The NHL regular season continues winding down, as the playoff race heats up. Compared to most seasons, though, the races look a bit different. For example, the Eastern Conference playoff picture hasn’t changed in months. As many predicted, the top eight from mid-season maintained their prominence and continued separating from the rest of the Conference. The West had a runaway too. Though, it wasn’t all eight playoff teams separating from the pack. The runaway came from one club: the Colorado Avalanche, largely thanks to their depth.
Colorado Avalanche Depth Stepping Up in Stretch to Playoffs
With eleven games to play, the Avs currently sit a whopping 16 points ahead of the rest of the Central Division. Even more shocking, they’re clear of the next best team in the entire conference, the Calgary Flames, by 13 points. Only one team league-wide, the Florida Panthers, remain in the President’s Trophy race. They sit two points behind Colorado and also have only 11 games left to go.
Obviously, the regular-season success has been great. But this team knows the most important test comes in the post-season, where they look to end a three-year streak of second-round exits. They remain a favourite to win the Stanley Cup, but that story sounded the same last year. Colorado won’t take anything for granted, and they’re testing their depth right now to try and prepare.
Avalanche Injuries Force Lineup Changes
At the trade deadline, General Manager Joe Sakic took an aggressive approach to add specific pieces to his team. They acquired defenceman Josh Manson to round out their backend. They also flipped Tyson Jost for Nico Sturm and snagged Andrew Cogliano to provide some bottom-six experience. Lastly, Sakic picked up Artturi Lehkonen to provide another top-six forward option.
All those moves amounted to an abundance of NHL talent in Denver. Right away, the club inserted all the new players into the lineup. They received opportunities up and down the roster, filling in for significant injuries to the team’s regulars. And despite all that fluctuation, they continue to win. The club sits 10-1-1 over their last 12 games. They ride a five-game winning streak and seven-game point streak (6-0-1) into Edmonton tonight.
Valeri Nichushkin and Bowen Byram were out and have returned to health. Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan Murray, and Nazem Kadri remain on the injury list. All of those players play significant roles, especially on the offensive side. It has meant the Colorado Avalanche depth received heavy use and opportunities in recent weeks.
Colorado Avalanche Depth Proving Themselves
With the top six absences, forwards received chances to slot in higher lineup positions than usual. That also allows Jared Bednar to mix up his lines and test things out in a dramatic fashion prior to the playoffs. Obviously, no one wants Kadri and Landeskog out. But there is a silver lining, and the team looks really strong even when they’re unavailable.
In the first line, Andre Burakovsky fills in for Landeskog. He now has a career-high 53 points in 69 games this season. One more goal will mark a career-high in that category as well, as the forward averaged a new high of 16:16 per game thus far this season.
But it goes beyond the top line, too. Lehkonen brings a tenacious style of play, reminiscent of Nichushkin. He’s seen time on the second and third lines and plays an effective style in the Avs’ scheme. Sure, he’s got just one goal in his first five games. But he’s pushing the play and shining analytically with a relative Corsi of 11.2%. Plus, Nicolas Aube-Kubel added goals in the last couple of games from the fourth line. If Colorado gets consistent contributions from the bottom six, they’ll be nearly impossible to top.
Avalanche Defence Deeper than Ever
Probably the most obvious place where the Colorado Avalanche depth stands out is on their blue line. The club has so many strong defenders that Samuel Girard was a healthy scratch against the Winnipeg Jets last night. Bednar split his elite pair of Cale Makar and Devon Toews up against the Pittsburgh Penguins recently too; he wanted to be sure one of the two was always on the ice if one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin was out there.
Those lineup moves were made possible by two things: Manson’s acquisition, and Byram’s health. All year long, Byram struggled with injuries, fighting with concussions and the symptoms that follow. Now that he’s back, Bednar tried slotting him on the top pair with Makar. That frees up Toews to play with Manson. At the end of the night, Makar and Toews always receive the most minutes. But to be able to play them separately means the team could cover 40-45 minutes of the 60-minute contest with at least one of the two on the ice at all times.
Playoff-Bound Avalanche Look Poised for Deep Run
Now, their third defence pair has as much strength as most of the league’s top four defenders do. Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson received those minutes most recently, but nothing is guaranteed. Not with Girard in the press box, as he’ll certainly factor in for this team. Kurtis MacDermid remains an option too, should the club want more physicality. The blessing now though is that with the deadline acquisitions, MacDermid isn’t the only guy capable of heavy play. Manson brings that same edge, with more poise and skill. Cogliano, Sturm, Landeskog, Kadri, and Lehkonen do the same offensively.
When Murray, Kadri and Landeskog get healthy, things will shift around without a doubt. The fact that players like J.T. Compher, Darren Helm, Sturm or even Cogliano may have to be scratched goes to show how many options this team has. They can mix players in and out during the postseason to keep legs fresh, something we can expect to see over this last stretch of games.
The true tests remain ahead of this team, but the Colorado Avalanche looks strong and determined to reach new heights this summer.
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