Frei: J.T. Compher steps in on the top line
Quick: How long has J.T. Compher been with the Colorado Avalanche?
The answer depends on definition of terms, but he has been on the organization’s NHL roster since he was recalled from the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage late in the Avalanche’s calamitous 2016-17 season.
So this shapes up as his fifth full season with Colorado.
Perhaps I’m making too much of this, but it doesn’t seem as if he’s been around that long.
He mostly has been in a largely supplementary, lower-profile role at center.
Yet after the Avalanche’s roller coaster ride of a 5-4 overtime loss to Columbus Wednesday, Compher was Colorado’s leading goal-scorer for the season, with five.
His goal at 16:34 of the third period got the Avalanche to within 4-3. Bo Byram’s second of the night at 19:08 made it 4-4, but the Blue Jackets claimed the 5-4 win on Jake Bean’s score at 1:12 of overtime. Backup goalie Jonas Johansson was shaky, stopping 32-of-37 shots.
And all of this after the Avalanche blew a 2-0 lead, giving up four consecutive goals.
At least on paper, Compher sporadically is answering the Avalanche’s need for secondary scoring from him and others after significant offseason depth attrition at forward — and, now, an injury siege. With wingers Mikko Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky and Valeri Nichushkin among those out, Compher has been kicked up a notch (or two) to wing on the top line at even strength with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog.
MacKinnon had an assist and Landeskog had two assists in the ultimately ugly loss to the Blue Jackets.
If Rantanen remains out, the Avalanche will need Compher — or someone — to help the line to be characteristically productive.
“He played with us last game, too,” said Landeskog. “We’ve played with Comph before and like I said last game, I think he stepped in and fills that role pretty good. I don’t think 5-on-5 our line was as good as we should have been or could have been, but there’s a chance to bounce back on Saturday (against the Blue Jackets at Columbus.)”
I asked Compher about the role after practice Tuesday.
“First off, it’s an exciting opportunity,” Compher said. “I’ve done this a couple of times over my few years here. I know they play with so much pace and competitiveness. I just have to go and continue to play my game, not try to be Mikko or Burky. Just go be myself. Be as tenacious on the forecheck and get those guys the puck as much as possible.”
After the morning skate Wednesday, I asked Avs coach Jared Bednar if Compher would have to subjugate his center instincts if he continues on the line? Of course, centers-by-trade playing wing is common, so it’s not a revolutionary concept. But stepping in to play with the speedy MacKinnon presents a unique transitional challenge.
“He’s just such a good player in the middle of the ice, really responsible defender, in my opinion skates a little better and distributes the puck a little better out of the middle of the ice,” Bednar said. “He’s intelligent that way. So I like him there.
“Unfortunately right now, with some of the guys, those top six wingers out of the lineup, we need a guy to go to the wing. It’s still a role, I think, to be excited about. He gets to go on a line with Landy and Mac, so whenever you get to do that as a guy that normally doesn’t play with those guys, it’s exciting. But he had to keep the same staples to his game. He’s got to be tenacious on pucks, he’s got to be hungry and physical in the battles and come out with the puck more often than not, win a lot of races. When he does that, and he’s skating, he’s tenacious and he has the ability to help other people create and create himself.”
After the game, I asked Bednar if Compher had shown enough on the line so far to be a viable option there as long as Rantanen is out.
“Yeah, I thought he did some good things,” Bednar said. “All of our guys did some good things, but we just didn’t carry it through the entire length of the game.”
He went on in that vein from there, and that’s coach-speak for making a general point he wanted to make about his team.
Raised in the Chicago suburbs of Deerfield and Northbrook, Compher was Buffalo’s second-round pick in 2013. His rights came to Colorado, along with Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko, as part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade in 2015. He signed a three-year entry level deal with the Avalanche in 2016 after his junior season with the Michigan Wolverines.
“I had a great three years at Michigan,” Compher told me at the Avalanche development camp after he signed. “It was the best time of my life. I have my best friends on that team and we did pretty well, but I think I was ready to challenge myself at the pro level.”
He had 13 goals in 41 games for the AHL San Antonio Rampage in 2016-17 before he was recalled late in the season.
And he’s still here.
UPDATE: Rantanen went through the full practice Thursday, in blue and skating with MacKinnon and Landeskog. Jared Bednar said that minus an unexpected setback, Rantaen (and Burakovsky) will return to the lineup Saturday at Columbus. But even if he’s dropped off the top line, he’ll be counted on to continue providing secondary scoring.
Terry Frei (email@example.com) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season.” Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His web site is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here