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Panthers vs. Avalanche: Three Questions With Mile High Hockey

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Mile High Hockey is SB Nation's hub for the Colorado Avalanche, and one of our favorite "sister" sites. Site chief Ryan Murphy was kind enough to answer some questions in the buildup to tomorrow night's matchup.

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Kevin Kraczkowski (Litter Box Cats): Between the Panthers and the Avalanche, we will be watching the last three Calder Memorial Trophy winners. Colorado's rookie Mikko Rantanen (zero points in six games) and Florida's Connor Brickley (three points in seven games) have proven relatively understated, all things considered. Is there someone else buried on Colorado's depth chart that may sneak up on the world this season?

Ryan Murphy (Mile High Hockey): Rantanen would have been a great answer to this question, but the Avalanche decided this week to send him to their AHL affiliate for an undetermined amount of time. He's not a complete player yet, but the raw talent there is undeniable -- really strong on the forecheck and great vision. Like most 18-year olds, he needs to develop his defense and discover his identity as a scorer, but most observers, even in this small early-season sample, are optimistic. Hopefully that isn't the last we'll see of Rantanen this season. As far as players who will be on the ice? Look for big Nikita Zadorov, one of the major pieces involved in the Ryan O'Reilly trade to Buffalo. The 20-year old defenseman has a great combination of size and skill and his development will be a major component to Colorado's future success.

LBC: Speaking of past Calder Memorial Trophy winners, Nathan MacKinnon is the lone Colorado player to be averaging a point per game thus far (compared to 0.69 PPG coming into this season). Is this the next step in his evolution or is this level of productivity due for some regression going forward?

MHH: This past year's draft class is getting a lot of press, but MacKinnon is one of the more talented players to enter the league in recent years. This season, Coach Roy is finally giving him a crack at playing his natural center position after manning right wing his first two years. And while he's had some challenges defensively in the early going (along with the rest of the team), we're finally getting a glimpse at the kind of player he can be. 2014-15 was a classic sophomore slump, in which he shot a comically low 6.33% and suffered a broken foot blocking a slap shot. I don't expect that to happen again. MacKinnon is a point-per-game kind of player and I suspect he keeps up the early pace.

LBC: Is Semyon Varlamov really as bad as his early-season stats (1-3-1, .869 SV%, 3.93 GAA) would indicate? The obvious follow up to that: Is Reto Berra the long term answer between the pipes for the Avalanche - and who's the number three guy? (I know I cheated and put three questions here on this last one..sorry)

MHH: The Avalanche have had a rough early going on defense and Varlamov has bared the brunt of it. With seven new players and all-new lines and pairings, we're seeing the team acclimate to each other on the fly, and some of it has been pretty ugly. Even a top-tier goalie over the past couple of years like Varly is going to have difficulty keeping pucks out of the net playing behind missed assignments and complete systemic breakdowns. Reto Berra had a nice start in a win against Anaheim, but he has a long way to go before erasing memories of last year, when he was bypassed by the coaching staff for AHL prospect Calvin Pickard when Varlamov dealt with injuries. I suspect Varlamov gets back on track and these statistics start to normalize to career averages. And if he's not right, I trust coaches Patrick Roy and Francois Allaire to return him to form.

Thanks again to Ryan for his thoughtful answers. Check out my responses to his questions at Mile High Hockey, and keep refreshing LBC throughout tomorrow for more pre-game excitement and free bacon.