NHL roster (No. 8) not far behind.
3. Cale Makar, D
12. Bowen Byram, D
33. Alex Newhook, C
63. Martin Kaut, LW
Honorable mention. Conor Timmins, D
Fantasy facts to know
Forward Andre Burakovsky can't be blamed for feeling delighted with the fresh lease on his NHL career. The ex-Capital is pegged to compete on a line with former Toronto center Nazem Kadri and is potentially in for a career season with his new squad if he can find chemistry there.
As for Kadri, the ex-Leaf is also looking to kick-start his productive ways in his new NHL home. Formerly relegated to the third line behind Auston Matthews and John Tavares in Toronto, the gifted center will now have greater opportunity to flourish in Denver. A spot on the Avs' top power play with MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen/Burakovsky should shove the former 30-plus-goal scorer past the 65-point mark for the first time.
Running point on that top power play in place of a departed Tyson Barrie is none other than 10-game NHL veteran Cale Makar. If the 20-year-old rookie can withstand the pressure -- he's already part of the Calder conversation, along with Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko -- Makar could put up near Barrie-like numbers, in the range of 55 points. -- Victoria Matiash