The Colorado Avalanche are getting healthier. Captain Gabe Landeskog returned to the lineup after missing 11 games and injured defensemen Erik Johnson and Ryan Wilson appear to be on the mend as well. Both have practiced over the last couple of days and are with the team on its current three-game road trip. Both could presumably play as early as tomorrow night in Detroit.
Of course, getting players back from injured reserve is always a good thing, especially when they are players of the caliber of Landeskog, Johnson, and Wilson, but this will certainly force head coach Joe Sacco to make some decisions. With Johnson’s and Wilson’s return, the Avs will have a logjam of nine healthy defensemen.
The Avs began the season with eight defensemen: Erik Johnson, Ryan Wilson, Jan Hejda, Ryan O’Byrne, Greg Zanon, Tyson Barrie, Matt Hunwick, and Shane O’Brien with the latter two as healthy scratches. Joe Sacco could return to keeping eight healthy defensemen on the roster, however, the Avs now have one more forward than at the beginning of the season with controversial center Ryan O’Reilly returning to the fold last week.
Stefan Elliott, who was called up on February 19th, after Johnson and Wilson were felled with their injuries, has played in five games this season, but has recently been a healthy scratch. He will likely be sent back to Lake Erie, where he can further hone his young skills as top defensemen there and develop his game into the defensemen the Avs hope he will become.
The Odd Men Out
I would waive veteran defenseman Greg Zanon, who certainly brings the best beard to the Colorado Avalanche, but his skill set is replaceable. To his credit, he blocks shots very well, but is undersized for a stay-at-home defenseman and can get pushed of the puck easily by forecheckers and often turns the puck over in the Avs’ zone. I’d say this is probably unlikely though, since Sacco has played Zanon in every game so far this season.
Next up would be Matt Hunwick, who does bring impressive speed to the Avs blueline, but his skill set can be replaced by Tyson Barrie, who has emerged of late. Hunwick is also a favorite of Joe Sacco, so it would be very unlikely for him to be waived. A trade may not be out of the question though since Barrie and Elliott are thought to be the future of the Avs’ offensive defensemen.
Although I really like his physical play and his fearlessness of carrying the puck deep into the opponent’s zone, Shane O’Brien has frequently found himself in Sacco’s doghouse this year. He’s played well of late, earning the third star of the game in Colorado’s 5-4 comeback win against Calgary last Thursday despite being penalized quite often when in the lineup. O’Brien’s name has popped in in trade rumors with him being a healthy scratch in 11 of the team’s 20 games so far this year. I would also not be surprised to see Ryan O’Byrne on the trade block.
The Avs will also have an extra forward due to Ryan O’Reilly’s return. Fourth-liners Mark Olver, waiver pickup Aaron Palushaj, and enforcer heavyweight Patrick Bordeleau may be expendable now.
What The Pairings May Look Like
Hunwick healthy scratched, Zanon waived, and Elliott with Lake Erie.
Again, these pairing are probably unlikely given Sacco’s M.O. but we shall see. One thing is for sure, getting Johson and Wilson back will help the embattled defensive core.