One week away from an exhibition contest against the Minnesota Wild, the Avalanche took a break from intrasquad scrimmages in order to test multiple special team combinations.
The top units for the penalty kill and power play alternated shifts on each side of the ice — a whistle from Avs coach Jared Bednar serving as the signal to begin. Without prized rookie and power-play quarterback Cale Makar in the lineup, Colorado continued to use Sam Girard on the top unit. And with him off of the second unit, veteran defenseman and penalty-kill regular Erik Johnson took his place.
That trickle-down effect opened up a spot on the penalty kill for Kevin Connauton. The veteran, acquired from Arizona last summer, appeared in just four regular-season games with the Avalanche. Connauton was paired with Ryan Graves along with forwards Matt Nieto and Tyson Jost.
Jost and Connauton both played regularly outside of the starting lineup in the Avalanche’s scrimmages last week.
But in the scenario where Makar would have to miss some games, Connauton is making a case for being the sixth defenseman. And for Jost, perhaps becoming a penalty kill specialist is his way back into the starting lineup.
The only problem is, who do you sit?
“We’re going to need all these guys by the time it’s said and done, the guys that we take to Edmonton,” Bednar said after the two-hour session Wednesday. “If you’re making a long and deep playoff run, which is certainly what we want to do, there are going to be bumps and bruises along the way. We don’t know what the schedule looks like when we enter the first round but we have some good options.”
Bednar’s third penalty kill defense pairing consisted of a young Conor Timmins and his older counterpart Mark Barberio. And despite seeing limited shifts, the pair was impressive.
The defense will certainly need all hands on deck come playoff time. Past Stanley Cup champions often load up on NHL-capable defenseman at the deadline in preparation for a possible string of injuries.
Colorado’s deadline acquisitions, however, came in the form of a depth goaltender and a depth forward. That forward, Vladislav Namestnikov, has regularly played on the third line in training camp alongside J.T. Compher and Joonas Donskoi. That pick up from Ottawa is also the reason why Jost is the 13th forward and on the outside looking in.
Namestnikov had an exceptional showing with the Avalanche after the deadline. But so did Jost. So Bednar once again is faced with the question: Who sits?
“Guys as individuals have pushed to try and slot into different positions and play a role for us whether that’s 5-on-5 or on the penalty kill,” Bednar said in analyzing his wealth of depth. “We saw Tyson before the pause work himself into a penalty kill role based on what he was doing in practice and he was highly successful. He didn’t get scored on through the course of the time he was killing penalties in the last ten or so games.
“And now we watch him and he’s one of the better and more consistent guys in getting the job done on the penalty kill. He is a guy that we have to look seriously at putting him in that spot when we come out of the pause here in round-robin games.”
It’s certainly a good problem to have. Over the past two years, Colorado has had to rely heavily on its top line for offensive production. The acquisitions over the summer gave them an opportunity to still be one of the leagues best despite injuries to two-thirds of that unit.
Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen missed a combined 44 games, scoring just 85 points. The third piece of that line, Nathan MacKinnon, was able to put together another MVP-worthy season. His 93 points were 43 more than the second-highest scorer on the team.
But MacKinnon doesn’t believe it was his best season in Colorado. Rather, the four-time All-Star believes it was roster depth that held this team through adversity and injuries.
“This year was definitely better than last and the year before that I think was one of my best years,” MacKinnon said. “If we don’t have that depth when Gabe and Mikko get hurt, then I’m not in this position and that’s just the way it is. You can’t play by yourself in this day and age. You can’t carry two guys with you.”