The Avalanche are back. And so are all their previously injured top-six forwards.
After a 124-day break because of COVID-19 concerns, the Avalanche, along with the rest of the league, officially lifted the pause Monday as teams transitioned to Phase 3 — official team-run training camps.
Colorado’s first day of camp was split into two groups with the top-six participating in the first session. Superstar center Nathan MacKinnon was paired with his usual linemates Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. Colorado’s second unit consisted of Nazem Kadri between Andre Burakovsky and Valeri Nichushkin.
Nichushkin, who was signed late in the summer of 2019 to a league-minimum contract, impressed Colorado’s coach Jared Bednar. The Russian winger was a regular on the second line ahead of the struggling Joonas Donskoi in February during Colorado’s seven-game winning streak.
“We’re going to play around with that a little bit here in training camp,” Bednar said of his lines. “I want to make sure I have options that are producing on the offensive side of things and also options that we could use that could check and defend other teams’ top players.”
Nichushkin had 13 goals and 27 points in 65 games, often playing on the penalty kill as well. While his successes in Colorado may be deemed a revelation to many, the Russian forward is not surprised by his own ability to perform. Nichushkin has often stated that his failed season in Dallas was the result of a lack of playing time and trust from his previous coaching staff.
“Nichushkin has had a very good year when it comes to chance suppression while being able to have a pretty good year on the offensive side as well,” Bednar added. “I just think looking at that line, Burakovsky has had a really good year for us when he’s been healthy and I wanted to give him a look here early in camp. We’re going to have some scrimmages here in camp. We’ll test some matchups both in the scrimmages and in exhibition and in the round-robin. Things may be pretty fluid in there but we’ll see how they go.”
MacKinnon, a Hart Trophy candidate, spent a majority of the season shuffling between wingers as injuries continued to mount. Landeskog missed 16 games and Rantanen was absent for 28. The trio of 2019 All-Stars are regularly one of the NHL’s most dominant lines when healthy.
“For me, it’s good to go against them because you’re not going to face a better line throughout the league,” defenseman Erik Johnson said. “Going against them in practice helps a lot. It’s fun to get back at it with those guys, it’s fun to watch.”
Rantanen added: “It’s fun to be back together playing with Nate and Landy. There might be a time where we have to switch it up and it’s not a problem but I’m happy to start with those two guys. We know each other well so it’s fun.”
On the bottom two lines, J.T. Compher centered Donskoi and trade-deadline acquisition Vladislav Namestnikov while center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare was with his regular linemates, Matt Calvert and Matt Nieto.
The Avalanche entered the pause with a 42-20-8 record. They trailed the St. Louis Blues by two points with a game in hand for first place in the Western Conference. Colorado will have a chance at that top seed in a three-game round robin with St. Louis, Dallas and Vegas. And even though there is no real “home-ice advantage” in a hub city with no fans, the Avs still see value in entering the playoffs as the number one seed.
“It’s important,” Rantanen said. “It’s a little bit different than the normal situation where you have the home-ice advantage with your home fans and your home rink. But still, first seed is first seed and you get the best matchup in the best-of-seven series. You get the four home games to matchup even though there are no fans. But still, it’s our main goal in those three games to get the first seed.”
Landeskog – MacKinnon – Rantanen
Nichushkin – Kadri – Burakovsky
Kamenev – Jost – Tynan
Graves – Makar
Girard – Johnson
MacDonald – Timmins
Donskoi – Compher – Namestnikov
Nieto – Bellemare – Calvert
Dries – O’Connor – Bowers
Zadorov – Cole
Connauton – Barberio
Byram – Lindholm