All season long, the same question has followed the Colorado Avalanche.
“Who will they find to replace Nazem Kadri as the second line center?”
With the trade deadline just a week away, that question might be an even bigger focus for pundits around the league. But with two-thirds of the season now complete, maybe it’s time to ask a new question.
“Was the second line center solution in house all along?”
Kadri leaving was inevitable. He had earned himself a big contract, and the Avalanche didn’t have the cap room to give it to him. The team had to find his replacement.
The centers available in free agency were too expensive for the Avalanche to bring in. Alex Newhook was given the first real shot to be the second line center, but his start was shaky, and the team changed course pretty quickly. Evan Rodrigues, signed late in the summer, got a quick look, but has mostly played wing.
Even star winger Mikko Rantanen, who has filled in at center in the past, played some games down the middle, but that was short-lived.
Eventually, the team turned to a familiar face in veteran J.T. Compher.
And he hasn’t looked back.
“This is, no question, his best season to date,” Head coach Jared Bednar said of Compher. “The eye test matches what you’re seeing on the stat board.”
What everyone is seeing on the stat board for Compher is a career season. Through 55 games, he has 38 points. If he keeps up this scoring pace the rest of the year, he’d finish around 56 points. A very respectable number for a second line center.
Compher’s current point total is already five more than his previous career high of 33, which he set last season. So what’s the difference this year with Compher?
“He looks confident out there,” Rantanen told CHN. “He’s always been really good defensively, and seems like this year he’s taking another step on the offensive side. Lots of poise with the puck, making good plays, good reads.”
Playing with a star like Rantanen will help any players numbers. He’s Compher’s most common linemate this season, edging out Logan O’Connor and Andrew Cogliano. But Rantanen has enjoyed playing with the 27 year old center.
“Fun to play with him, you know?” Rantanen said. “As a linemate, easy to play with because he’s easy to read. I know, most of the time, what he’s going to do with the puck, so I really like to play with him.”
This is not the first time Compher has had a chance to run with the role of second line center, but it’s the first time it’s happened in a few years. In his sixth full NHL season, Rantanen says he looks confident. Compher uses a different word to describe how he feels.
“I feel more comfortable in that position this year,” Compher said. “I knew I could do it, but now I feel more comfortable actually doing it. Hanging onto pucks and making plays. Coach has given me more responsibility, and I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
If the Avalanche can find a way to improve their team, whether it be at center or any other position, they will. But the market at center is already dwindling. Ryan O’Reilly and Jonathan Toews are off the table. Adam Henrique is now week to week with an injury, and past those guys, you start asking yourself: Are any of these options better than Compher?
“I have lots of confidence that he can do the job,” Bednar said of Compher as the second line center. “It’s just, if you had another centerman that was a ‘2C’, then he’d be the ‘3C’ and you’re better throughout your lineup. But I think it’s the reality of where we’re at. We’ve got a good team now. If we can add to it? Great. If we can’t? Great, we go forward with what we have.”
Make no mistake, the Avalanche are benefiting from a common phenomenon: the contract year bump.
Compher isn’t the first player to have a career year before hitting unrestricted free agency, and he won’t be the last. With the cap crunch the Avalanche are facing, re-signing him will be difficult. But at this point, they aren’t worried about that. The focus is on winning the Stanley Cup this season.
And if Compher keeps it up, their chances of repeating only increase.