Avalanche Weekly: Cale Makar, Injuries, and Wins

The Colorado Avalanche proved resilient in the past week. Despite crucial injuries and questionable calls, there was plenty of action. The Avalanche plowed their way back into a playoff spot through 17 games despite adversity. The team has turned the catchphrase ‘next man up’ into their daily mantra. It was a busy week with plenty of drama full of good, bad, AND ugly.

Good – Makar, Ending a Bad Streak, and Plenty of Points

1. The NHL named rookie defenseman Cale Makar their third Star of the Week. He scored three goals and three assists over three games putting him in a tie for NHL leading scoring among defensemen. He also leads ALL rookies in scoring with 17 points over 17 regular-season games. He also sits in third place among ALL NHL defensemen in scoring. That’s a pretty lofty achievement. It just proves that sometimes when you lose a lottery, you actually win. Thanks, NHL lottery system! A gift basket may be in your future.

2. The Nashville Predators game embodied a slew of good.

  • 6 goals in 8 minutes
  • Joonas Donskoi’s first-ever NHL hat trick
  • 12 players with a point
  • Ending their five-game losing streak
  • Oh, don’t forget the delicious chants of “We want 10 (goals)!” as they echoed through the Pepsi Center.

The game was so good, it deserves its own category. X marks the spot for this kind of treasure. A 9-4 win is always a good thing. A 9-4 win against a favorite for the Western Conference championship is a rare treasure. Maybe Matt Duchene should tick off the team more often.

3. Over three games the past week, 13 different Avalanche players earned points and 10 different players potted goals. It’s a crazy way to break through a scoring drought but they’ll take it. All that scoring, though, makes one want to connect with their inner Billy Idol and scream with a rebel yell “We want more!” Or maybe not. That may be a bridge too far. Sorry.

4. The Avalanche point leaders for the week are :

  • Makar – six points from three goals, three assists.
  • Nathan MacKinnon – four points from one goal, three assists.
  • Ryan Graves – four points from one goal, three assists,.
  • Five players with three points – Vladislav Kamenev, Tyson Jost, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi.
  • Kamenev has logged a primary assist in three straight contests and is the only Avalanche player on a current streak that long. Not bad for a guy who is averaging only 10 minutes of ice time a night.
Vladislav Kamenev Colorado Avalanche
Vladislav Kamenev has been making the most of his limited ice time. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

5. Four defensemen earned points, helping the Avalanche overcome their scoring issues. The blueliners tallied five goals and eight assists for 13 points. Makar is getting a lot of attention but Graves is making his presence known as well. He managed a goal and three assists, not bad for a guy who was borderline for making the team. The other two getting crucial points? Samuel Girard and Erik Johnson.

6. MacKinnon sits first on the team – and second in the league – for total shots. He registered an impressive 86 shots over 17 games (one of which saw him miss an entire period). Alexander Ovechkin leads the league with 91 shots in 19 games. The two are tied for the lead with average shots per game at 5.1 per contest. Filip Forsberg’s 4.3 shots per game put him third. Fourth place players are averaging 4.1. That’s one full shot less per game than MacKinnon. That’s a pretty big difference.

Colorado Avalanche Nathan MacKinnon
Nathan MacKinnon has become a shooting machine. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

If MacKinnon had a better shooting percentage, he’d dominate the league in points. As it is, he’s in an eighth-place tie for points per game at 1.29 per matchup. For a guy who still hasn’t hit his peak performance this season, what could be his ceiling? It’s a wonderful question that everyone is looking forward to seeing him answer. The Avalanche have an embarrassment of riches. Now if only they could get some guys healthy.

7. The team sits in second place in the Central Division, fourth in the Western Conference, and ranks seventh overall. Considering their injury luck and a five-game losing streak, that’s pretty impressive by all accounts.

8. The Avalanche have been spreading out the game-winning goals.

  • Andre Burakovsky leads the Avalanche with three game-winning goals already this season. His performance also places him in a fourth-place tie in the league for notching game-winners.
  • Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog are second on the team with two winning tallies each.
  • Three other players have each notched one – MacKinnon, Kadri, and Makar.

Losing Rantanen and Landeskog and their timely scoring could explain part of the losing streak. Fortunately, offseason player acquisitions are stepping up to help limit the damage, and that is just good all the way around. Candy for everyone, they need the sugar rush.

9. The Avalanche power play showed signs of life as the team managed to convert three times out of 16 chances on the man advantage. They rank sixth in goals scored on the power play but they are 15th in effectiveness, scoring 19.7% of the time. They get the second-most power-play chances in the league, which helps offset their average performance. If they can improve their success rate, though, they could bury some teams. Do it. Maniacal laugh.

10. Altitude and DirecTV worked out a new contract so the Avalanche games are now being broadcast again. Many restaurants/bars will now be able to freely show the games. All of which is really good – stick taps to Altitude and DirecTV.

Bad – Officiating, Injuries, and More Officiating

1. Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno hit Pierre-Edouard Bellemare high which resulted in Foligno getting a three-game suspension. The hit was bad. But what made the situation worse was the officiating, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. The referees didn’t appear to initially call a penalty on the play, even though the two head officials were in a position to see the collision. It took Bellemare laying flat on the ice and deafening boos in the Pepsi Center before a call was announced. Bellemare is now going through concussion protocol. That’s a whole heaping pile of manure bad.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare Colorado Avalanche
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare got clocked by Nick Foligno and is recovering from concussion symptoms. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

2. MacKinnon missed the third period of the Predators game and there was concern he might have gotten injured during the game. The team later stated they held him out for precautionary reasons. The Avalanche were up 8-3 so the game wasn’t really in jeopardy. However, MacKinnon did play in the following matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Crisis averted.

Or was it? MacKinnon didn’t tally a single point against Columbus and only registered four shots on goal. For a normal player, that would be fine. But for Nate the Great, it’s a little concerning. Hopefully, it was an off night. But until he racks up a host of shots or some points, the health watch will continue.

3. An odd thing happened in the Dallas Stars game. Dallas forward Radek Faksa scored a goal with a broken stick. The play should have been whistled dead. But it wasn’t and the Avalanche went on a four-minute penalty kill (having a failed coach’s challenge earlier in the game). The explanation for the four-minute assessment didn’t help clarify matters.

Colorado got the four-minute penalty because they challenged an unchallengeable call. A coach can’t challenge whether a play deserved a penalty – such as the missed broken stick. However, that answer begs the question – if it wasn’t a challengeable play, why did the referees allow Bednar to contest it? To the surprise of no one, there will be more comments on the officiating coming up.

4. The inconsistent refereeing is allowing games to get out of control and players to get injured. When will the NHL start holding the officials accountable for calls or non-calls? Zadorov laying on the ice bleeding doesn’t get a stoppage in play, Nichushkin getting slammed into the boards doesn’t get a call, but let’s make sure Zadorov repeatedly gets penalties for a player running into him? And whatever happened to the linesman who kept tossing Kadri out of the face-off circle? Some accountability would be a refreshing change of pace.

5. Neither Comcast nor Dish have agreed to a deal with Altitude as yet. Since Altitude and DirecTV brokered a compromise, why can’t these two providers? It’s obviously possible. It’s a bad look for the holdout providers. But go ahead and tell customers one more time how much you value their input. Actions speak louder.

6. And here’s a good kind of bad. Back when Matt Duchene played eight years and a bit for the Avalanche, he only twice accrued 20-plus penalty minutes over an entire season – back in 2010-11 (33 minutes) and 2015-16 (24 minutes). Last season, he only had eight penalty minutes for the regular season.

Florida Panthers Anton Stralman Nashville Predators Matt Duchene
Nashville Predators’ Matt Duchene (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

In one game against the Avalanche, Duchene racked up four minutes in the box, half of his season total to date. Despite his celebration challenge after scoring his goal, it’s nice to see the Avalanche may actually be more in Duchene’s head than he is in theirs. That’s the kind of bad you don’t mind seeing again.

Ugly – More Injuries and More Officiating

1. Defenseman Nikita Zadorov promptly dropped to the ice, bleeding, after taking a puck to the face midway through the Predators game. Nashville players looked to help while the Avalanche trainer rushed to Zadorov before having to quickly hustle back to the bench. The referees never blew a whistle to stop the action.

The NHL rulebook allows referees to stop the play immediately when there is a serious injury. But they didn’t.

Zadorov needed surgery on his jaw, which required two plates and screws to repair. There was blood on his jersey. When Zadorov recognized they weren’t stopping play, he managed to finish his shift and skate to the bench, heading directly for the locker room. That’s an astounding kind of tough. But the blood should have been enough to blow the play dead. The official’s silence made an ugly situation dangerous. That’s the worst kind of ugly.

*As a side note, Zadorov returned to the ice for practice Monday after surgery on Friday. He wore a full face shield but practiced in a regular sweater, allowing for full contact. Zadorov may have earned a new nickname – Iron Man. Now all he needs is the suit. Although, it may chafe, as Zadorov doesn’t seem to wear socks.

2. Injuries present a significant obstacle for the Avalanche and maybe the biggest ‘ugly’ of the season. Rantanen, Landeskog, Colin Wilson, Philipp Grubauer, Zadorov and Bellemare are all in various stages of wrestling with recovering. The Avalanche may be deep but losing six starters, including the starting goaltender, is going to create some challenges for any team.

Adding salt to the wound, so to speak, is the actual size of the people missing. They are all at least six feet tall (Zadorov is 6-foot-6) and four of them weigh at least 200 pounds. The Avalanche are not only missing those players’ experience and skills, but they are also missing their size. In a league where the best way to halt a speedy team is to knock them around, missing some of the larger bodies can cause a host of problems.

3. Currently, there is not a timeline for when Landeskog or Wilson may return. Missing the team captain for an indefinite period of time is problematic on a number of levels. That is the kind of ugly that rivals some of the questionable facial hair growing in Movember.

4. Makar broke out for two goals against Columbus but prior to his first goal, there was a seriously questionable hit on Valeri Nichushkin which – surprise, surprise – wasn’t called. Defenseman Seth Jones plowed into Nichushkin, hitting him in the numbers, and shoving his head into the boards. No call. But hey, it’s good to see the NHL taking a stance against head hits.

Colorado Avalanche Valeri Nichushkin Nashville Predators Rocco Grimaldi
Colorado Avalanche Valeri Nichushkin tries to keep the puck from Nashville Predators center Rocco Grimaldi (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Stop me if you have heard this before. The referees missed three calls in two games involving head injuries to Avalanche players. Whether it’s blowing a play dead or missing a boarding call, the NHL has a long way to go to prove they are taking player’s safety seriously. Lip service isn’t going to do it.

5. With all the injuries, the Avalanche had an opportunity to make good on calling up players who “earned” a chance. Yet, the Avalanche management of player call-ups is puzzling. T.J. Tynan and Jayson Megna at least performed well with the Eagles but calling up defenseman Kevin Connauton proves the Avalanche aren’t calling up the best player. Connauton has been unimpressive with the Eagles and struggled to keep up with the Avalanche during the preseason.

Prospect Martin Kaut has been injured, Shane Bowers is just getting used to the AHL and A.J. Greer is in the doghouse so one can see a rationale for calling up Megna and Tynan, both of whom were playing well for the Eagles. But Connauton? What happened to Calle Rosen and Conor Timmins? Timmins actually started the season with the Avalanche.

The Connauton recall is the biggest trigger point for challenging the whole ‘meritocracy’ argument around the Avalanche call-up structure. If NHL opportunities are based on actually “earning” the chance, shouldn’t Timmins and Rosen have been the first call-ups on the blue line? If the team isn’t going to call them up with six starters out, what message is the Avalanche sending their prospects? Perhaps that’s why the front office guys get paid the big bucks. But it sure looks ugly from here.

Question of the Week

Is it better to get young prospects a taste of the NHL pace when they can take sheltered minutes in a limited role? Or, if they are only getting limited minutes, is it better to keep them playing larger roles in the AHL? There was a time when the Avalanche didn’t have enough quality players to even consider the question. But with depth, comes new responsibilities and new challenges. In the long run, it’s a good problem to have.

Hopeful – Bednar’s Blender and Players on the Mend

1. Some of the walking wounded could be returning sooner rather than later. Rantanen skated for his first time since being injured before Monday’s practice, which is promising. Grubauer and Bellemare are travelling with the team on their western Canadian road swing although they may miss a few games. And the Avalanche mentioned Zadorov may be able to join the team later on in the road trip. Hope is on the horizon, but no one knows how far away that is. As long as it’s not a mirage, everything is going to be ok.

Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon
Mikko Rantanen just started skating again, but he isn’t traveling with the team. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-David Zalubowski)

2. Coach Bednar went to work running his line blender to adapt to the injuries and may have found some promising line combinations. Putting Matt Calvert with MacKinnon and Donskoi seemed like a reach but has paid off in the short run. Graves and Makar appear to be a successful defensive pairing. And both Burakovsky and Kadri have managed to earn points, serving as Swiss Army Knives on the team, rotating through linemates as situations change. It’s only been a few games, but Bednar’s combinations have been promising. With Bellemare gone, the blender will need to spin again. As long as it’s not a Cale smoothie, we don’t want him creamed.

What to Watch

The Avalanche head out on a five-game Western Conference road swing. They start in Canada and finish with the Minnesota Wild. All points are important, but points against conference rivals could be valuable in the run for the playoffs.

1. The Avalanche open up the road swing taking on the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday night at 6 pm MST. It will be the first look at Colorado without Bellemare. The Jets are missing key players as well so this could be an interesting matchup. And the best part, Dustin Byfuglien won’t be playing, reducing the chance of Colorado injuries.

2. Thursday night, the Avalanche head to Edmonton to take on Connor McDavid and the Oilers at 7 pm MST. Keep an eye on MacKinnon as he may have had enough of being unfavorably compared to McDavid. He’s not the only one.

3. On Saturday night at 8 pm MST, the Vancouver Canucks will host the Avalanche. The Canucks have found some success early in the season so it could be the perfect time to get some injured Avalanche players back.

4. Colorado will meet up with the Calgary Flames for the second time this season on Tuesday, Nov. 19, at 7 pm MST. This could be a hot one. Maybe Jost can make toast of the Flames.

Tyson Jost
Colorado Avalanche are adapting to a season of ‘next man up’. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Between the promise of injured players returning and a challenging Canadian road trip, there’s plenty of drama in the upcoming set of games. Perhaps the biggest two questions are – can the remaining Avalanche players stay healthy? And, when will some of the injured starters return?

Until next time, remember the good, forget the bad, and be on guard against the ugly. There’s plenty to look forward to.