After 49 games and a record of 32-14-3, which is good for the top spot in the Central Division, the Colorado Avalanche are in a great position for the stretch run portion of the season. This nine-day break gives everyone a chance to pause and reflect before things get very busy again and here are our thoughts.
Will Nathan MacKinnon or Cale Makar win the All-Star Skills Competition? If not, which one will do better?
Jacob: I love Cale, but I think betting against Nathan Mackinnon in any competition right now is a bad idea.
Evan: I wouldn’t be surprised if MacKinnon wins the whole thing just simply based on the run he’s on at the moment. While he won’t be going all-out, I can still imagine him being up towards the top of the entire competition ahead of Makar.
Jackie: The events are tricky and not indicative of who really is the best player in the league so I don’t think either will win the competition. I’ll put my vote to Makar, who is the only defenseman invited to participate, as someone who surprises with a strong showing.
Eddie: Given past performances Cale Makar seems to be the easy answer. He and Mikko Rantanen won the NHL Splash Shot event in least years skills competition and although the event won’t exist this year that’s still more than Nathan MacKinnon has won. As long as it doesn’t come down to the fastest skater challenge they should be fine given that MacKinnon notoriously doesn’t give full effort and Makar wiped out in his only showing at the event.
Ezra: I don’t think so. They’re going to take it easy this weekend - the only win that matters comes later.
Rather than speculating on what the Avalanche are going to gain at the trade deadline, instead, what do you expect they give up?
Jacob: The Avalanche traded a 5th-round pick for Andrew Cogliano at the 2022 deadline, so I would expect them to nibble around the market to patch up their depth, offering similarly late-round picks for a wily veteran(s).
Evan: Good switcharound question, I like it! Since the Avs have little assets to work with, options of who or what will be traded are limited. Most prospects are open to a trade, it’s what brought Artturi Lehkonen to Colorado with Justin Barron going the other way. The same goes with Josh Manson coming to the Avs, and Drew Helleson going to Anaheim. Especially if Colorado goes for a 2C or 1B goaltender, they will need more than a late-round draft pick. Preferably, you’d like to keep your first-round pick for the 2024 NHL Draft as well, but this is why we are not GMs!
Jackie: I’ve been on record saying I don’t see the Avalanche adding another forward after this Zach Parise signing without Kurtis MacDermid going the other way so I’m going to stick by that. Ben Meyers who was sent back to the AHL one NHL game played away from losing his waiver exemption seems deliberate and could be a trade chip. Sean Behrens would be the obvious prospect to dangle as he still has value before starting his pro career in the AHL plus the Avalanche likely won’t be too interested in giving him the typical NCAA promises of a burned contract year and NHL games this spring to get him under contract after his junior season concludes. Those three players in addition to the “expendable” draft picks of the 2024 4th and 5th rounders and the 2025 3rd rounder are pretty much what Chris MacFarland realistically has to work with.
Eddie: I have a hard time gauging this one. The most recent year the Avs went all in the highest pick they traded away was a second rounder. However that was mostly because they didn’t have that year’s first round pick and were also forced to pair high end prospect with the second rounders to get value up. This year they have their first round pick and the projected price for Elias Lindholm, whom the Avs have been heavily connected too is a first and a prospect at least. I think the only way they trade a first is for him or a surprise high-end center acquisition. My current expectation is that they will trade for Adam Henrique, who will probably cost a lower top ninety pick at most, so that’s my best guess.
Ezra: We’ve talked about Sam Malinski’s play potentially making him a trade piece or making Bowen Byram a possibility, but I think it’s Sean Behrens - there just isn’t room for him. If they can swing for Elias Lindholm, it’ll be a first, Behrens, and maybe Oskar Olausson going the other way. If they want to move out Ryan Johansen’s contract, it’ll take a 3rd round pick or a prospect to grease the wheels - Behrens could work for that as well.
Is this the year Nathan MacKinnon finally wins the Hart Trophy?
Jacob: Yes, I am not in the business of betting against the best hockey player alive right now.
Evan: If this somehow is not the year MacKinnon doesn’t win the Hart Trophy, the entire city of Denver just might riot. He has points in 31 of his 32 last games, that’s all I’ll say.
Jackie: It feels kind of like now or never for MacKinnon to finally win the award, which considering the elite player currently in his prime he is does seem silly to say. But the window of opportunity for someone else to win with Connor McDavid having a down year (by his standards) isn’t going to happen often. MacKinnon has received the most Hart votes of anyone to have never won it, so he’s more than deserving of the award over his entire career. Nikita Kucherov is having an exceptional season himself but has already won the MVP award. Hopefully these factors add up to enough favor in MacKinnon’s direction when it’s time to vote but as always the decision is very political.
Eddie: I believe this is his best chance since the 2018 season when he was arguably robbed of it by Taylor Hall. If he doesn’t win it this year he never will, barring an unforeseen drop off or a injury obviously. That being said I have zero faith in the NHL giving The Dogg what he deserves. Mikko Rantanen has now entered the top five in scoring and Cale Makar is still heavily in contention for the Norris Trophy. The league has clearly shown that with Connor McDavid the caliber of teammates doesn’t matter but I wouldn’t be shocked if the goalposts shifted again.
Ezra: Yes. The national coverage narrative is in his favor for the first time this year - if he keeps playing like this they’ll stick with him.
Which game after this break are you most excited for?
Jacob: The Panthers have won 13 of their last 17, including an 8-4 drubbing of the Avs on a Saturday afternoon in early January, and it will be interesting to see how the Avs respond to a team they admittedly did not show up ready to play for that day.
Jackie: The entire upcoming six-game east coast road trip right after the break will be interesting but considering the way the MVP race is shaping up with MacKinnon and Kucherov going head-to-head, to literally watch them battle against each other in Tampa Bay on February 15th will be pretty fun.
Evan: The season-long six-game road trip is crucial for the Avalanche right out of the break. With one of the toughest schedules for the rest of the season, every game will be close and matter with the Central Division still as tight as ever. But the game I’ve got my eye on is against the Vancouver Canucks on February 20. Not only is it my birthday, but it’s against a solid team at the top of the Western Conference looking for revenge since the Avs took advantage of them last time out.
Eddie: After a really tough January things get easier for the Avalanche after the break but they still have some heavyweight bouts left. This entire eastern swing to start February is pretty chock full of quality matchups. That being said I’m a sucker for inter-conference play. Those are the games that are most likely to be playoff previews and they often deliver. I’m personally most excited for the games against the Edmonton Oilers. Despite a truly horrific start the Oilers have been on an absolute heater this year and have some of the best underlying numbers in the league this season. The two teams play their entire three game series within a one month span to end this season and after five of their last six regular season matches have gone to extra frames, I’m circling this year’s on my calendar.
Ezra: The first game back! It’s the Rangers but that doesn’t matter - I’m most excited to see Parise in an Avs sweater. I’m also curious to see how everyone shows up after a long break. It’s hard even for pro athletes to dial in after a vacation, but I think the core of this team is going to be locked and loaded and the fringe guys with something to prove to stay in the lineup (cough RyJo cough) need to come out strong.