Samuel Girard’s future, Gabriel Landeskog’s rehab and more: Avalanche mailbag

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — After beating two Eastern Conference teams that were hovering around .500, the avalanches came through in a more meaningful game Wednesday, winning 4-1 against a Calgary team they’re neck and neck with in the standings. Colorado is on a three-game win streak and will try to beat the inconsistent canucks on Friday. Colorado can’t afford to take Vancouver for granted, though. The Canucks have beaten the Avalanche twice this season already.

With that, let’s get to the mailbag. I’m splitting this one into two parts, the second of which will come next week address most of the trade deadline-related questions. Let’s get to Part 1:

With Andrew Englund other brad hunt looking good enough to play with Eric Johnson as a third pair and Sam Girard’s numbers off a bit this year, do you think the Avalanche are more willing to move him and use the $5 million for some help up front? — Brad J

The Avalanche see Girard as a top-four defenseman with a good value contract. That might not be a popular statement with some fans, but it’s how the front office feels.

You’re counting on a lot to go right in the scenario you laid out. for one Cale Makar, Devon Toews, Josh Manson other Bowen Byram would all need to stay healthy to be the team’s top four defensemen. Manson is currently hurt and Byram, though clearly a top-four defenseman when healthy, has never played more than 30 games in a regular season. Hunt and Englund have been serviceable filling in, but they’ve played mostly sheltered minutes. If an injury or two forces them into the top four, would they hold up in a playoff series? It’s possible, but it’s a lot to ask.

The team also has to think of the long term. What happens if the team trades Girard and then Devon Toews prices himself out in free agency after 2023-24? Then all of a sudden, Colorado will have two top-four defensemen to replace. With the cap set to go up, Girard’s $5 million will be a bit more manageable, and the term on the deal means he’s a certainty through 2026-27.

None of that is to say Girard is unmovable. If the Oilers called and offered Connor McDavid for him, I can’t see Colorado saying no. But the team isn’t actively shopping him, and it’d likely be short-sighted to trade him for a rental.

Girard, who had a disappointing first half coming off the broken sternum that kept him out of the final 13 playoff games in 2022, has been better of late. He played 22 minutes with Makar out against Calgary and has five points and a plus-3 rating over his past seven games.

“We need everyone on our team, including those D, to push and be assertive and try to be difference-makers on a nightly basis,” coach Jared Bednar said before the Flames game. “That’s what he’s done over the last couple of weeks. He’s highly involved in our offense. (Against Detroit) he was defending hard, physical for a guy who is not that big. And he’s found a way to produce offense. On a team that’s struggled five-on-five through the course of the season, you need everyone to push their limits on that and be able to help out. He’s certainly capable of that.”

To say the big wins over Ottawa and Detroit were much-needed feels like a massive understatement. How has the mood been around the team since? Have you noticed a shift at all around the locker room, given how the recent stretch has been? — Chris S

The dressing room certainly wasn’t the most upbeat at practice the day after the Chicago loess. Three consecutive wins have definitely improved the mood. Winning does that.

Do you think the Avs will be aggressive at the trade deadline or more reserved? — Owyn C.

It’s too early to say definitely. There are three questions the team will have to ask itself before making a decision:

  1. How much cap space will it have?
  2. Where are the Avalanche in the standings?
  3. What’s the team’s health prognosis, especially in regards to captain Gabriel Landeskog?

Waiting until closer to the deadline will give the team more cap flexibility, though it’s impossible to know how much space the team will have. A lot will depend on injuries. Can Colorado get healthy enough to get back under the salary cap and accrue space? Want Darren Helm be on long-term injured reserve for the rest of the year? These are unknowns right now, but general manager Chris MacFarland is surely planning for various scenarios.

If Colorado continues playing well and moves safely into playoff position, it’s more feasible for the team to have a more aggressive deadline. If the Avalanche are still a bubble team, though, they might find it more worthwhile to keep their big trade chips, like their 2023 first-round pick, and add a quality prospect in the draft.

Then there’s the Landeskog question. The team believes at this point that he will be back this season. But if that prognosis changes, it could alter the trade deadline approach. It’s hard to see Colorado going back-to-back if it doesn’t have Landeskog in the lineup, so if the knee injury lingers, perhaps the team opts for a more reserved deadline. But if he remains on track to return, the front office could choose to be a bit more aggressive.

Where is Landeskog right now while he is rehabbing, and what kind of contact does he have with the rest of the team? — Beth C

He’s still not in Denver, Bednar said Wednesday, and has spent time rehabbing in both Toronto and Philadelphia. He’s been around the team when in Denver, and he went on the Finland trip. I’d imagine he’s in contact with his teammates, but obviously there are limitations since he’s not around in person.

If Landeskog isn’t going to start skating until after the All-Star break, why not put him on long-term injured reserve and make a trade for a high cap player? No shame in using that loophole. — Michael G

Landeskog is already on LTIR, which means the Avalanche can exceed the salary cap by up to his $7 million cap hit. Teams can exceed the salary cap in the playoffs, which is the loophole to which you’re referring.

But a player actually has to be hurt to be on LTIR. If the timing works out perfectly, the Avalanche could exceed the cap by $7 million and then bring Landeskog back for the playoffs. But if he’s healthy and skating before the playoffs, the league will start asking the Avalanche questions about why he hasn’t been activated. It’s easy to say the team should just sit him out and use the loophole, but it’s harder to do that in action.

When the Lightning pulled it off with Nikita Kucherov, he underwent a legitimate hip surgery. the NHL investigated the situation, Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois told NHL.com, and, according to the article, “approved it based on the justification for the surgery and the appropriate timelines from recovery to rehab to return to play.” So if the Avalanche tried to keep Landeskog on LTIR until the playoffs but his recovery timeline didn’t match up, the team could find itself in a sticky situation with the league.

What will it take for members of this core group of players like MacKinnon, Landeskog and Makar to get their jerseys hung in the rafters after their careers? How many will be up there? Do we see any non-core players up there as well, similar to a Ray Bourque? — Michael G

Winning the Stanley Cup last season did a lot for the current players’ chances to have their numbers retired. As captain of the championship team, Landeskog is close to a lock, as is MacKinnon. Assuming Makar remains an elite defenseman, he’ll be up there, and Mikko Rantanen is going to have a good case, too.

I doubt there will be another player like Bourque to have his number retired after fewer than two seasons on the team. One player I wonder about is Erik Johnson, simply based on longevity. He’s fourth all-time in points by a defenseman in Avalanche history — ahead of Adam Foote, whose number is retired — and tied for third in goals. (Note: Those stats don’t count the Nordiques.) He’s second to only Foote in games by an Avalanche defenseman and could pass Foote if he stays another year. Johnson still probably never had the ceiling needed for a retired number, but you could make a case for him. Foote would be the blueprint, though he had two top-15 Norris Trophy finishes, whereas Johnson has never received a Norris vote.

What’s your read on Ben Meyers? How’s the team feeling about its development? I see moments when his skating and play-driving ability come through, but he also disappears for large swaths of a game. — Blake V

He’s been OK. Bednar said he looked faster after going down to the AHL for a bit, and I’d agree with that assessment. He’s frequently out late after practice working with skills coach Shawn Allard. Meyers is also one of the team’s only good faceoff-takers. All of that means there’s reason for optimism, but the offense hasn’t been there this year. He has one goal in 23 games and looks a bit snakebit. There was a play recently in which Evan Rodrigues made a savvy pass to him on a rush, but Meyers tried to make a move rather than just putting the puck on the net. A bit more assertiveness in that regard could do him well.

Meyers is an important player for the team going forward, given that he’ll be a relatively affordable forward on a team full of big cap hits. Because of that, his development matters, and I still think he will be an effective bottom-six player at some point. He’s shown flashes this season but is still searching for some scoring touch.

Why are the Avalanche so bad at faceoffs? — Julie K.

Some of it comes down to the players on the roster. The Avalanche front office seems to value other skills more than faceoffs — unsurprising, considering it’s an analytically-minded group — and so the team doesn’t have many players who are strong in the circle. The players work at it, but it simply might not be a skill they’re good at. MacKinnon, for example, wins less than 46 percent of his draws.

I wrote a bit over the summer about why some metrics don’t value faceoffs as much as one would thinkif you’re interested.

Is Byram’s injury truly a lower-body injury, or is the organization deflecting due to his concussion issues? — Joe P

Nothing from what I’ve heard gives me reason to distrust what the team has said. For one, I can’t imagine the players’ association or the league would be happy if a team was blatantly lying about a concussion. Secondly, he posted on Instagram recently that he was in the Philadelphia area doing rehab, presumably on the lower-body injury. He’s back in Denver now and has been around the team, which wasn’t always the case last season when he was dealing with his concussion, and he went on the Dads and Mentors trip to Chicago.

Bednar went more into depth on Byram this month:

Can Avs fit in JT Compher for next season? If not, where do you see him going and who can replace him? — Martin K

It will be tough to fit him in, especially if the salary cap doesn’t go up by much. I wrote about his contract situation earlier this season. Compher is up to 28 points in 43 games and surely will be an attractive middle-six option this summer. Perhaps a team looking to jump into contention could target him. Maybe the saberswho originally drafted him, will be interested.

As for replacements: This is where it will be important for Colorado’s internal options, like Meyers and Alex Newhook, to continue developing. They’ll need to seize bigger roles as players price their way out.

(Photo of Samuel Girard: Bob Frid / USA Today)

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