Going into Saturday’s games, the Avalanche, with 69 points, was only three out of the Western Conference’s second wild-card playoff spot.
Despite all the scoreboard-watching and emphasis on Minnesota around here, the Wild (75) was in third place in the Central Division, which would be good enough for an automatic playoff berth; Dallas (74) was in the West’s first wild-card spot; and St. Louis (72) was in the second.
That part wasn’t all that daunting for the Avalanche.
The most testing part of the Avalanche schedule, with only three home games in a 16-game stretch, ends Saturday afternoon at Calgary.
The realistic goal for the Avalanche going into that road-dominated stretch was to stay just close enough to the final playoff spot.
And by close enough, that meant making it conceivable the Avalanche could claim a playoff berth with a stirring stretch run that took advantage of the more favorable schedule in the closing weeks.
That part, the Avs are going to get right, even if they lose to the Flames Saturday.
They’re close enough.
The major asterisk isn’t the number of points the Avalanche has to make up; rather, it’s the fact that Colorado has to leapfrog at least three teams to make the postseason. (For the sake of illustration, using Saturday morning’s standings, the Avs needed to pass Los Angeles, Calgary and the Blues.)
An even bigger problem, though, is the loss of Erik Johnson, out indefinitely after he and fellow defenseman Anton Lindholm were injured against the Oilers Sunday.
The Avalanche made it through Nathan MacKinnon’s absence.
This will be an even bigger challenge, directly proportional to how long Johnson’s “indefinite” absence turns out to be.
Note: I didn’t say Johnson was a better player. I said this will be more of a challenge.
Unless the up-and-down Nikita Zadorov suddenly is that consistent shutdown defender who can step into the Johnson role, the void is immense.
And when Jared Bednar and Nolan Pratt benched Zadorov at Edmonton Thursday, ultimately limiting his ice time to 12:36, that wasn’t a vote of confidence. (It also might have been a short-term move designed to produce long-term effect.)
Mark Barberio also is out, additionally lowering the Avalanche’s physical quotient on defense.
Trying to take full advantage of Tyson Barrie and Samuel Girard’s offensive and puck-moving abilities while mitigating the defensive issues mostly raised by their lack of size and physical play was hard enough before Johnson went out.
It’s harder now.
Duncan Siemens, the former No. 1 draft choice the Avalanche wrote off as a prospect long ago and embraced only as an organizational defenseman, also is getting a shot. That would be a great story if he shows he long ago deserved a more serious look on the NHL roster.
Ah, but the NHL trading deadline is Monday!
We’re hearing all the trade talk.
This isn’t as bad as it was before the deadline was slightly moved up. (One of the often-forgotten aspects of the March 8, 2004 Steve Moore-Todd Bertuzzi game at Vancouver was that it was the eve of the trading deadline, and the Avalanche announced multiple deals during the game and on the morning after.) But it’s ridiculous that the league landscape at least in theory can be drastically changed with only about 20 games remaining.
By now, everyone has this down.
Some of the NHL trade talk is reason-based, involving contract status, which teams are out of the playoff race (sellers) and which are seeking to bolster the roster to either secure a spot or make a deep run — or both (buyers).
Among the major names available for the “right” offers are the Senators’ Erik Karlsson (actually you’d have to make a sensible offer and triple it to have a shot), the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty, the Rangers’ Rick Nash and the Oilers’ Patrick Maroon. And more.
Beyond that, some of the additional talk is “vetted” under the sport’s usual standard, which means tossing darts while citing a vague source or using a term of attribution that really says nothing at all. It might as well have come via the trainer’s mother’s hairdresser’s cousin’s yardman. (Or maybe it has.) Plus, I’ll also concede there’s something honorable about the willingness of so many to label the NHL trade speculation as “rumors” on their sites, avoiding any attempt to create the impression this is investigative reporting worthy of Seymour Hersh.
And when it’s all over, the folks in the Canadian network television studios again have done terrific work as they fill in the airtime around the disclosure and discussion of the relatively few and mostly underwhelming deals made.
I’m on record, as recently as when MacKinnon went out, that it would be folly for the Avalanche and Joe Sakic to back off the patient, rebuilding approach that has borne fruit — and surprisingly fast.
Sakic must explore the possibilities. That goes with the territory.
That doesn’t mean he’s obligated to make a deal.
The Avs have commodities they potentially could flip, primarily acquired in the the three draft choices and the rights to Boston University center Shane Bowers acquired in the three-team deal that sent Matt Duchene to Ottawa.
Karlsson, who has been the top defenseman in the league, is under contract through next season, but his cap hit is $6.5 million. That’s a good buy, but the numbers could get scary if he signs an extension or gets to unrestricted free agency.
Beyond that, there undoubtedly are players out there that could aid the Avalanche in the quest to make the playoffs. The standard, though, has to be more long-term. Where will that leave this team next September?
The flip side is that after Blake Comeau has rehabilitated his image as a strong third-liner, his contract is up after this season and the Avalanche still likely would be ready to thank him and turn the page as the reboot continues. Somebody might be willing to throw out a late draft choice to pick him up.
Doing nothing won’t be inertia.
Sakic has earned that benefit of the doubt after the protracted and eventually successful exploration of what he might get for Duchene. It would have been so easy for him to take the best offer on the table for Duchene and/or Gabe Landeskog leading up to or at the deadline last season. He didn’t. The offers weren’t good enough. Not then.
Now, he shouldn’t do anything to diminish the Avalanche’s commitment to the rebuild, even if it improves the chances of getting the on-ice Kroenke Sports franchise into the postseason for the first time in four years. (With the Nuggets, who haven’t been in the playoffs since 2013, looking more likely to make the NBA postseason, that actually could lessen the pressure on the Avalanche.)
The deadline is Monday at 1. The Avalanche plays Vancouver at home six hours later.
UPDATE: After the 5-1 loss at Calgary Saturday afternoon, and then the night games, the Avalanche was four points out of the final Western Conference playoff position. Anaheim (73) was in the second wild-card spot, and the pursuers were St. Louis (72), Los Angeles (71) and Colorado (69).
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries on subjects beyond the Avalanche are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary/Story Archive:
Magazine: Gateway High Olympian Stephen Garbett