In his first media availability since October, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic touched on a number of subjects at Ball Arena on Thursday prior to Colorado’s exciting 3-2 triumph against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Avs are 33-8-4 coming out of the All-Star break, pacing the NHL in both points (70) and points percentage (.778).
Sakic addressed a number of topics but first spoke highly of his team’s performance thus far. Colorado’s 16-0-2 run without a regulation loss is the best in franchise history. Prior to a shootout loss against Arizona last week, it was also in the midst of an 18-game home winning streak, which is also a franchise-best.
The victory over Tampa Bay was just the latest in a string of impressive showings from Colorado. Playing without superstar center Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche held on late to keep the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions from forcing overtime.
“We had good planning. we knew what our setup was going to look like,” Landeskog said of the late push from Tampa Bay. “Our structure and everyone was in position. We weren’t really giving them a whole lot of looks.”
They outshot the Lightning 47-38 and had the first 10 shots. Colorado never trailed and got goals from Gabriel Landeskog, Devon Toews and the eventual game-winner from Valeri Nichushkin. In goal, Darcy Kuemper made 36 stops, including all 16 he faced with the Avs leading by a goal in the third period.
“The guys did a great job of grabbing sticks and not allowing deflections,” Kuemper said. “Boxing them off so I could see the shots if they did get through.”
It’s safe to say this team is looking to make a deep playoff run.
And with that, the Avalanche are expected to be buyers at the deadline as they chase their first Stanley Cup since Sakic captained the team as a player 21 years ago. He also addressed the status of pending unrestricted free agents Nichushkin, Kuemper and Nazem Kadri while touching on the potential of signing superstar MacKinnon to an extension this summer.
The most notable comment Sakic made when assessing the season through 43 games was the growth from past years.
“Unlike other years — especially in January — we’ve come back from games when other years we might not have,” Sakic said. “Guys are competing every night, they believe in each other and they never believe they’re out.
“There’s no quit in this team.”
Sakic addressed the team’s slow start but says they’ve been mostly consistent. He also applauded the goaltending for stealing games in January, when Colorado was 15-0-1 coming out of the extended Christmas holiday break. Both Kuemper and Pavel Francouz have been exceptional since returning on Jan. 2.
Kuemper is 9-0-2 since the calendar flipped to 2022, posting a .929 save percentage and a shutout. Francouz has been just as strong, going 7-0-0 — winning twice in relief — while posting a .935 save percentage and two shutouts.
The status of Bowen Byram
The young rookie defenseman has been absent since taking a personal leave from the team on Jan. 11. Byram has been dealing with post-concussion symptoms and chose to step away to address them.
Sakic said he hopes Byram could return at some point this season but will give him the time he needs.
“We’re giving him his space. He needs some time,” Sakic said. “He’s a great young hockey player that’s going to have a long career. Right now he just wants to make sure that when he does come back, there are no lingering issues. It’ll be on his timetable. Whenever he feels he’s ready he’ll let us know. And we look forward to having him back.”
Byram has dressed in just 18 games, scoring five goals and posting 11 points. He played five games in January before stepping away. Byram was off to a hot start in October before suffering a concussion against Vancouver on Nov. 11. It’s the second head injury he’s had in his short time in the NHL.
The March 21 NHL trade deadline is later than usual this year. It’s still more than five weeks away but the Avs will likely be buyers and could be in the market to shake things up with a big-name acquisition. Now that Kuemper and Francouz have both picked up the slack in goal, Sakic may be able to shift his focus from goaltending to other positions.
Colorado is, however, right up against the salary cap ceiling. They’ll have just over a million dollars in deadline cap space without subtracting a player from their team to gain more dollars for extra wiggle room.
“With the cap situation, we’re probably looking at a hockey trade,” Sakic said, referring to a money-in, money-out type of deal. “We don’t have a lot of capital to give up.
“What we think we need might be different in five weeks. You never know. We’re just hoping that our guys can stay healthy here and we can chip away and maybe try to accumulate some cap space.”
Sakic has not shied away from making bigger deals in recent memory, granted those have usually come in the offseason. The more notable trade-deadline acquisitions in the Sakic era have come in the form of depth pieces such as forwards Vladislav Namestnikov, Derick Brassard and Carl Soderberg or defenseman Patrick Nemeth.
Sakic was extremely complimentary of Nichushkin and the step he’s taken this year.
Nichushkin added a goal in the second period against Tampa Bay on Thursday, his 13th of the year. His career-high is 14 dating back to his rookie season in 2013-14. In his first two seasons in Denver, Nichushkin recorded a combined 48 points and didn’t reach 30 in either year.
He’s already up to 24 points in just 29 games this year after taking on a bigger role in the top six. But he’s also a pending unrestricted free agent without a contract. And Sakic seems fixated on keeping Nichushkin around for longer than just the next few months.
“We’d love to keep him 100 percent. He’s been a tremendous force,” Sakic said. “He’s scoring more this year. He’s a great defending winger. He’s on top of it when he’s on the ice. He makes a difference every single night on the forecheck and just driving plays. He’s been a huge player for us.”
In hindsight, Sakic probably wishes he had given Kadri a contract extension last offseason. But it would’ve been silly to do it at the time given the frustrations of Kadri’s playoff suspension and his lack of production in the second half of the 2021 regular season.
But Kadri has been a monster so far this year. He recorded an assist on Thursday to match his career-high of 61 points, reaching the feat in just 42 games. His previous career-best in 2016-17 with Toronto came in a full 82-game season.
“He’s been unreal for us, a great leader on and off the ice,” Sakic said of Kadri, who is tied for third in the NHL scoring race. “He’s taken it to another level. We missed him in the playoffs last year, especially against Vegas. He was disappointed he couldn’t be a part of that. He worked extremely hard and he wanted to come and prove it and he’s done it. He’s been remarkable for us all year, consistently one of our best players.”
Kadri recently switched player agents to Darren Ferris of Quartexx Management ahead of perhaps the biggest summer of his career. Ferris’ biggest contract to date is the six-year $65.358 million whopper with Kadri’s former Maple Leafs teammate Mitch Marner.
Now 31, Kadri has the potential to be the biggest name in free agency this summer.
Perhaps lost in the shuffle given the amount of unrestricted free agents Sakic needs to decide on this year is the status of MacKinnon’s contract heading into the 2023 offseason.
MacKinnon has just one year remaining on the biggest darling deal the NHL has ever seen in the cap era. He currently makes just $6.3 million per season while putting up an MVP-level of play for each of the past five years. He’s definitely due for a pay raise and will more than likely get it from the Avs.
Sakic said the plan is to get that contract done this summer, a year before the new deal would kick in.
“We’ve been looking at that for three years,” he said. “That’s going to happen the first day we’re allowed to speak to him. We’ll have contact with him and see if we can have an extension in place this summer.”
Aarif Deen is our Colorado Avalanche beat reporter. He covers Avs games live from Ball Arena and attends practices, media availabilities and other events pertaining to the Avs on the daily beat. He is also a co-host of Hockey Mountain High: Your go-to Avalanche Podcast. Deen joined Mile High Sports upon completion of his bachelor’s degree in journalism and master’s in business administration from the University of Michigan – Dearborn. Before Mile High Sports, Deen worked for the Michigan Wolverines Athletics Department as the assistant sports information director.
Follow him on Twitter @runwriteAarif