When Nathan MacKinnon in the first period Friday night took a stick to the eye area from Anaheim’s Derek Grant, went down and a couple of minutes later was aided on his unsteady return to the bench and then to the locker room, Avalanche winger Sven Andrighetto had lost his center.
The good news came later: It only was for the rest of the night.
“It’s obviously never nice to see anyone going down like that, especially Nate,” Andrighetto said after the Avalanche’s 3-1 win over the Ducks. “He’s one of the top players in this league, one of the best players on this team.”
A few minutes later, Colorado coach Jared Bednar said MacKinnon “looks like he’s going to be OK. He took a stick in the eye and then he had some vision problems immediately after. And now things have settled down a little bit and it looks like he should be good to go for (Saturday at Dallas).”
We now pause for the exhalations of relief.
In the shuffling, Matt Duchene was among those who centered Andrighetto and Mikko Rantanen, and the Avalanche eventually got to 4-1 for the young season, punctuating the win with Nikita Zadorov‘s empty-netter in the final second.
Andrighetto had assists on the power-play goals by Gabriel Landeskog and Tyson Barrie against the Ducks, and the 24-year-old Swiss winger has three goals and three assists for a team-high six points heading into the two-game trip to Dallas and Nashville.
On the expectations scale, this isn’t shocking, both because the body of work still is limited and because Andrighetto has shown occasional flashes in the past — including while skating with MacKinnon and Rantanen late last season.
But it’s a bit surprising.
Most of all, it’s encouraging for the Avalanche, a bit of additional validation for Joe Sakic‘s determination to make this team younger and faster, a process that was in motion when Colorado acquired Andrighetto — listed at 5-foot-10 and 188 pounds — from the Canadiens for Norwegian winger Andreas Martinsen on March 1. It seemed to be a what-the-heck deal, with the Canadiens wanting to add size for the postseason and the Avalanche willing to give Andrighetto an audition.
It was a chance for Andrighetto, whose contract was expiring, to demonstrate he could be something other than a marginal, speedy guy bouncing up and down between the AHL and NHL. And, yes, that he wouldn’t become another Quebec Major Junior Hockey League phenom who ultimately failed this kind of a audition with Colorado. (Remember Jordan Caron? Eric Gelinas? And, in a way, Mikhail Grigorenko?)
Andrighetto, a native of Zurich, was 18 when he came to North America to play for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL for the 2011-12 season, and he had 67 goals in two seasons before he was Montreal’s third-round draft choice in June 2013 — in the same draft where MacKinnon went to the Avalanche at No. 1 overall.
“It helped me a lot, getting adjusted to the smaller ice, to the different style of play you play here,” Andrighetto said of playing in the QMJHL. “It definitely helped me early on. I came (to North America) earlier than other players did, so by now I’m used to it.”
He signed with the Canadiens right away and for the next four years tried, and failed, to secure a long-term spot in the Montreal lineup.
With five goals in 19 games down the stretch of the Avalanche’s horrific 2016-17 season, Andrighetto convinced Sakic that he could be a productive part of the rebuild, and Colorado signed him to a two-year, $2.8 million deal in late June.
And now he’s off to a showy start this season, playing with MacKinnon and Rantanen. Andrighetto scored twice in the 6-3 win over Boston in the home opener Wednesday, then followed that up with his two-assist game against the Ducks.
“We played last year together and we had good chemistry,” Andrighetto said after the morning skate Friday. “We’re all offensive players with speed, skill and we complement each other well.”
It looks familiar to MacKinnon.
“It’s been awesome,” MacKinnon said after the skate. “He’s come a long way. When I played against him in junior, he was dominant. Him and Nikita Kucherov (now a star with with Tampa Bay) were on a line together and they were amazing. It was a great trade for us, getting him at the deadline for Marty last year at the deadline. We wouldn’t know how he would be, but he’s a very skilled player, he’s very fast, he’s very smart and he’s a lot of fun to play with. Mikko and Sven and I seem to work pretty well together.”
So what went wrong in Montreal?
“It was a huge experience and I’m thankful for it,” Andrighetto said. “I got my first few games in the NHL. I don’t want to look back. I’m here now and I’m really happy. But I played third, fourth line there. In junior and the minors, I always played the top two lines in an offensive role and I did my job. I wanted to do that as well in the NHL and that’s what I’m doing now. They didn’t give me the chance to do that in Montreal. I still tried to do my best, but there definitely were other guys that did better in that role than me, but I’m really happy that I’m here right now.”
Avalanche defenseman Mark Barberio, a waiver claim from the Canadiens on Feb. 2, was Andrighetto’s teammate and even briefly his roommate in Montreal.
“It was a case of you saw how much skill he had and the talent and speed, and he was just waiting for a chance to showcase it,” said Barberio. “A couple of years ago in Montreal we had a bunch of injuries and he got to play and I thought he did really well.
“For whatever reason last season, those opportunities weren’t really given to him. I think it’s a case of where a guy just needed a change of scenery to have a chance to blossom and found good chemistry here and so far it’s been great.”
Bednar was impressed right away with Andrighetto, and it has carried over.
“He has the ability to make plays at high speed,” Bednar said Friday morning. “I don’t think he slows down with the puck. He’s equally as fast with it as without it. Last year, you get a guy in a trade and you want to give him some opportunity because of his history. You look at what he did in juniors and as a young pro in the American League. He put up some big numbers and oftentimes when you get to the NHL, the opportunity’s just not there because of your lineup. We had a hole in our top six, we put him in there and it was surprising what he did. It doesn’t surprise me any more. You want to see that pace continue now.”
Not long ago, Swiss players in the NHL was more of a rarity, but a total of 12 have played in the league this season.
“We’re a small country and we’re pretty close,” Andrighetto said. “Everyone from Switzerland who plays in the NHL now played together at some point or another for the Swiss national team. We know each other pretty well.”
SWISS ROLL CALL
As of Friday night, a total of 12 Swiss-born players had appeared in NHL games this season:
Sven Andrighetto, RW, Avalanche
Sven Baertschi, LW, Canucks
Reto Berra, G, Ducks
Kevin Fiala, LW, Predators
Nico Hischier, C, Devils
Roman Josi, D, Predators
Timo Meier, RJ, Sharks
Mirco Mueller, D, Devils
Nino Niederreiter, RW, Wild
Luca Sbisa, D, Golden Knights
Marc Streit, D, Canadiens
Yannick Weber, D, Predators
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes commentaries 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 are at terryfrei/oncolorado