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Four storylines to follow during Colorado Avalanche training camp

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Hockey season is finally upon us, but there’s still plenty to figure out before opening night

Calgary Flames v Colorado Avalanche - Game Four Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s that time of year, hockey fans. Breathe an ardent sigh of relief — we made it! Fall is nipping at the heels of summer and the long, painstaking hockey-less drought that is the months of June, July and August is just about over. For the Colorado Avalanche and the rest of the National Hockey League, the 2019-20 season is set to begin in just a matter of days.

By the time the Avs hit the ice for their first day of camp on Friday at the Family Sports Center in Centennial, Colo., it’ll have been 128 days since Avalanche hockey has graced our pupils. Yes, the wait is finally over. But for GM Joe Sakic, head coach Jared Bednar and the rest of Colorado’s front office, they’ll have a lot to figure out during the four-day camp. Here are four things they’re probably thinking about as camp begins.

Which rookies can crack the roster?

Colorado has an insane amount of young talent clogging the pipeline up I-25 from Loveland, home of the Colorado Eagles, to Denver. The Avalanche farm system was ranked No. 2 on Corey Pronman’s yearly ranking on The Athletic, which is all the way up 19 spots from last year’s ranking, thanks to another very strong draft by Sakic and Co. With only maybe a spot or two open for the taking during training camp, competition should be intense, which is always a good thing during camp.

Inarguably, the top two prospects in Colorado’s farm are its two ultra-talented young defensemen in Cale Makar and Bowen Byram. The former has already earned his spot on the 2019-20 squad, while the latter has a pretty solid chance to crack the roster, too. Byram was impressive in the Anaheim Rookie Faceoff, notching two assists in his first game of the tourney while showcasing his speed, offensive talent and defensive reliability. The 2019 fourth-overall pick has already noted his desire to jump straight to the NHL, but whether or not the 18 year old earns the right to play with the big boys in his first year remains to be seen.

Another intriguing guy I could see cracking the 23-man roster is Logan O’Connor, the 23-year-old University of Denver product. After earning his chops during Avs Development Camp last summer, OC signed a two-year entry-level deal that saw him play a solid year down in Loveland, where he finished tied for second on the Eagles in goals (19) and third in points (42). The young right wing even played five games with the big club in Denver. This season, I’d anticipate he’ll play in a few more, if not perhaps a majority. The fact that he was named the captain of Colorado’s rookie team at the Anaheim Rookie Faceoff is probably a good sign of how the front office feels about him and his budding potential.

Now, can the likes of Martin Kaut, Vladislav Kamenev or maybe even Shane Bowers earn a spot as well? We’ll find out soon enough.

Wherefore art thou Rantanen?

O Rantanen, Rantanen! Wherefore art thou Rantanen?

Deny thy doubters and refuse thy offer sheets...

Though there’s been confidence on both Sakic’s and Mikko Rantanen’s side that this contract extension would get done sooner rather than later, the clock is ticking and the hope remains that the contract dispute doesn’t began to unfold like a Shakespearian drama.

Colorado’s beloved and uber-talented young Finn is still M.I.A. and off training some 4,600 miles away with the Storhamar Dragons of Norway as he awaits a new deal here on the other side of the globe. And despite reports that he’s garnered some contractual attention from the KHL, Avs fans can breathe a collective sigh of relief knowing their 22-year-old top-line winger says “For me, the only option is the NHL.” There’s absolutely no way that Sakic lets him walk elsewhere. So rest assured, Avalanche faithful, there’s still no need to panic. I know, I know — I miss him too.

Rantanen is destined to become one of the NHL’s highest paid wingers — and rightfully so. “But when?” becomes the question that’s becoming increasingly more pointed. A month ago at the Finnish Alumni All-Star Game in Finland, Rantanen told a reporter that “Nothing’s wrong; there’s still one month until [training] camp starts” and he’s not “stressful” about the situation. Now a month removed from those comments, and just a couple of days away from training camp, perhaps he’s starting to stress at least a little bit?

Not quite sure what the roadblock is here, whether it’s money of length of contract or — more than likely — both, as is usually the case. Sakic says he prefers a long-term deal, but is willing to go shorter if it gets the deal done faster. Rantanen is definitely going to garner a number north of $8 million, putting him up there with the Patrick Kane’s, the Nikita Kucherov’s and the other elite right wings of the NHL.

If I were a betting man, I’d bet Sakic gets this done in the next couple of weeks. Joe is a crowd-pleaser and he knows the Avs faithful and his teammates will want to see their beloved Finn on the ice when the Avs open up the season against the Calgary Flames at Pepsi Center on Oct. 3. If not sooner.

What’s the over-under on five years, $8.5 million per? That’s my prediction.

The curious case of Valeri Nichushkin

In the past few seasons, few players have been more enigmatic in the NHL than Valeri Nichushkin. Once touted as an Alexander Ovechkin-caliber player coming out of Russia, the hulking 6-foot-4 right wing has so far been a huge bust.

Drafted 10th overall by the Dallas Stars in 2013, the affectionately nicknamed “Nuke” began his North American career on a very solid note. In his first season in Dallas, Nichushkin amassed 14 goals and 34 points in 79 games while recording an impressive plus-20. After a hip injury and subsequent surgery, Val only played eight games in what we’ll chalk up to as an injury-induced sophomore slump. After some coaching drama, Nichushkin fled to greener, more comfortable pastures back home in Russia, where he played two seasons before returning back to the Stars. But after another disappointing campaign last year, the Stars brass decided to buy-out and part ways with its Russian experiment this summer.

Enter: Colorado. Nichushkin is an intriguing, low-risk late summer pick up by the Avalanche. And perhaps a change of scenery is all that was needed for the struggling left wing. Sakic says “Valeri is a big, young winger who adds depth to our roster and brings competition to our training camp.” We’ll see if that’s the case when camp opens up this weekend.

Worse comes to worst, he’ll provide some depth down in Loveland with the Eagles, and even perhaps a new friend to Igor Shvyrev, who lost his comrade and fellow countryman in Sergei Boikov when he signed a two-year deal back in the KHL with Dynamo Moskow in July.

Who steps up on defense?

Let me start off by saying this: the Avs’ defense is going to be really really fun to watch. Like really really fun in the exciting, thrilling offensive production kind of way. Now what remains to be seen is how exciting this young backend can be in the defensively adept kind of way.

With the departure of Tyson Barrie and Patrik Nemeth, two of the more tenured members on the 2018-19 Colorado blueline, the Avalanche defense is turning its attention to a more youthful backend. The last two out of three drafts, the Avs have selected a speedy offensive-minded defenseman — that is, Makar in 2017 and Byram in 2019 — in the first round. It’s a clear-cut sign of how Sakic and Bednar want their blueline operating: offensive-minded, fast and functional.

With Ian Cole out until December following his off-season hip surgery, that leaves Erik Johnson, Sam Girard, Cale Makar and Nikita Zadorov as the real defensive shoe-ins to make the team out of camp. If Bednar runs with seven defensemen, as he’s been known to do in the past, that leaves three spots open for the taking during camp.

The injury to Cole bodes well for the likes of Byram, who has an even better shot at cracking the 23-man. Mark Barberio is another tenured and trustworthy guy who will more than likely keep his spot on the blueline. I’ll group Barberio with the newcomer Kevin Connauton as potential bottom-pairing guys.

I’m going to go with this to open the season:

Girard — Johnson

Zadorov — Makar

Connauton — Byram

Barberio

IR: Cole

What say you?


Here’s a full breakdown of the training camp schedule (via NHL.com/Avalanche). See you all there!

Thursday, Sept. 12

NHL Training Camp Begins

Medical/Physical Testing

Friday, Sept. 13

Training Camp at Family Sports Center

Group 1 on ice: 8:15 - 10:15 a.m.

Group 2 on ice: 10:25 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 14

Training Camp at Family Sports Center

Group 2 on ice: 8:15 - 10:15 a.m.

Group 1 on ice: 10:25 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 15

Training Camp at Family Sports Center

Group 1 on ice: 8:15 - 10:15 a.m.

Group 2 on ice: 10:25 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.

Monday, Sept. 16

Practice at Family Sports Center

Group 2 on ice: 9:00 - 10:15 a.m.

Group 1 on ice: 11:00 a.m. - 12:15 p.m.