As the NHL season approaches, every team has plenty of questions before the puck drops on Jan. 13. With training camps underway, we’re finally starting to see some line combinations, which leads to lots of chatter. Oddly enough, the Colorado Avalanche and their forward group might have some of the most straightforward combinations out there. As alwa, but unlike other teams where every line seems up in the air, what the Avalanche might start with could be a very common occurrence throughout the 2021 season.
Andre Burakovsky - Nathan MacKinnon - Mikko Rantanen
Gabriel Landeskog - Nazem Kadri - Brandon Saad
Valeri Nichushkin - JT Compher - Joonas Donskoi
Tyson Jost - Pierre-Edouard Bellemare - Matt Calvert
These lines are the exact same as on Daily Faceoff, and oddly enough, were all typed before even looking at the combos. The lineup just makes so much sense, and there isn’t even a ton of challengers near the bottom. What will be interesting is seeing who subs in when injuries happen or on back-to-backs where a player needs rest. Let’s start by looking at why these lines are the perfect fit.
The biggest question in the top six is whether or not to split up the big three, Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen? They are dominant every second they play together and are a top-two line in the NHL. However, it’s also left the Avs lacking any kind of depth scoring at times. Because of this, splitting them up seems like the right call.
MacKinnon doesn’t need stars alongside him to be effective. He will be thrilled to have Rantanen back on his wing, but when needed, he can get it done with two guys who aren’t as skilled. Burakovsky seems like a pretty good fit up top. MacKinnon and Rantanen are two highly skilled players, and Burakovsky found that part of his game more frequently last season. He struggled at times in Washington, but when he’s simply the third player on the line, he thrives.
As for the second line, adding both Kadri and Saad over the past two years has been fundamental to shaping this team. Not only does it allow them to have depth, but it creates a team with more than one top, dominant line. Landeskog playing with two other top-six guys in Kadri and Saad means this second line will give other second lines a lot of trouble. It’s the perfect line to hop on the ice as the MacKinnon line hops off.
Plus, it allows the team to play multiple styles. It can load up the top line if it plays a top-heavy team. It can also have two really great lines that can go head to head with any other top-six in the league. Or if a team's specialty is depth all the way down, the lines can be split up into three legitimate options. The ability to create combinations based on an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses is crucial.
Then there’s the third line. The Avalanche are hoping for a repeat of Nichsukin’s insane defensive year last season. The biggest question mark will be Donskoi, who really struggled to live up to expectations. However, by adding Saad, he can now be bumped down the lineup and re-discover the game he had in San Jose.
With the Sharks, Donskoi was a solid depth piece with big goals at crucial times. That’s exactly what he can do in Colorado. He doesn’t need to be relied heavily upon in the top six to make a difference. Instead, he and his line mates can play a solid 200-foot game and chip in when needed. This won’t be a third line that blows the competition away every night, but it should be competitive and relatively even with anyone it faces.
This final line is likely where the only big training camp question centers itself. Do the Avs go with Tyson Jost or Logan O’Connor? Jost has disappointed with where he was drafted but has a chance to change his game and become a useful NHLer, just in a different way than first thought. This fourth line is one that will grind away and keep opponents on their toes. If Jost can do that, he’ll fit right in. If not, O’Connor will be waiting for an opportunity and will get some playing time regardless. He played 16 games last year with just two points. However, he had 25 in 40 AHL games.
Overall, the line won’t be anything special, regardless of who is on it. However, all the Avs need is for it to play to even and chip in when it can.
What to Expect
Other than that, there won’t be many surprises. Martin Kaut is likely a player the team will want to see when injuries occur. Shane Bowers is another that needs to play his way into an opportunity.
The bottom line is this forward core is really solid. It has one of the best players in the league to build around and has surrounded him with solid talent. What’s even more amazing is that the group won’t be the top strength of the team thanks to the stacked defense. Plus, there really aren’t any holes that need addressing. It’s really hard not to see Colorado as a cup favorite based merely on depth and the shear talent of its players.