Avalanche roster comes into focus as preseason comes to a close
Sep 30, 2022, 6:34 AM
The Colorado Avalanche begin their title defense with a rare advantage: consistency. While there will be a few new names to learn when the season starts on Oct. 12, for the most part, the Avs will take the ice with the vast majority of their Stanley Cup-winning roster intact.
Out of last season’s regular starters, the team lost only starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper to Washington and second-line center Nazem Kadri to Calgary free agency. Both players were major contributors to the team’s championship only months ago — Kadri, in particular, was a force on and off the ice — but in both cases, it’s likely that each player had what amounted to a career year with the talented Avalanche, and are unlikely that either ever reach those heights again.
Usually, however, most defending champions have far more painful offseasons. Colorado also lost part-time contributors Nicolas Aube-Kubel to Toronto and Jack Johnson to Chicago, but when it comes to depth, now that superstar center Nathan MacKinnon inked an eight-year, $100.8 million extension with the club, the Avalanche still have as much of it on the NHL level as any team in the league.
They also come into the season relatively healthy, despite their happily shortened summer. Defenseman Samuel Girard is healthy again, after recuperating with a fractured sternum suffered in the playoffs, and after rejoining the Avalanche for their playoff run following knee surgery in March, captain Gabe Landeskog will miss an indeterminate amount of time to start the season in order to better recover.
“Landeskog is dealing with an injury from last season,” head coach Jared Bednar said last week. “He’s not ready to go. We don’t have a timetable yet for putting him on the ice; he won’t skate anytime soon.” The deep and talented Avs aren’t likely to miss the playoffs, so they can afford to buy Landeskog all the time he needs.
However, that leaves room for another new face to join the roster. The Avalanche already made moves to account for the losses of Kuemper and Kadri, dealing for Rangers backup goaltender Alexandar Georgiev — team president Joe Sakic said that the 26-year-old Bulgarian was acquired to be the team’s starter ahead of reliable backup Pavel Francouz — and signing former Pittsburgh Penguin Evan Rodrigues to a one-year deal. Rodrigues’ versatility will immediately prove useful to an Avalanche club that is likely to see Bednar shuffle lines in the season’s opening weeks.
With four of their six preseason games in the books; the vast majority of which are played by backups and minor-leaguers, the Avalanche are nevertheless close to cementing their opening-night roster, if not their exact offensive lines.
Goaltending is set with Georgiev and Francouz, while the top six defensemen — Cale Makar, Devon Toews, Bowen Byram, Girard, Josh Manson and Erik Johnson — are set. The first two behind those three pairings are likely the physical, versatile Kurtis MacDermid and Jacob McDonald, who should get first crack at Jack Johnson’s former role.
Twenty-two-year-old Alex Newhook has quickly taken to the second-line center role vacated by Kadri, and while Rodrigues is still in the mix there, it’s more likely that he ends up as a first-line winger, at least for a while. Rodrigues was effective on Sidney Crosby’s top line in Pittsburgh last season, and due to Landeskog’s absence — not to mention that Valeri Nichushkin has yet to participate in preseason due to a lower-body injury of his own that reportedly isn’t as significant as Landeskog’s — there’s likely to be an opening alongside MacKinnon to start the season.
Ben Meyers, a star at the University of Minnesota that chose to sign with the Avalanche as a college free agent, looks ready to make the leap to full-time player after appearing in five games with Colorado last season. Expect to see him on a gritty third line with J.T. Compher and former Denver Pioneer Logan O’Connor. Prospects Sampo Ranta and Oskar Olausson aren’t quite ready for prime-time, but it feels like a make-or-break season for 24-year-old, former first-rounder Martin Kaut. He’s gotten big minutes in the preseason, and while he doesn’t seem nearly as entrenched as Meyers, he may have an opportunity in the early going if Nichuskin and wily veteran Darren Helm — who’s also dealing with the dreaded lower-body injury — miss any time.
NHL rosters carry 23 players, 20 of whom are active on any given night. Presuming that MacDonald holds one of those three backup spots as a pure defenseman, MacDermid holds one as a player who can fill in on both defense and a checking line, the final spot will go to a trustworthy forward, and Jared Bednar knows one that may fit the ball. Lukas Sedlak, who won a Calder Cup in 2015-16 with the Bednar-coached AHL Lake Erie Monsters, spent three years with the Columbus Blue Jackets immediately after that. After failing to gain traction at the NHL level, he went to Russia to join the KHL and play for Chelyabinsk Traktor in 2019, and he’s been consistently been improving his offensive game ever since; scoring 43 points in 49 games last season. At 29 years of age, Sedlak knows his role, and he buys the Avalanche more time for their top prospects to mature. At this point in time, he might fill out Bednar’s roster once more.
The Avalanche close the preseason with a home-and-home against the Stars; Monday in Dallas, and Wednesday in Denver. Their defense of the Stanley Cup starts exactly one week later.
“I’m so ready to start again,” Erik Johnson said last week, not doubt speaking for legions of Avalanche fans in the process. “I really haven’t been more excited for a season in, maybe, forever.”