Avalanche Have Third-Line Options for 2020-21 NHL Season

The Colorado Avalanche have one of the deepest rosters in the NHL. Their top-six is stacked with skill, led by the three-headed monster of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen. They have a star-studded defensive core with Cale Makar and Samuel Girard. Combine these two factors, and you have a Stanley Cup contender with high-end talent. However, some are unsure if they have the depth to back it up.

Colorado Avalanche Nathan MacKinnon
Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The Avalanche have been drafting quite well over the past few years, which means they have a lot of talent within their organization who can be called upon if necessary. This provides head coach Jared Bednar with the greatest asset – options. He can now pick and choose how to deploy his lineup without worrying about his talent. 

It is well documented that Bednar’s top-six forward group can score often, and the acquisition of Brandon Saad during this offseason has solidified that even more. However, it remains to be seen if that scoring will spread throughout the bottom of the lineup. Last year’s bottom-six consisted of a revolving door of players, mostly because of injuries, and this season, those players will have to wait for a chance in the spotlight.

Potential Third-Line Combinations 

During the 2019-2020 season, the third line mostly consisted of J.T Compher in the middle with wingers who were frequently changing. Expect to see the same this season with guys like Martin Kaut and Logan O’Connor lingering for the opportunity to receive ice time. However, on opening night against the St. Louis Blues, anticipate a third-line combination of Tyson Jost on the left-wing, Compher down the middle, and Joonas Donskoi on the right. 

After Vladislav Namestnikov left the organization this offseason, it opened up some room for the wingers, including Jost. This is an incredible opportunity for the former 10th-overall pick to improve on his previous seasons and show the potential he was claimed to have had during his draft year. The former University of North Dakota star began the recent playoffs as a healthy scratch and was scarcely used by Bednar. The upcoming season seems to be a hopeful bounce-back year from him. 

Tyson Jost Colorado Avalanche
Tyson Jost, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Another third-line option for Bednar is to use a combination of Valeri Nichushkin, Compher, and Donskoi. Nichushkin spent most of last season on the fourth line, but his production there can not be understated. He earned a few Selke Trophy votes and he was praised for his defensive capability. If Jost struggles, expect to see Nichushkin move up the lineup. 

However, I see him beginning the season on the fourth line again because he, Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare, and Matt Calvert played most of their minutes together last season and showed incredible chemistry.   

Eagles Looking to Fly 

Kaut and O’Connor have spent most of their time in the Avalanche organization with the team’s AHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles. Kaut was one of the star players at the highly-praised 2017 Czech Republic World Junior Championship roster and he continued his strong play in the AHL with 44 points in 97 games.

It has noticeably taken some time for the former 16th-overall pick to adjust to the North American-sized rink, however, his potential cannot be ignored. Bednar has Kaut to fall back on if everything fails, as he will most likely be put on the taxi squad for the upcoming season. If Bednar does not want to disrupt the chemistry of his fourth line, and Jost continues to struggle, we might see the 21-year-old be called upon. 

Martin Kaut Eagles
Martin Kaut (by Nick Monaghan courtesy of The Colorado Eagles)

In Game 7 against the Dallas Stars in the 2020 Playoffs, O’Connor was slotted into the third line right-wing spot. The Calgary-native has been predominantly used as a checking forward throughout his journey to the NHL, and will likely be used in the same position if he sees the ice this season. He has spent most of his last two seasons with the Eagles, posting 67 points in 104 games.

The 24-year-old has the potential to be one of the better two-way forwards for Colorado in the future. His name is likely ahead of Kaut on the depth chart, but the pair together gives Bednar depth he can look to if his lineup struggles. 

How Effective Can the Third Line Be?

Last season, the Avalanche had two parts of an impactful third line in Compher and Donskoi. However, they failed to find consistency on the left side. The effectiveness of this line depends on Jost.

As mentioned, the 22-year-old’s tenure in the mile-high city has been shaky. Some have questioned his work ethic and his mindset, which leads people to believe he could be trade bait at the deadline. However, general manager Joe Sakic cannot neglect the promise of the former Penticton Vees star, and perhaps he wants to keep him in his future plans.

If Jost can bounce back and drastically improve on his play, not only will he silence his critics, but that would solidify Bednar’s top-nine forward group. With an impressive Jost, this third line might be the most dominant in the league and will add to the reasons why the Avalanche are considered Stanley Cup contenders. 

If Jost continues to falter and Nichushkin replaces him, this line could still be very effective, but not to the same extent. It would lack the offensive firepower that Jost provides. Although Nichushkin posted more points than Jost last season, it was partly due to the opportunity he had to play up the lineup when the Avalanche were shattered by injuries.

Valeri Nichushkin Colorado Avalanche
Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The former Dallas Star also had his best season in recent years, and it’s questionable if he can replicate that form after so many disastrous seasons. As mentioned, Nichushkin also had a lot of chemistry with his linemates Bellemare and Calvert, and the Avalanche should not disrupt it. It’s likely the 6-foot-4 Russian will move up the lineup, but that isn’t necessarily Bednar’s dream plan. 

Kaut and O’Connor can both feature on the third line as well, however, it’s unlikely they will be fixtures there. They have shown promising results in the AHL, and O’Connor has had some chances in the NHL already, but neither of them seem ready for a prime position. Overall, with either of them in the bottom-six, it can still be impactful, but not nearly to the same extent as with Nichushkin or Jost.

Kaut can still provide some much-needed offence, with his strong presence in the neutral zone, while O’Connor can still implement that strong two-way play he is known for. If there is any season for O’Connor to break out, this is the one. The 24-year-old is no longer considered a prospect, and if he doesn’t produce at the NHL level, questions will be raised about his play. However, the fact that Bednar has these two players waiting in the wings is a testament to how strong this forward core could be.

The addition of Saad will help the forwards and addressed a glaring issue exposed in the playoffs – the team’s depth. Bednar’s possible line combinations are endless, and each one could be effective in its own right. It’s unknown what lineup he will begin with. However, no matter what it is, the Avalanche are poised for success.