After the Avalanche’s 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals Monday night at Ball Arena, the players at the media room table and microphones potentially represented the long-term future of the Colorado defensive corps.
Cale Makar and Bo Byram were the franchise’s No. 1 draft choices in 2017 and 2019, respectively.
Makar’s assist against Washington — in front of a stunning number of red-clad Capitals fans for their first game in Denver in two years — enabled him to set a Quebec/Colorado franchise record for points by a defenseman in a season.
He now has 83, one more than Steve Duchesne’s total in 1992-93 for the Nordiques.
This is beginning to sound familiar. Which is among the reasons why, at age 23, he is the Norris Trophy favorite.
Last month against the Flyers, Makar’s 24th goal pulled him past the Wandering Latvian, Sandis Ozolinsh, to set the franchise record for goals in a season.
Ozolinsh had 23 goals in 1996-97, the season after, despite what you might have seen or heard about, he did not trip Jeremy Roenick in the Western Conference semifinals. He was a crucial cog in the Avalanche’s 1996 Stanley Cup championship.
The major single-season franchise record for a defenseman that remains for Makar is Duchene’s 62 assists in 1992-93. Makar has 57 with six games remaining.
“It’s not something I think about too much,” Makar said about the points record…and the point of records, period. “This one, obviously I’m honored to get to that. Hopefully, the guy sitting beside me here has the ability to challenge it when he gets in a full season here.”
An aside: Give the Avalanche credit for including the Quebec Nordiques as part of the franchise’s heritage and records. In contrast, the Devils act as if the Colorado Rockies didn’t exist, and the franchise opened shop at the 1982 news conference in the then-new and still-unnamed Meadowlands arena that confirmed the sale and move to New Jersey.
Part of the point of having Makar and Byram available after the loss that snapped Colorado’s winning streak at nine games Monday night was that their responsibilities and even expectations were heightened with veteran D men Devon Toews and Erik Johnson not in the lineup. The banged-up Toews, Makar’s most frequent partner, is being given a four-game respite this week to gear up for the playoffs.
While Johnson is coping with minor injury issues, the truth is that after the acquisition of Josh Manson, plus Samuel Girard’s and Byrom’s returns, there will be tough lineup decisions to make on the backline. They most likely will involve Johnson (Erik) & Johnson (Jack), plus possibly the now-injured Ryan Murray.
“If you look at our team all year, I don’t know if we’ve had a game with everybody in the lineup,” said Makar. “We’ve had a lot of guys step up and play great hockey with key guys out throughout the year, so it’s no different with Tayzer. Obviously, he’s a big piece of our team, part of the heartbeat, but as a D corps, we’ve just got to take a lot of those minutes together, chip away at it. There’s not one guy that’s going to come in and replace him. He’s one of the best to do it, so we have to bear down. Everybody’s got to chip in and help out.”
This is all tied to Byram’s health, of course. I’m among those who at one point thought he should sit out the rest of this season. But he’s back, playing well and is being given more responsibility in Toews’ absence. It’s almost as if the Avalanche is assessing the future and deciding how important — if at all — it is to have steady veteran caretakers among the young D in the lineup. Manson, for example, is meshing with the undersized, but mobile Girard.
After the game, I asked Byram how he is feeling, if he’s tired of us asking how he’s feeling, and if we should stop asking how he’s feeling.
“I’m good,” he said.
For comparison purposes, the Avalanche’s second Cup champion, in 2001, on defense by the playoffs had Adam Foote, Ray Bourque, Rob Blake, Martin Skoula, Greg de Vries and Jon Klemm.
Blake was acquired in February. Part of the price was versatile defenseman Aaron Miller, who at the time had played 56 games for Colorado that season.
Skoula was the youngest of the group, at 21. He played in the NHL until 2010 before finishing up in Europe. But he was nowhere as talented as are Makar and Byram.
Veteran organizational depth defenseman Bryan Muir also played three playoff games in 2001.
Plus, Nolan Pratt, then 26, was with the Avalanche all season and played 46 regular-season games. He was listed as injured for the first two playoff games (when Muir played and Bourque also was injured), then was a scratch the rest of the way. But Pratt was there, if needed.
Nolan Pratt now is the Avalanche assistant coach in charge of the D.
He knows what it will be like for either of the Johnsons and/or Murray to watch.
But he also knows what it’s like to have his name on the Stanley Cup.
I’ll close with this jarring factoid: The Avalanche beat the Devils in Game 7 and Joe Sakic made his famous touch pass to Bourque on June 9, 2001.
Bo Byram was born four days later.
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