Avalanche Face Tough Choices as Injuries Mount

The Colorado Avalanche enter the final week before the trade deadline facing some tough choices. The team has collected injuries like bees collect pollen. After a challenging week, the front office needs to pick a direction.

The Sudden Injury Problem

The past week put the team in a bind. It started when second-line center Nazem Kadri suffered a lower-body injury on Feb. 9, and he was put on injured reserve (IR), with the comment he would be out weeks.

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A few days later, both starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer and feisty winger Matt Calvert got hurt in the Stadium Series game on Feb. 15. Those two are said to be out “weeks” as well, with lower-body injuries. On Monday night, Feb. 17, top-line right wing Mikko Rantanen got hurt, adding another layer to the injury drama. The Avalanche have not released a timetable for the return of any of the four players.

Colorado Avalanche Philipp Grubauer
Can the Avalanche win without goaltender Philipp Grubauer? (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

For once, though, the Avalanche’s tight-lipped approach to injuries offers a ray of hope. The lack of specifics and the vague time frames reek of the team’s posture during a playoff run. They aren’t going to give their opponents any information on the state or nature of their players’ wounds.

Perhaps the silence is because they hope to see those players in action when it matters. If there were little to no hope, there would have been the type of injury update they did last year with Erik Johnson and Gabriel Landeskog. It could mean no news is good news – sort of.

Of course, they have a problem. The team is down four key players for an indefinite amount of time. The Avalanche sit one point behind first and second place in the Central with one game in hand. They are five points ahead of the current top wild card team. The Avalanche are facing their last 24 games of the regular season. Their road to the postseason hangs in the balance.

What do they do? Should they trade or hold?

Questionable Trade Options

There’s less than a week to the trade deadline so trading for a key piece or two is a possibility.

Two weeks ago, the Avalanche were poised to add a modest piece or two to shore up depth. Arguments circulated about whether the team should pursue a defenseman or a forward. Some thought it might be a good idea to pick up another goaltender. It was fun and silly and nothing very serious as the Avalanche were already a good team. It was a luxury to consider how to improve without spending much.

Related: NHL’s Top 100 Prospects – Midseason Update

The Kadri injury raised speculation the team might look at picking up a fiery center who could win some faceoffs and fight for position. Of course, replacing a Kadri isn’t easy so other options got floated. Rumors began to circulate the team was looking at adding center Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators), wing Chris Kreider (New York Rangers) or center Blake Coleman (New Jersey Devils).

Nazem Kadri Colorado Avalanche
Nazem Kadri’s injury leaves a hole on the second line. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The Devils traded Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning so he was off the table. However, his trade set a pretty high price for middling players. Tampa gave up promising forward prospect Nolan Foote and a first-round pick to acquire Coleman, a hefty sum for an average wing.

With Grubauer going down, the idea of trading for goaltender Carey Price zoomed to the forefront of the speculation. Price, though, is 32 years old and has six more years of a $10.5 million per/year contract. It’s hard to imagine the Avalanche wanting to commit that much money to an aging goaltender who has struggled this season.

Also, both Grubauer and backup Pavel Francouz have better goals against averages (GAA) and save percentages (SV%). It’s unlikely the Avalanche would consider putting themselves into a salary cap bind for a player who isn’t an upgrade on what’s already in the stable.

As for Calvert, the Avalanche could call up a player or trade for someone. But Calvert is important for more than his skill set. His willingness to stand up for his teammates and his veteran experience carry weight on and off the ice. Adding a player doesn’t replace that.

Standing Pat

Rantanen’s injury adds another wrinkle to the trade deadline question. There aren’t players on the trade market who can fill Rantanen’s shoes. He is an elite player when healthy and that’s why the Avalanche signed him to a hefty extension at the season’s start ($9.25 million/year for six years). If he was easy to replace, the team would have never offered that kind of money.

Colorado Avalanche Mikko Rantanen
Mikko Rantanen is irreplaceable. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig, File)

The team is facing the loss of four starters, three of whom play major roles. Significant and hard-to-duplicate roles. Meaning, they are expensive players to replace and there aren’t many who could fill their shoes. Plus, the price for Coleman showed how expensive even a moderate move would be.

The Avalanche moved from shoring up the team for a postseason run to filling important holes in their lineup. The script shifted. Instead of trading a third or fourth-round pick for some depth, the team’s suddenly weighing whether to trade away top prospects for questionable role players.

Franchise Background Plays a Role

Let’s step back and take a trip in the way-back machine. When Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy moved in to rebuild the Avalanche, one of their top priorities was to develop a valuable pool of prospects. The salary cap era forced teams to balance their roster’s expensive talent with talented but inexpensive prospects. Quality scouting could make or break teams and their pipeline was broken.

Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy
Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy plotted how to rebuild the organization. (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

Years later, the Avalanche front office currently oversees a quality prospect pipeline. Is it wise to deplete that pipeline in order to replace the irreplaceable? Few of the players available at the trade deadline offer anywhere near replacement value of the injured players.

Trading away potential game-changers doesn’t make sense, either. Few players exhibit the potential upside of defensive prospect Bowen Byram. The Avalanche wanted to add a top scorer last season so it’s hard to believe they would trade away forward prospect Alex Newhook, either. He’s playing like a man on a mission for Boston College and Byram continues to expand his skillsets in juniors.

Bowen Byram Vancouver Giants
Bowen Byram was a steal in 2019 draft class. (Chris Relke/Vancouver Giants)

While there’s quality in the development pipeline, the prospect pool isn’t super deep. Defenseman Conor Timmins should make a run at the starting roster next season as should forwards Shane Bowers and Martin Kaut. And Kaut just received his first NHL call-up so everyone will get a peek at his potential. But the pool thins out after that.

The Avalanche’s current roster is likely to be a quality team for years to come. However, the downside to being a good team is falling in the draft selection. Cale Makar and Byram were both selected in the draft fourth overall, the product of two clubs being the worst in the NHL. Newhook was picked at the 15th spot. If the Avalanche are successful, it could be years before they ever get near a top draft pick.

So what should the Avalanche do?

Choosing Their Path

The Avalanche face a crossroads. Do they deplete their prospect pool to acquire substitutes for their injured starters or do they wait it out, knowing they have a bright future?

Chances are good that at least three of the injured players could return to the roster before the season ends. The Avalanche will play a number of less successful teams down the stretch. If the current roster can find ways to step up, as they did earlier in the season, the team still has a good shot at the postseason. If all goes well, some of their stars could return before the playoffs.

However, Colorado would be taking a risk by pushing through with the players they have and calling up Eagles to fill the gaps. They could miss the postseason altogether. On the flip side, they would have all their picks and prospects in hand to fill in for next season.

Pavel Francouz Martin Kaut
Pavel Francouz and Martin Kaut, Colorado Eagles ready to make a difference. (by Nick Monaghan courtesy of the Colorado Eagles)

Making a trade may be the popular choice, but it may not be the best answer for a talented Avalanche team. They worked hard to build a solid foundation to support the organization’s long-term development. Making a trade, while momentarily satisfying, may actually do more harm. It’s a good time to remember the big picture and stand pat.

What the Avalanche do between now and the trade deadline on Monday, Feb. 24 could set the tone not just for this season, but for the seasons to come. Stay tuned as things could get nerve-racking. It’s a crazy time of year when anything can happen.

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