The Avs are closing out an alarming month with games tonight vs Chicago and on Monday vs the Kings. So far they’ve picked up 4 wins and an OT loss and 7 regulation losses – 9 points in 12 games. Oddly enough they’re still in the top 3 in the Central Division and haven’t lost any ground to Nashville, who are dealing with their own slump. The teams chasing them, Minnesota and Dallas, are also playing like crap.
With little pressure from below or above, Jared Bednar and the Avs coaching staff have had the luxury of patience with what worked in October and November but that’s run out now. On one hand they’ve maintained position while underperforming but on the other they missed a great opportunity to put themselves ahead of the pack and build up a margin of error they’ll inevitably need at some point in the second half of the season. Tonight we’ll see the first step forward with some active measures to get the Avs back on track, a major line shakeup.
There was an immediate negative reaction from fans, mainly about Matt Nieto playing beside MacKinnon and Rantanen. There’s both logic and precedence from these moves and the more one looks at the lines the less obtuse they seem.
Matt Nieto had a rough start to the season but since October has been a solid performer. Not flashy, doesn’t drive play offensively, but he is the only positive Corsi forward outside of the top line. He doesn’t have Landy’s skills obviously but he does have qualities that would allow the staff to use him on the top line temporarily. He’s quick, he’s defensively responsible and he can play the puck retrieval game in the o-zone. Of the players available to stand in for the captain, to my eye he is the most qualified right now.
We’ve seen Nieto used as a spark/replacement already this year. When Vlad Kamenev was struggling the staff put Nieto on his wing, consistency materialized and the staff trusted using the line so Kamenev’s time on ice rose. This is a completely different set of circumstances but if Nieto does his job he won’t hurt the other two guys.
The Holy Grail for the Avs over the past year has been a consistent second scoring line. Alex Kerfoot and JT Compher have the numbers to be a part of a construct like that although their chemistry long term is still in question. In the past both guys being natural centers has led to stepping on each other a bit and leaving some holes in the coverage defensively. In the offensive zone they seem to have the playmaker-shooter dynamic as good as it’s been. What they’ve been lacking is a third forward that further complements what they do. Tyson Jost isn’t consistent enough at this point and the “frat line” has been a disaster every time they go back to it. Sven Andrighetto’s talent lines up well but his style of play does not. Colin Wilson’s style of play was a great fit but he’s injured for who knows how long.
Gabe Landeskog can add what Willie did plus a ton more. They immediately become much more dangerous offensively and can be used in all three zones. Sounds great but long-term what does this do for Kerf and JTC when Landy returns to the top line? The hope must be that playing with a highly skilled and experienced player gives them the confidence they need to play the 2nd line role on their own. I love the idea but anyone that ultimately takes Landy’s place is going to be a downgrade. Unless Wilson is closer than it seems or there’s a trade for a top-6 forward looming this could end up being a pointless exercise.
Adding Dries to the Soderberg line is logical and something we’ve seen before. He played 7 games there while Nieto was injured and/or assisting Kamenev earlier in the season. He makes it more difficult to hide Calvert’s flaws and it’s a heavier load for Carl to carry now but he does add a net front presence and the instinct to shoot the puck a lot.
The 4th line looks like the usual hodge-podge. Against the Knights on Thursday Sven/Dries/Bourque were quite effective and generated a bunch of scoring chances. Whether that’s going to be the case with Jost instead is up in the air. Andrighetto’s ability to enter the zone with possession and create shots is excellent. Sometimes. Gabe Bourque adds a good forecheck and little else. The staff obviously want to see more out of Tyson Jost. He’s crossed the 100 NHL game line but at 20 years old his potential is still more perceived than realized. Going forward it looks like the onus is on him to earn his ice time, as it should be.
Whether mixing up all the left wings in the lineup leads to breaking up the slump or just subtle improvement, it’s something that needed to be done. We’ve all had feelings over the past month that play was stale or that the old “we’ll do the same thing – just better” philosophy was being relied upon too much. None of this addresses the weaknesses of the defense lately, unless they’ve been fine and the forwards are the ones that can’t get it done in the d-zone which is entirely possible.
For me, I glad to see a more active approach. I’d rather see the sacred cow sacrificed, breaking up Soderberg’s line and putting together an honest to goodness 2nd line that can compete in all three zones. Maybe that’s next, if this doesn’t have the desired effect it could be. It’s a step forward at least.
Game time is 9pm ET/7pm MT at the Pepsi Center. Be there or be square.