Three weeks ago the Avalanche passed on major activity at the NHL trade deadline, opting only to make a waiver claim on Mark Alt and a single minor league trade. In the days leading up to the deadline the word on the street was not to expect much to happen despite a handful of expiring free agents on the roster. After last year’s disaster we expected that the conditions would be ripe to make up for striking out and accumulating more draft picks and young talent. Joe Sakic had other plans.
In the press conference that night, Sakic talked about staying the course with the group that they had and also that they had earned a shot at making the playoffs together. Most people that follow the team closely considered this a statement ranging from optimistic to delusional. To make matters worse it harkened back to dark times in the recent past when the future of the franchise took a back seat to a win now attitude from the front office.
Given the Avs recent performance some context of that presser is needed. The Avs were 4 points out of a playoff spot with 3 teams to jump over just to get there and 21 games to do it. Nathan MacKinnon had returned from a shoulder injury 4 games previous, which was big, but they had lost Erik Johnson in that same game. The rumors on EJ were not good, it was assumed he was out for the season and they had gone 1-2-1 since. Also Jonathan Bernier was out with a concussion and no timetable had been set for a return. Yes, this seemed closer to delusional than optimistic.
Fortunately for us, Sakic’s faith was not misguided. Since 3pm on February 26th the Avs have gone 7-1-3 and led by their top players have moved from 11th in the Western Conference to the 1st wildcard spot with just 10 games to go. A sampler of top performers in that stretch:
- Nathan MacKinnon had 12 goals, many of them highlight-reel quality, 23 points and an unbelievable 65 shots on goal. He’s now a serious candidate for the Hart trophy and a threat to the Art Ross. With 89 points total he’s got a top 10 scoring season in Avs history already.
- Mikko Rantanen had 6 goals and 21 points with 77 points in 71 games on the season now. Not a bad sophomore year.
- Gabe Landeskog had 4 goals and 12 points. Doesn’t sound like much compared to the top 2 but that’s still more than a point per game.
- Tyson Barrie had 4 goals and 13 points and is currently on a 10 game point streak. He’s also leading the NHL in points per game by defensemen.
- Carl Soderberg and Blake Comeau had 9 points each
- Semyon Varlamov played in all 11 and started 10 of them. He faced 346 shots and saved all but 21, good for a .939 Sv%. Except for one 2-day break he’s played every other day since Valentine’s, more than a month now.
Impressive. Needless to say I didn’t see this coming, you probably didn’t either. Given the point in the season I would consider this stretch much stronger than than the 10 game winning streak that started just after Christmas. People around the league are marveling at Nate’s exploits, which they should, and the fact that Mikko, Landy and Barrie’s performances are completely overshadowed are a testament to how dominant he’s been.
I doubt Joe Sakic expected a playoff push as timely and effective as this either. What he did lay out was that management thought the playoffs were possible with the group they currently had and that this run was important to them as far as learning how to win. It acknowledged the accomplishment of rising from laughingstock of the league to marginal bubble team and signified faith that they could be more.
I’m not a vehement asset management strict constructionist but I did want to see a little movement at the deadline. An extra pick or two could come in handy and loosening up some bottlenecks at a few positions would be nice. Letting unrestricted free agent contracts expire without either re-signing or exchanging for other assets can have the effect of weakening the organization. We don’t know the offers that Joe considered or how risky it was to stand pat but the net effect to this point has been positive. I’ve got to hand it to him, in hindsight this looks like a crafty move that’s paying off now and should continue to do so down the road. Well done sir.