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MHH Roundtable: Defining Hope

The first half of the season has been a roller coaster, will it continue?

Colorado Avalanche v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

As the Colorado Avalanche take a well-earned break before participating in the all-star festivities and gearing up for the stretch run, we take a look at how the 2022-23 season has unfolded up to this point.

What has been the most disappointing or encouraging part of the team’s play during this stretch?

Evan: Things looked really bleak after the Avs losses against the Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks. Several points out of the playoffs, injuries continuing to pile up, it seemed as if the Avs were just going to need to sneak into the playoffs. However, this win streak Colorado has taken into the break to leapfrog themselves up the standings has been phenomenal. With reinforcements coming and this wonderful rebound, the only way is up.

Jackie: The win streaks have definitely helped mitigate the lows and have shown resilience to this year’s team. However, mental lapses and collapses have been a theme as well. It’s an inconsistency the Avalanche haven’t seen for several seasons. We’ll see if the expected return of defensemen Bowen Byram and Josh Manson help smooth out the peaks and valleys or if this sort of roller coaster will define the season.

Ezra: While there has obviously been a lot to be concerned about, some of the underlying play from Colorado bodes really well for a playoff push, particularly the resurgence of the penalty kill. It looked shaky to start the year but has become a consistently great unit for the Avs, blanking opposing powerplays on the regular during the team’s January win streak. A lot of that is goaltending, but that’s even better - great goaltending is another reason to believe this team is going to make some noise again this spring.

Jacob: Both disappointing and encouraging is how the team has fared with and without Valeri Nichushkin. With him in the lineup, they’re one of the best teams in hockey, without him, they’re the Vancouver Canucks. The fact that the Avs have dropped some bad games with poor efforts and the fact that Nichushkin is a tireless forechecker and a relentless defender are related. If the Avs can match Val’s effort the rest of the way, they’ll be fine.

Eddie: When the team is losing it is easy to only focus on results, and not how they come about. Which is more than reasonable. However, when we do that it takes away from things the team does well despite the final score. Something they have consistently done is never give up. The constant fight and determination to turn any score around is something we saw a lot from the team last year. It’s what won them some big games and they are showing it again this year. Good teams need to find a way to win, especially come crunch time and this team can do that.

Adrian: Valeri Nichuskin’s impact has been the best and worst part of Colorado’s game this season. Whenever he is in the lineup, the Avalanche seems to have a balanced and consistent top six, which usually shows up on the scoresheet. Colorado’s five-game losing streak coincided with a five-game absence for Val; to me, that is no coincidence. He came back, and so did the Avs. Hopefully, this All-Star break is exactly what he needs to return to total health and stay in the lineup.

How should GM Chris MacFarland approach the trade deadline?

Evan: I think it really depends on the needs of the Avs once the trade deadline approaches. We’ve already seen one great move done with the acquisition of Matt Nieto to the fourth line to cover for the possible season-ending injury to Darren Helm. Should the Avs find a good deal, they could line up a move to add to the middle six or a third-pair defenseman. However, all I ask is please don’t trade away the first-round pick for the upcoming NHL Draft.

Ezra: I’d also be looking for a middle-six forward and a depth defenseman. Bednar has demonstrated clearly that he doesn’t trust Andreas Englund or Kurtis MacDermid and as well as Brad Hunt has performed, there are more consistent defensive zone presences available on the market. Up front, I’d like to give Newhook some better wingers, either by bringing someone in who fits that line or who fits on the second line to bump Compher down a line.

Jacob: I think when healthy, the Avs have a very good top nine. They could put the big line together when Landeskog comes back and still trot out a second line of Nichushkin, Lehkonen, and Rodrigues, while the third would be comprised of Newhook, Compher, and likely O’Connor. They don’t need to add a 2C at the deadline, they secured that position with the Rodrigues signing. Jared Bednar has communicated quite clearly what they need these past couple of months: fourth-line depth. Bednar has barely played his fourth line through these injuries, and Matt Nieto is likely the start of a project to put players out there that the Avs coach actually trusts to soak up depth minutes. If Colorado does make a big move, I would expect it to be for a restricted free agent or a young player under contract like the Artturi Lehkonen deal last year.

Jackie: Another long-game RFA poach would be the best move but I’m afraid the assets for those have dried up until the second and third-round picks return in 2025. I’m also not a fan of rentals and it seems neither are the Avalanche after signing what was a presumed rental in Josh Manson over the summer. Still, they always go out and buy a little veteran help and the return of Matt Nieto was probably the first step. A 4C to replace Helm could also be in the cards and I really don’t think the team needs to go out and reacquire Jack Johnson but they probably will. I’d actually like to see a sneaky sell of one of their expiring contracts and MacFarland could even turn around and use those assets in one of those amazing RFA steals.

Eddie: This trade deadline is likely not going to be akin to the deadlines of years past. I have a hard time thinking the Avalanche are going to get the big impact players for relatively cheap prices like last year. I also don’t believe they are going to make the same mistakes they did in 2021. If Evan Rodrigues continues his level of play-up and can establish himself as the team’s second-line center there's no reason the team should spend significant assets on a forward. If he doesn’t then I believe Jonathan Toews is the way to go. He’s a cheap rental who has the experience and leadership the Avs love. Depth defenseman is the most likely course of action. The Avs don’t have a solid seventh defenseman that can step in if injuries hit the blue line down the stretch. Andreas Englund and Brad Hunt likely aren’t going to cut it come playoff time.

Adrian: We talked a bit about this on this week's Mile High Hockey lab episode, but I think the Avalanche should do nothing at the deadline. I don’t see a 2C that won't require a return to the tune of a roster player, prospect, or draft pick. Colorado doesn’t have much in terms of draft capital or promising prospects as is. Can’t make that problem worse by trading valuable long-term assets for rental forwards. Moreover, I don’t think the Avalanche need to address their depth beyond getting guys back from the injured list. Bo Byram and Josh Manson are pretty solid additions as is. I don’t see anyone on the trade board that is a real improvement over any other depth forward or defender, really, so why take the risk?

Has there been a silver lining to the 2022-23 campaign thus far?

Jackie: Mikko Rantanen hitting 34 goals before the All-Star Break and the season he’s having is the positive story of the first half for me. He’s well on pace for it but if he can get to 50 goals would be an enormous milestone for him and the franchise who hasn’t seen a 50-goal scorer since Milan Hejduk did it 20 years ago.

Evan: The recent resurgence of Alex Newhook has been a nice addition to the team’s depth. Up to 12 goals and eight assists and riding a four-game point streak will only help the Avs and their depth as guys continue to return and fill in gaps for more injuries should they pop up. It could be a defining season for his young career, and at just 22 years old it will determine his future in an Avs sweater.

Ezra: Gotta be Georgiev — they sure seem to have nailed that trade, getting a true number one netminder for two third-round picks and a fifth is grand larceny. And that Nieto-Merkley acquisition could be another steal if Merkley becomes an NHLer, so maybe the real silver lining is Chris MacFarland has kept that Sakic trade mojo going.

Jacob: I’ll add Andreas Englund to the list of silver linings. At the beginning of the season, the Avs depth past their league-best top-six defense looked bleak with Kurtis MacDermid and Jacob MacDonald backing them up, but Englund’s emergence as a solid seventh defenseman has been an important development. When you’re a star-studded team like the Avs with lots of players on big contracts, you have to find ways to patch up the depth on the cheap, and Colorado’s front office did just that with both Andreas Englund and Brad Hunt.

Eddie: There’s something about JT Compher that always seems to pass under the radar, specifically in Avalanche circles. Season after season he shows himself as a solid third-line center, but he’s done even more this year. It’s not glamorous or perfect but the dude has 30 points in 48 games this year. To go along with that he’s been pushed into a much more demanding role as Colorado’s second-line center. I can’t say he’s a guy that you really want to be your 2C come playoff time, but given his current rate of play, the Avs may be questioning whether or not to roll with him. I doubt it, but either way, the dude has come up big for the team this year and he deserves his flowers.

Adrian: I think the silver lining is glaring right now for the Avalanche. They are the defending champs with plenty to play for and some key pieces returning from injury. Their most recent winning streak shows the potential, but I still don’t think we’ve seen the best that this year's Avalanche squad has to offer. That’s promising for a team that is still in a playoff position despite a crippling injury wave and a short off-season.

Predictions for how the rest of the season will go?

Evan: As unlikely and bold as it seems, the Avs will win the Central Division. Book it.

Ezra: I’m still on the repeat train and I’m not getting off til someone makes me. They’ll probably have to do it from the second or third seed in the Central, but road wins count just as much as home wins so I’m not scared of that.

Jacob: I’ve already detailed their path back to the top of the Western Conference, and it’s a very reasonable comeback given how easy their closing quarter is and how low the point total pace is for the 1-seed right now. I think they’ve turned a corner with their play, plus reinforcements will be on the way in the coming months. With this being a down year for the West (the LA Kings are in first place in the Pacific Division with a negative goal differential), there’s no reason the full-strength Avs shouldn’t still be the favorites.

Jackie: As Jacob points out the month of February is going to be difficult with a much softer March schedule but as we’ve seen this week bad opponents doesn’t always mean wins. I think the Avalanche can lock up a Central Division playoff spot but I’m not sure the division title is in the cards this year. That’s ok, the Tampa Bay Lightning don’t win their division either.

Eddie: Everyone else has already taken the big ones. I’m not a fan of team predictions so I’m going to go with an individual player. How bold is it to say the best defenseman in the league and reigning Norris winner will retain said title? I don’t know, but given his slower start compared to the rest of the league it’s definitely no lock. After said slow start Cale Makar has worked his way back up the scoring rankings amongst NHL defensemen, all while cementing himself as one of the best in his own zone. If he catches fire and climbs into the top three in scoring you can definitely see a path where his defensive acumen helps carry him pass the other competitors. It’s not gonna be easy but if anyone can do it, it’s Cale Makar.

Adrian: I predict that the Avalanche will make a solid push for 2nd place in the Central division, have their best month of regular season hockey in March, and be poised to repeat as the captain of all captains takes on his coveted role on this legendary team. It will be playoff time, and it will be on! I can’t wait.