Frei column: No MacKinnon? Especially thanks to Kadri, no problem … so far
Chemistry is difficult to predict or even define.
But what the Avalanche have found out during Nathan MacKinnon’s six-game latest absence from the lineup with a lower-body injury is that leaving center Nazem Kadri on the second line — rather than sliding him up to center Gabe Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen — was a savvy strategy.
Kadri has been terrific centering Valeri Nichushkin and Andre Burakovsky of late, and continued that in the Avalanche’s 5-2 win over the Ducks Wednesday night at Ball Arena.
He had a goal and assist against Anaheim, extending his league-high point streak to 10 games and his multi-point streak to five games.
In those five, Kadri had four goals and 10 assists.
He’s on a tear when it was sorely needed.
And in the wake of a stumbling start, the Avalanche have won six in a row to get to 10-5-1.
Kadri has gone from playing well to filling the void by becoming the Avs’ best player. Yes, even more so than the similarly torrid Cale Makar — his goal Wednesday night was his sixth in four games — on the blue line.
Whether the more recent additions to the retooled roster know it or not, the Avs in a way are repaying MacKinnon for the several times he carried this team through significant injury sieges in the past. He did it to such an extent, in fact, he should have won the Hart Trophy at least once, perhaps when the Devils’ Taylor Hall was the choice in 2018.
MacKinnon also missed the first two games of this season after a postive COVID-19 test. The Avalanche split those, so they’re 7-1 minus MacKinnon this season.
Jared Bednar, who passed Bob Hartley to became the Avalanche’s all-time winningest coach with his 194th Colorado victory Wednesday night, first plugged J.T. Compher at center on the top line to fill in for MacKinnon.
Then when Compher suffered an upper-body injury on November 13 against the Sharks, Bednar moved Logan O’Connor onto the top line and slid Rantanen to center.
That left Kadri on the second line, where he’s now playing with Nichushkin and Burakovsky.
“I think Naz, Burky and Val have some really good chemistry,” Landeskog said. “They play really well together. As soon as Val came back on that line, they’ve been lights out and playing really well for us.
“Naz is producing at a crazy level right now and feeling really good. He looks great out there. Mikko’s filled in really good at the center position and obviously he’s been playing well all season and he’s earned that right to play on the top line. And he’s playing really well for us.”
Going into the season, Kadri was talking about wanting to put behind him the eight-game NHL suspension that ultimately and prematurely ended his season in the first round against the Blues last spring.
He has been successful at that … and more.
Also against the Ducks. Avs goalie Darcy Kuemper for the second straight game had a skate blade problem and had to leave to get it taken care of. This time, though, Bednar chose to stick with Jonas Johansson rather than reinsert Kuemper, and Johansson had 19 saves and allowed only a late Sonny Milano goal.
“At that point, I said, ‘OK, JJ’s gone in,'” Bednar said. “And he’s ready. He’s mentally in the game. He made some big stops, and I just felt that’s his game now. Let’s find a solution to the skate problem. The holder is what’s giving him trouble. It’s breaking. The trigger’s not holding the blade in. It’s just falling out. So the solution is he’s going to change holders to a different brand.”
As he closed in on Hartley’s Avalanche record for wins for a head coach, Bednar was asked several times (OK, mostly by me) about what moving up to No. 1 might mean. He was nonchalant previously and he was nonchalant again Wednesday night after getting to No. 194.
But the fact is, a little more than five years ago, he was hoping his NHL chance would come — and it required Patrick Roy’s bizarre offseason resignation to make it happen.
“It’s an honor to be coaching this team,” Bednar said. “I’ve said that before. I’m grateful, I’m thankful to be here, especially after the first year. For me, it’s satisfying, but it’s not the reason I came here, to move up a list. I enjoy coaching the team and when our team plays well and we get rewarded for our hard work and we’re all chipping in and trying to accomplish the ultimate goal, and that’s to win the Stanley Cup … There’s a lot of work that goes into it every year. I’m proud of my staff. We’ve got a good staff, hard-working, and great leadership and a great group of guys in the room. I’m just one piece of that.
“I’m certainly happy to be doing it and grateful to be doing it here with the Avalanche. Love the city, love the people of the city and the people that I work with. It’s fun for me to come to work every day and there’s no better job in the world.”
Bednar and the man he passed Wednesday night, Hartley, actually have a lot in common. Most notably, neither played nor coached in the NHL before they became the Avalanche’s head coach. Both had coached AHL teams to the Calder Cup — Hartley with the Hershey Bears and Bednar with the Lake Erie Monsters.
My profile of Hartley. (After his unexpected late 2002 firing here, he also coached the Thrashers and Flames. He won the Jack Adams Award while with the Flames in 2015. He’s now coaching Avangard Omsk in Russia and the Kontinental Hockey League.)
Avalanche coaching wins:
194 — Jared Bednar
193 — Bob Hartley
135 — Marc Crawford
131 — Joel Quenneville
130 — Patrick Roy
130 — Joe Sacco
NOTE: The NHL allows franchises with multiple stops to decide how to handle franchise records. The Avalanche, for example, consider Michel Bergeron, with 265 wins at Quebec, to be the Quebec-Colorado franchie’s leader. They also specify Avalanche-only categories. The New Jersey Devils, though, don’t consider the Kansas City Scouts or Colorado Rockies part of their history for records purposes.
Kadri point streak
Oct. 28 at St. Louis 1 goal
Oct. 30 vs. Minn 1 goal
Nov. 3 vs. Columbus 3 assists
Nov. 6 at Columbus 1 assist
Nov. 11 vs. Vancouver 1 assist
Nov. 13 vs. San Jose 1G, 2A
Nov. 17 at Vancouver 1G, 2A
Nov. 19 at Seattle 2 assists
Nov 22 vs. Ottawa 1G, 3A
Nov 24 vs. Anaheim 1G, 1A
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