The Colorado Avalanche kept tweaking their roster throughout their hot start but seem to have finalized their line combinations. Unfortunately, Mikko Rantanen left in the middle of Monday night’s game with an injury. What did the Avalanche’s “ideal” lineup look like and how will Rantanen’s injury shake things up?
The Forward Corps
The Avalanche played around with the forwards lines before settling on the combinations below. Late-addition Valeri Nichushkin skated in the first five games, Colin Wilson didn’t play in the first two games, and forward J.T. Compher missed three games due to injury. All of this led to some interesting shuffling to find the right chemistry for each forward trio. Prior to Rantanen’s injury, the Avalanche settled on the following lines:
Top Line – the Terrifying Trio
It’s no surprise that the Avalanche elected to keep their top line together. Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Rantanen propelled the team to their best playoff performance in over a decade last season. There’s no real reason to mess with success.
However, the top trio has yet to hit its stride, despite the team’s impressive 7-1-1 start. Whether that’s because Rantanen missed all of the preseason because of contract negotiations, they haven’t regained their timing or they aren’t reading each other well, it’s hard to tell. Still, the terrifying trio have accounted for one third of the team’s goals. Last season, they accounted for 60%.
With Rantanen’s injury, who will slot in on the top line and for how long? Will Landeskog and MacKinnon be enough to carry whoever joins them?
The New Guys Line
General manager Joe Sakic fixated on acquiring quality scoring talent to help bolster the team’s depth. He struck gold with the Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, and Joonas Donskoi combination. The trio didn’t start the season on the same line but they have been a dynamic scoring threat since playing together. Each member has notched two goals apiece. Kadri also leads the team in face-off wins.
The Third Line
The third line has seen the most shuffling. Compher moved from center to right wing, Tyson Jost claimed the center role with his impressive play during Compher’s brief IR stint, and Wilson returned from IR to slot in on the left wing. Jost broke out for his first career hat trick and this line had arguably their best game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Having a little more time together will help but they have the potential to be scary.
The Wily Vet Line
The fourth line has proved to be one of the best surprises of the new season. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare centers Matt Nieto and Matt Calvert on the wings. There have been times when this line has been the best forward group on the ice. They are tenacious, gritty, and skilled. Calvert will take on players much bigger than him, Nieto has a nose for the net, and Bellemare plays like a Swiss Army knife, doing pretty much everything well.
The forward corps has the kind of depth many dreamed of. All three lines have scored important goals and can challenge the top line on any given night.
Filling Rantanen’s Role
The easy answer on how to fill the hole left by an injured Rantanen is, you can’t. Tops stars are irreplaceable, but someone may step up to help carry the load. That begs the question, does Coach Bednar mess with the developing chemistry on the other three lines to replace Rantanen?
Burakovsky spent some time skating with Landeskog and MacKinnon while Rantanen was sitting out the preseason. But his line is finally gelling and the Avalanche need that scoring second line to work. Also, if Burakovsky slots into Rantanen’s spot, do you then move Compher or Jost up to the second line? How many lines do you mess with to fill that one hole?
The alternative is also risky. Both Nichushkin and Vadislav Kamenev have been waiting in the wings for an opportunity to move into the starting lineup. However, Nichushkin isn’t fast enough to keep up with MacKinnon and Kamenev normally plays center.
The other option involves calling up one of the young AHL prospects to audition for Rantanen’s role. Rookie Shane Bowers and Martin Kaut should be the prime candidates as both have raw skill. One of the older veterans with the Eagles may have the game experience but not the speed.
The Avalanche have an opportunity to break with tradition here and run out either Bowers, Kaut, or Kamenev and see if they can be a good temporary fit. It could be the chance of a lifetime for those players and the Avalanche, but every option presents a certain amount of risk for the forward corps.
Fortunately, Rantanen’s injury shouldn’t impact the back end of the ice.
Alternate captain Erik Johnson continues to skate top line minutes with the whirling tornado – Samuel Girard. These two eat up the hard time on the ice against top forward lines. Girard contributes on the power play, Johnson on the penalty kill.
The second defensive pairing puts Nikita Zadorov and rookie Cale Makar together. Makar has notched eight assists while Zadorov scored a highlight reel goal. While Makar still makes some rookie mistakes, his on-ice awareness is off the charts. Zadorov still draws penalties for being big but his presence opens up lanes on the ice. It’s a high risk-high reward pairing that plays exciting hockey.
The final pairing includes Ryan Graves and Ian Cole. Graves opened the season paired with Conor Timmins and they played two games together before Timmins was sent down to the Eagles. Iron man Ian Cole – coming back from double hip surgery – made a miraculous recovery and joined Graves for the last five games. They are still learning to work together but they play the shutdown role well and Graves has logged a fair amount of time on the penalty kill.
Time to tip your hat to the Avalanche goaltenders who are stepping up as the team’s dynamic duo.
Philipp Grubauer earned the starting role as the Avalanche made their push for the playoffs last season. He earned more respect during his solid postseason play. However, questions lingered about whether he could handle the starting role full time.
His impressive start to the season should put those questions to rest. When the forwards struggled to play a full sixty minutes at the season’s start, Grubauer kept the team in games and gave them a chance to win.
Pavel Francouz, who spent last season playing for the Colorado Eagles, demonstrated he’s worthy of the backup role and could be destined for greater things down the road. He backstopped the club to two wins and boasts an impressive .951 save percentage.
When the Avalanche faltered, both goalies made show-stopping saves which helped feed the winning streak. They may not be Batman and Robin but they are a dynamic duo. With Rantanen out, they may be tested even more and this could be their chance to show the world they deserve to be feared. Beware their groove.
The Avalanche finally have the advantage of depth. They have both forward and defensive combinations that work well together. The team also put together an amazing (so far) goaltending tandem.
Rantanen’s injury will test not only the players but the coaching staff and front office. Will the Avalanche shuffle all four forward lines or offer the chance to one of their younger skilled skaters? Can the team’s depth options help fill the void when one of the stars go down?
Make no mistake. The Avalanche should be able to continue a strong showing without Rantanen, but maybe not as dominant. They managed to work around injuries to MacKinnon, Landeskog. and Rantanen at crucial moments over the past two seasons. It could also open the door to one of their younger prospects and maybe reveal a hidden gem.
Rantanen’s injury could be the opportunity for the team to dig deep and find another level. It’s happened before. The Avalanche haven’t had this balance and talented a lineup in a decade. If they do find another level, look out, world!
J.D. has followed the Colorado Avalanche since the days of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. Blessed to cover the team for nearly 5 seasons, 3 of those at other venues, J.D. enjoys working with the Hockey Writers. Proud parent of three humans and two dogs, you can follow all the escapades @JDKpirate.