Four Thoughts on the Avalanche with Seven Games Left
It’s been a couple of weeks since we just checked in with some thoughts on the Colorado Avalanche. The last time we touched base, one of the focuses was on the easy schedule, outside of three tougher games. Well, they’ve played two of those tougher games, going 1-1. They’ve got the big matchup with Los Angeles, who they haven’t beaten this season, this Saturday. In the other five games they went 4-1, so they’re doing their part.
Let’s check in on a few things before heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
How the Avalanche handle Alex Newhook down the stretch will be interesting, and it’s a touchy subject with fans. I like a lot of what Newhook is doing on the ice. Heading into the game against the Stars, he had accumulated 13 scoring chances in his previous five games. That’s up there with the likes of what MacKinnon and Rantanen were creating in the same timeframe. The problem, obviously, is the lack of finish. He hasn’t scored a goal in 20 games, but he’s doing a lot of things right.
I asked Bednar if he’s playing part-time psychologist with Newhook right now to keep his confidence up.
“Yeah, and I’ve talked to Newy in-depth about that,” Bednar said. “He’s one of the players that I’m constantly trying to get with. He’s a young player, and I think young players, at times, can get, even experienced players, they can get caught up in their production. It’s not necessarily what I’m looking at. I couldn’t tell you half our players stat-lines, but I know when they’re playing well on the defensive side of the puck and they’re committed. And I know when they’re creating offensive opportunities for themselves and their teammates.”
Ever since Lars Eller was acquired, Newhook hasn’t really had a role on the team. Injuries have seen him get bumped up the lineup, but where does he fit in when Lehkonen comes back? To me, it looked like he was finally getting comfortable at center, but with Eller and Helm, there’s no way he’s playing center. Lehkonen will bump him out of the top six, and we know the fourth line from the playoffs last year will stay together. Eller isn’t leaving the lineup, and I can’t imagine Nieto is either. That puts him in a fight with Malgin for that last roster spot. Malgin’s game has fallen off in the last week, so there’s a competition there, but expectations were a little higher for the 22 year old this season. Are we looking at another playoff run where he’s potentially in and out of the lineup? It seems like it might be headed that way, which is unfortunate, but that’s the reality of this league.
Rantanen’s Hunt For 50 and MacKinnon’s Hunt For 100
With the empty net goal on Saturday, Rantanen is just one goal away from hitting the 50 goal mark. No Avalanche player has done that since Milan Hejduk in 2002-03. He looked to be gripping his stick a little tight the last few games, missing the net on some good looks. Goaltenders have also made some nice stops on him. I remember when this organization went years without a 30 goal scorer, so to be talking about a potential 50 goal scorer is great. These types of years are rare, so I hope fans have enjoyed the ride.
On the flip side, Nathan MacKinnon seems destined to finally crack the 100 point mark for the first time in his career. He doesn’t seem to really care about it when you ask him, but that’s just how he’s wired. I’m sure deep down it means something to him, but we all know he would have hit this mark a couple of times already if not for injuries and pandemics. He’s on pace to have the highest PPG season in Avalanche history. That’s something that should be celebrated.
The never-ending Altitude TV dispute with carriers has made it more difficult than it should be for fans to watch games, but Avalanche fans should never take for granted the special talents that are currently on the team. These two, along with Makar, are elite at their respective positions, and they’ll be around for years to come. They’ve already helped deliver one Stanley Cup, and they’re hungry for more. Enjoy the ride while you’re on it.
The Injured Players and Whose Coming Back
All the injured players are finally skating. Does that mean they’re all going to be back for the start of the postseason? Bednar didn’t seem so sure on Friday, but things at least seem to be progressing.
Pavel Francouz took shots at morning skate on Saturday morning. That’s the biggest step forward in his recovery to date. He’s one guy you want to get a game in before the playoffs. If he was ever needed in the postseason, it would be less than ideal having him come in after months without having played a game. With seven games in the final 11 days, Georgiev will need a break, so if Francouz comes back, he’ll likely get a start and it wouldn’t surprise me if Bednar gave him two.
Artturi Lehkonen is the easiest one to predict. We had the timeline, and he’s been skating on his own. On Saturday, he added a stick, and was walking around the facility without a brace on his hand for the first time. Once he’s medically cleared, I’m sure he’ll be back, and I have no concerns on him missing a playoff game. The question will be whether or not he’s able to get a few games in before the playoffs start.
The two biggest question marks are Josh Manson and Gabriel Landeskog. Manson has finally started skating again, but it seems as though it’s taken longer than the organization had hoped. The concern there is that he already came back and injured it once, so how hard do they push it? He really would round out the defense if and when he comes back, but if he comes back too fast and hurts himself again, that doesn’t do anyone any good. The last time he returned, he was skating with Shawn Allard on his own for about a month. That sort of time doesn’t exist right now with the playoffs starting in two weeks. This one is pretty unpredictable.
I said in the last one of these that from what I had heard, the team wasn’t expecting Landeskog to be ready for game one of the playoffs. I haven’t heard anything different in the last two weeks. The good news, however, is that he’s working on new things on the ice. On Friday, the focus was sharp turns, and stops and starts. These are the types of movements that will really test the muscles in and around the knee, more than just simple skating movements. He held up well in those, but still looks a ways off. He looks like a guy whose pushing as hard as he can to get back and help his team, but I don’t see full confidence in him with that right leg. I’m sure the daily updates are annoying, but “Landeskog watch” will be in full effect over the next few weeks.
NCAA Free Agent Signings
The Avalanche signed not one, not two, but three college free agents to entry level contracts this week. It’s the easiest way to replenish the system, because they’re all free assets. I asked Ben Meyers on Saturday why the Avalanche are having success signing these NCAA players, and he was pretty straight-forward.
“Quite honestly, it’s probably just, you know, they traded away a lot of prospects in recent years,” Meyers said.
That certainly helps. While the Avalanche are a very good team and expect to be a good team for a long time, there is room for younger players to move up in the organization, and not a lot of competition in terms of prospects. It’s an interesting dynamic, and being aggressive with college free agents is smart on the organizations part. These are older prospects, which means they’re more physically developed and could reasonably see NHL time next season if they play well.
Another big reason why players are signing here? Greg Cronin. Meyers spoke very highly of him on Saturday, and Alex Galchenyuk was the same way last week. Having a great AHL coach was something the Avalanche were missing for years before Cronin.
The two that have already played with the Eagles, Malinski and Polin, are off to a solid start, as each of them picked up points in their debuts.