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Frei: Avalanche trying to answer nagging questions heading into playoffs

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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.

Win games.

Here are their responses.

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.

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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 (terry@terryfrei.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

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Nick Chapman

Nice piece Terry.

Joshua Canfield

Great write-up Terry. Quick note, 4th to last paragraph you mentioned MacDermid didn’t “play forward with the Wings”. You meant Kings, right?

Aaron Hinton

Nice write-up, Terry…49 cannot be a part of the solution for this team during this year’s playoffs. My belief is that this roster as is, would not beat Calgary in a 7-game series.

Aaron Rud

I 100% agree, Aaron.

Matt Briggle

Right now it is all about versatility and chemistry. They want to find out which players really click together and which ones maybe not so much. Also the versatility to be able to switch things up and be confident it will work either mid game or mid series in the playoffs. Injuries and situations change things quickly and the more versatility you have the better you can react to them on the fly. Also with the assumption that they are adding another forward (let’s just say Giroux to keep it simple) it will be more of a challenge to find… Read more »

ricoflashback

First of all, Bednar is an average coach who is blessed with a talented team. All these experiments and especially breaking up the big MLM line is mistake, IMHO. At some point, the tinkering will have to end and Bednar and the Avs will have to concentrate on execution and fundamental hockey. Something this team has never done is play defense consistently. Forget all the line changes. Work on the PK. Work on protecting leads. I’m afraid this Avs team doesn’t like to play nitty, gritty defense. They’d rather go up and down the ice. Entertaining, yes. Winning playoff hockey?… Read more »

Aaron Hinton

Flashback, you always have good takes. And completely agree with you on “The Fugitive” and the other milquetoast regular season 3/4 liners. Gallagher, Domi, Lemieux, Rousell, etc. any player in that mold would make a huge difference on the forward end.

Bob Neal

Very thorough article Terry. Rico nails it as the Av’s need to play solid fundamental defensive hockey first. I think that Terry’s correct that they are putting priority on bringing in a skilled forward. Someone needs to remind Joe that while explosive offenses put people in the seats, teams with solid defenses win the Stanley Cup. They are going to have to “hide” Sammy somewhat during the playoffs if they don’t move him.

ricoflashback

That’s the problem. You can’t hide Sammy in the playoffs. I’ve seen how other teams play him. They have lust in their hearts and go after him like a bully on the playground. 1. Line him up. 2. Hammer the BeJesus out of him. 3. Find the loose puck. Sammy can’t move anyone off their spot and gets tossed aside like a rag doll in front of the net. I mean, it’s almost comical. It’s like college players against a pee-wee hockey team. It’s like a huge wart on the middle of your nose. All the make-up in the world… Read more »

Charlie Anderson

Rantanen has looked terrible lately. Getting ragdolled out there. I would have no problem with Sakic trading anyone in the bottom six (other than Capn Hook obviously) or Girard. Stanley Cup lets do this 😀

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