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The Colorado Avalanche May Be Burning Out Their Top Players

The Colorado Avalanche's top players are playing some of the most minutes in the NHL due to injuries. They aren't being rewarded with wins.
Mikko Rantanen

Alexandar Georgiev's stick smash said it all.

On Thursday night in Vancouver, Georgiev lambasted his lumber after his Colorado Avalanche gave up three goals in 2:33 late in the second period, turning a 2-0 road lead into a 3-2 deficit. 

With Pavel Francouz on the shelf with a lower-body injury. Georgiev was making his 10th straight start in the Avs' net. But he hasn't posted a win since Dec. 23. He went into the holiday break with a .925 save percentage and 2.36 goals-against average, but over the last five games, he's at .869 and 4.37.

Coming into Vancouver with an 0-3-1 record in their last four games, Colorado couldn't recover from the sudden momentum shift. It started with a power-play goal by Andrei Kuzmenko, facilitated by a failed clearing attempt by Andrew Cogliano –the puck stayed in the zone after hitting a referee. Cogliano earned a 10-minute misconduct from the officials for venting his frustration after the goal. 

Less than two minutes later, Kuzmenko scored again. And 34 seconds after that, Brock Boeser wristed home a rebound after a shot from Bo Horvat for what stood up as the game-winner.

After the Canucks added an empty-net goal from J.T. Miller with 1:36 left on the clock to seal the 4-2 win, the defending Stanley Cup champions are now staring down their first five-game winless streak since the first month of the 2019-20 season.

"I thought we were playing a decent hockey game," said coach Jared Bednar. "Up 2-0, 32 minutes into the game. Things going well. And then — implosion. Penalties, frustration, a little bit of bad luck. Not committed enough for that eight-minute stretch, and it cost us the hockey game."

Colorado's injury issues this season have been well-documented. When veteran forward Darren Helm suited up for his first game of the season on Monday night, he became the 38th different player to dress for the Avalanche this season — more than any other team and just one shy of the club record of 39 for a full season, reached five times including 2020-21 and 2021-22.

Up front, Mikko Rantanen is doing everything he can to fill the void left by Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog, who is still not close to returning from off-season knee surgery, and for the absent Valeri Nichushkin, a point-per-game player when healthy who has been sidelined twice this season with ankle issues.

Rantanen scored his 26th goal of the year against the Canucks and is up to 48 points, tied for eighth in the league and on pace for career highs in both categories. 

He also played 25:57 while recording nine shots on goal on Thursday, further bumping up his average ice time. At 23:08 a game, Rantanen is playing more than two minutes a game above his previous high of 20:59, set last season. He also leads the NHL in average ice time among forwards, with Nathan MacKinnon in fourth and Artturi Lehkonen in fifth.

Then there's Cale Makar, the smooth-skating defenseman who makes his job look easy but is currently the NHL's overall ice-time leader. He played 30:17 against Vancouver, bumping his season average up to 27:14 a game. That's nearly a minute more than second-place Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings (26:22) and nearly a minute-and-a-half above what Makar played last season (25:40).

His regular partner, Devon Toews, also ranks sixth on the league list, averaging 25:23. And for as long as regular second-pair blueliners Josh Manson and Bowen Byram are on the shelf, their workloads probably won't change anytime soon.

"It's not ideal," said Makar, who assisted on Rantanen's first-period power-play marker and logged 4:57 of tough penalty-killing duty. "Obviously, I love playing that much, but once we start getting guys back on the back end, those minutes should go down a little bit, because obviously there are bigger roles."

"I'm not really concerned," added the 2022 Norris Trophy winner. "Just trying to manage it right now. I don't feel like I'm doing a great job of being super effective in the minutes I play."

With an extra-short summer break after winning the Stanley Cup on June 26, fatigue was going to be an unavoidable issue for the Avalanche this season. Also, significant injuries seem to be part of this team's DNA, making lineup construction issues familiar but still challenging for Bednar.

And even though the 2023 playoffs are still four months away, the current winless streak hasn't left the coach much latitude to manage the minutes of his top players. After Thursday's games, the 19-15-3 Avalanche sit two points out of a Western Conference wild-card spot — although they do have games in hand on the two teams immediately above them, Edmonton and Calgary.

In the near term, that sets up a compelling matchup on Saturday night when the Avalanche touch down at Rogers Place to take on the Oilers. 

In terms of workload, there's no immediate reprieve in sight. The Avs have 11 games on their schedule in 22 nights between Jan. 7 and 28. To get his top players to their late-January bye week in one piece, Bednar may need to lighten their workload and ask his supporting cast to step up until more reinforcements can return from the injured list.


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