Losing Matt Duchene is going to be a major blow to this team over the next month. There are 12 games in the month of January, and 11 of those games are against conference teams. The Avs are a bubble team right now, and these points are critical. Going into them without their 2nd leading scorer is going to be difficult to say the least.
However, the Avs still have a good team and have proven that they can win without the help of Dutchy. He's been pretty quiet of late, scoring only 2G/2A in the last 10 games while the team has gone 7-3-0. But he's still Matt Duchene and the face of this young franchise. His absence will undoubtedly raises a few questions that the Avs will have to find an answer to over the next 4 (or more) Duchene-less weeks.
The four most important issues that will have to be addressed after the jump...
1. Who is going to take his place on the second line?
This team was already hurting for Top 6 forwards before Dutchy went down. Daniel Winnik has been doing a decent job on Stastny's other wing, but the ideal place to use his talents is in a 3rd line/PK role, not on a scoring line. Now that we're basically short two Top 6 forwards, who is available to act as a serviceable stop-gap until Dutchy gets back?
The most likely candidate is T.J. Galiardi, who has been playing rather well lately. He has 3 pts (1G/2A) in the past 3 games and looks like he has finally fully recovered from the various injuries and lack of confidence that plagued him last year. He's served as a Top 6 forward on Stastny's wing before (the 2010 playoffs come to mind) and Joe Sacco is known to reward players who are playing well with more ice time.
David Jones is also a possibility. He's been out since mid-December with a groin pull, but seems to be nearing his return date. (UPDATE: He's supposedly in the lineup tonight) Even though he was lackluster in the games leading up to his injury, he led the team in goals last year with 27, the same number as Duchene. He's also logged a lot of successful hours on Stastny's wing, and if he can come back and have a second half of the season like he did last year (14G/8A), he'd be a great fit on that line for sure.
Another more distant possibility is the return of Peter Mueller. He's been struggling with concussions since April 2010, but word is that he's been skating and looking really good in practice as of late. He went on a 20pt in 15 game run with the Avs after he joined the club at the trade deadline. If Mueller can come back with even half of the production he put up in those 15 games, that would be a tremendous help for this team through January and beyond.
2. Who is going to step up to cover for Duchene's lost point production?
While the answer should be "everyone on the team", two players in particular need to step up their game - Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk. Stastny has looked decent since he came back from injury (3G/3A in 9 games), but he's not looked like the player we know he can be since December last year. However, he really stepped up his game Thursday after Duchene went down, so there's hope he'll find his mojo again. If he can find a way to get back to his career average .9PPG, this team will still be in good standing when his linemate returns.
Hejduk has also been lackluster of late. Since being awarded the "C" in mid-November, he's scored 2G/9A. Right now, he's on pace for only 19 goals, which would be the first time since '98-'99 that he's scored less than 20. More often than not, he's been invisible on the ice, being outshone by the two youngsters on his line. He might not be as young as he used to be, but we need more from "The Duke" if this team stands a chance of making playoffs especially now that Duchene is out.
3. Will Duchene's absence prompt a trade?
As mentioned before, the Avs Top 6 winger depth has been severely lacking all year. Injuries are finally starting to catch up with us, depleting it further. Even if Jones and Mueller are able to come back in the near future, at the rate this team has been getting hurt (9 injuries in December alone), how long will they last?
On the other hand, this team has a ton of defensive talent. With Wilson slated to come back soon, that means we have 7 NHL caliber defensemen even before you include Hunwick. Elliott's doing so well that sending him back to the minors seems like a waste, and all the other defensemen would have to be waived. Barrie and Gaunce can also be called up in a pinch, leaving us with 10 serviceable defensemen. Last year, even before we were so gifted on the blue line, injury forced us to trade a defenseman for a scoring forward (Hannan/Fleischmann trade). Could Duchene's injury cause the same thing to happen again this year?
We can't afford to Tank this year - we have no first round pick. Our top 6 depth is hurting - how long can Sherman afford to go before making a move?
4. When Dutchy comes back, will he still be himself?
Duchene is speed, pure and simple. He skates and moves the puck around more rapidly than just about anyone else in the league. However, depending on the severity of the knee injury, he might lose his unbelievable footspeed for quite some time, maybe even forever. When he does come back sometime (hopefully) in February, how is he going to fit into the team? Will he take his 2nd line winger/PP point-man role back, or will he fit in in a different way? Only time will tell, but the team may be forced to make some tough decisions if Dutchy has lost his biggest attribute.