Frei: Avalanche trying to answer nagging questions heading into playoffs
A month ago, as the Avalanche was coming out of the All-Star Break with a 32-8-4 record, I asked Jared Bednar, Mikko Rantanen and Darcy Kuemper what they could hope to accomplish in the rest of the regular season.
Other than the obvious, of course.
Most notable was Bednar’s challenge to his team to tighten up, to kick up by a notch their checking and defending.
They’ve been 9-4-1 since and will take a 41-12-5 record into Thursday night’s game at Raleigh against the formidable Hurricanes.
It’s more another interesting, measuring-stick game than a monumental one.
Even a second consecutive Avalanche loss to close out the road trip shouldn’t be cause for overreaction or panic.
This is a team too good to grasp at excuses.
We saw that again after the loss to the Devils Tuesday night when the three-games-in-four-nights task was served up in questions with the ferocity of a slow-pitch softball delivery.
Adrian Dater pointed out his signs of concern in his column here.
To me, one of the other major issues on the table is that even after that post-All-Star-Break assessment, Bednar since has been candid and aggressive about using the stretch run — and even just the leadup to the March 21 trade deadline — as a laboratory.
There are questions to address, including lines, penalty killing, goaltending (here’s my updated view on that), defensive pairings and the deployment of enforcer Kurtis MacDermid in the postseason.
Bednar continues to often break up the long-term top line of Gabe Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Rantanen, by putting Andre Burakovsky on the left side and sliding down Landeskog to play with Nazem Kadri and Valeri Nichushkin.
It’s not blowing things up but checking out alternatives that might be available in the playoffs.
But it’s tempting to go too far.
Let the boys play — and play as they did in building what still is the league’s best record.
I know some believe I’m fixated on leaving the top line together.
They believe that because I am, dating back to my first column for Colorado Hockey Now.
I also get that you don’t have to lock into anything in this sport, that seeing what the top line looks like with Burakovsky isn’t a commitment.
The lines can be tinkered with at the drop of a helmet — broken up, reunited — depending on the whims and urge to change things up.
That also includes how the other coach is playing the matchups, especially when the Avs are on the road and don’t have last change. Also, we’ve seen that injuries can force hands, too.
But stick with the top line.
Challenge Burakovsky, Kadri and Nichushkin to steal the show, even in the playoffs.
Against Calgary last week, with the last change, Bednar had that Kadri-centered line out against the Flames’ Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, and Elias Lindholm.
“I thought they did a fabulous job against that line and still created a ton of chances,” Bednar said.
Sunday night’s Avalanche home game against Calgary again could be a preview of the Western Conference Finals, and Bednar addressed some of the matchup challenges after that 4-3 overtime loss to the Flames last Saturday. He also talked about having to separate Makar and Toews at times. So that’s part-experiment, looking ahead to similar dilemmas against good teams.
“We want to put our offensive guys out with offensive players, especially in the offensive zone situations,” Bednar said. “But they also have two really dangerous lines, minimum, right? You can’t play Devon Toews and Cale Makar with MacKinnon all night and especially if they’re not playing against Lindholm, Tkachuk, and Gaudreau. You just can’t do it. It’s nice to have one of them on the ice against those guys. Again, that’s a top line and they’re our top two Ds. Either I split them from MacKinnon the whole game or I split up the pair.
“That’s some of the things that we’re playing with here. We have some things we’re going to look at yet in the second half. Cale Makar and Devon Toews should be playing against Lindholm’s line all night if we’re just going to go by the sort of standard … But our tear has a rhythm and especially the McKinnon line with those guys and they’re really dangerous, so we try to do a little bit of both.”
The other issue there continues to be whether the crafty, undersized Samuel Girard is too much of a defensive deficiency for the playoffs. Playing Jack Johnson or Erik Johnson with him as much as possible as his big brother — so to speak — limits Bednar’s options and Girard’s potential contributions.
I’m assuming two things, and I’ll concede neither is a lock: 1, Bo Byram will not play again this season and will push back his attempted return to next season. 2, Any major trade at the deadline will bring in a versatile veteran forward.
Finally, we come down to the “physicality” issue.
The conventional wisdom is that the Avs were too soft and needed to be tougher against Vegas last year. Enter Kurtis MacDermid, who definitely has earned the trust and affection of his teammates and knows his role.
Do you dress him all the time to play limited minutes in the playoffs? As a defenseman or forward or as a swingman whose “position” really doesn’t matter? Remember, he never played forward during his time with the Kings.
MacDermid played wing against Calgary last Saturday, logged 2:03 of ice time, and fought with fellow heavyweight Milan Lucic. His teammates believed it was an injection of energy.
Although fighting isn’t as much of an issue in the playoffs, having him around — even if it’s in a suit — can serve a purpose. “Hiding” him as a sixth D will be counterproductive, piling on the minutes for others to an extreme.
I’m assuming Bednar will adjust on how he uses MacDermid, per opponent and situation. But if you’re trying to address what happened against Vegas and the players buy into that he’s part of the solution, you’re got to dress him as the 12th forward. Whether it makes any sense or otherwise. His teammates, especially Landeskog, have shown a willingness to police and respond and it’s not as if MacDermid is going to be on the ice with the stars. But he’d be around. And that seems to matter to these guys.
Terry Frei (email@example.com, @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sportswriter 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