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At the Rink: Erik Johnson and Gabe Landeskog healing up, but at different paces

Jesse Montano Avatar
March 12, 2023

Jesse’s Observations

An Avs-heavy week for me with plenty of notable updates and talking points coming out of the organization this week. Should also mention that next week’s ATR may look a little different as I’ll be off the grid, but things should be back to normal after that.

Now let’s get into it.

Gabe Landeskog update… kind of 

Ok, wow. What. Whirlwind this week for Gabe Landeskog updates. 

I told someone on Tuesday that Landeskog’s progress has been so interesting to watch. The first day he was on the ice, his movements were so limited that I said to myself… oof, I don’t know if he can get back this season if this is where he’s at. 

Well, but the end of that first week, he had progressed enough that my thinking had completely flipped. Maybe he COULD get back sooner rather than later. 

Now here we are, going on one month since he first got back on the ice in Colorado, and he really doesn’t look like he has improved all that much from where Week 1 finished. 

On Wednesday afternoon following practice, our counterpart from The Athletic, Peter Baugh, asked Jared Bednar if the team had any concern about Landeskog’s health long term. Bednar’s answer to that was enough to raise some eyebrows, but when I followed up to try and get some clarity on what exactly this injury he’s dealing with might be, things got even more confusing. 

If you listen closely, you can hear an audible confused reaction from several of us when Bednar said that the injury Landeskog is dealing with now, is “unrelated” to what he had surgery to deal with before the postseason last year. 

Quite the way to end media availability, eh?

The next day was a game day, which meant we weren’t going to be able to get any clarity on the situation. Which was fine, it’s not like it was an ultra-pressing issue, but now we were all determined to figure out what exactly was going on with Landeskog. 

The next practice, in another attempt to get further clarification, everyone once again left with more questions than answers. 

Not exactly an easy timeline to follow there. Which lead to another follow-up from Peter Baugh.

So after all that, I think is the clearest account of where we’re at so far. The recovery just hasn’t gone how they were hoping for. This past week was the first time I felt legitimate concern that we may not see the Avs’ captain this season. If you forced me to put money down on it, I still say he’s ready to go for R1G1 of the playoffs, but we’re now only five weeks away from that, and he’s got a lot of ground to make up in terms of his recovery. 

A mental grind

Last week, one of our colleagues here in the press box posed what I thought was a super interesting question to Devon Toews. He asked him if he felt it was harder for this Avalanche group to get up for regular season games this year, after going through the rigors of a Stanley Cup Championship run. After all, there are several other past champions on record saying as much. 

Toews was quick to shoot it down saying that the team was just as determined this season as they were last year. 

I thought that was funny because to me, there’s no shame in saying yes to that question. It’s human nature. I can say for me personally, this season has been a grind after going through all of that last summer, and all I’m doing is covering the team. I can’t even imagine getting myself energized back up to start the physical grind that they go through, in addition to the mental. 

That to me sounded like he was answering as a competitor. There’s no question that this group cares and is willing to compete just as hard as they did last year when the chips are down, but can you really get there mentally for 82 games after what the Avalanche went through.

Well, a couple of days later, Jared Bednar gave what I thought was a little bit more of an honest answer. 

For anybody that has watched this team for an extended stretch this season, this does not come as news. They have looked all season like all they want is to get into playoff games. They seem “bored” (for lack of a better word) with the regular season. 

I think this is exactly why when I speak to folks around the league, nobody wants any part of the Avs in the postseason. They all know there’s a sleeping giant in there. 

Now, the playoffs are far from being an absolute lock for the Avs, but their math is good and they sit in a good spot in the Central. That said, if we see them start to ramp it up here down the stretch, and they can find any amount of rhythm, I think there’s a chance they could be another playoff juggernaut (assuming health, of course). 

On the flip slide, you have to wonder if that mental grind just might be a bit too much for them to overcome this year. We’ll see what they’ve got.

Nathan MacKinnon

I don’t really have a ton here, but I just wanted to drop a note about something I’ve found interesting this season.

MacKinnon has been uncharacteristically upbeat after losses this season, and no I don’t think it’s because he lost his passion after winning the Stanley Cup. Quite the opposite in fact.

If you go back to any of MacKinnon’s availabilities during the playoffs last year, you’ll very quickly notice his “we’ll get the next one” mentality. I think this was part of his maturing process we heard Bednar talk about last season. He understood that he couldn’t live and die based on the result of that particular game. The playoffs are a marathon in their own right, you have to be able to stay even-keeled. 

So I think it’s two-fold. Number one, I think he realized we in the media don’t pry so much when he has the glass-half-full approach, which in turn makes his life easier. 

Second, and this goes back to him maturing a lot last year, Bednar mentioned earlier this week that MacKinnon is the “passion driver” for this team. I believe that it occurred to him at some point in the last year that the team goes as he does in a lot of situations, and when he can put things into perspective and hold his belief in what the group his capable of, they do the same. 

It’s been a fascinating arc to follow this year and in my opinion… it’s a good one for MacKinnon. 

Erik Johnson

Quick update on Erik Johnson here for you. 

“Ahead of schedule”: That is how Erik Johnson was described this week by Jared Bednar after Johnson suffered a broken ankle on February 11th against the Florida Panthers.

What originally seemed like a foregone conclusion that Johnson was done for the year, has turned into optimism that we may even see him before Game 82 of the regular season n

If you get Johnson back ahead of the first round, you will be going into this year’s playoffs with the exact same d-core that you had during last year’s run that was dominant. Which make their lack of defensive moves at the deadline make a little more sense. 

Meghan’s Observations

Flyers move on from GM

The Philadelphia Flyers announced that Chuck Fletcher was out as president and general manager this past Friday after four seasons. In the meantime Danny Briere, who was named the special assistant to Fletcher last season, will act as the interim GM in that position.

The deadline came and passed without moving pending unrestricted free agent, James van Riemsdyk. The once 30-goal scorer, now a trusted winger who brings size and depth, was almost guaranteed to be moved. Beyond that, there were murmurs that a bigger move could be made involving a player like Kevin Hayes.

The Flyers approached the deadline as sellers and finished idly. Neither trade happened – the biggest move involved parting with Zack MacEwen in exchange for forward Brendan Lemieux and a 5th-round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft.

At 24-31-11 on the season, the Flyers are second to last in the Metropolitan division.

One of their recent splashes came this past offseason. The Flyers traded three draft picks for defenseman Tony DeAngelo who was signed to a 2-year contract (5 Million AAV). 

DeAngelo, who thrived in Carolina last year, has been benched at points this season and his defensive metrics have suffered.

During the 2020 season, the Flyers made the playoffs for the first time under Fletcher’s tenure. In the bubble, they lost in Game 7 (after a heroic series comeback) to the New York Islanders in the second round.

It sparked a glimmer of resurgence for the 2021 season, but they finished with the fourth-worst record in the league.

It hasn’t been an easy period to oversee the Flyers organization: from five coaching changes (a couple of which were interim coaches along the way), a global pandemic, and hundreds of man games lost to injury, Philadelphia has been riddled with instability.

Competing back-to-back

Jesse weighed in on this with respect to Devon Toews, Jared Bednar, and the mental grind of the season. Jared Bednar elaborated on the ways in which chasing a second Stanley Cup back-to-back is especially challenging.

“I don’t think it’s a different demand,” he explained. “I think it’s the exact same demand. It’s just harder to get there mentally. That’s the truth of it. You have to be mentally stronger to go back at it again than you probably were the first time.”

“The first time, that hunger had been manifesting in our team for years because of the losses. Our team got better and better the hungrier that we got.

So when it comes to the drive that you need to do it again, I think it’s more difficult which is why I’m so impressed with teams that can do it. Now, on top of that, it’s a significantly different team. So the guys that went through it last year, I think we have the belief that we can get there. But we have to get there. The sooner the better, and we’re not there yet.

I like the way we responded with desperation this last month. Now we gotta go do it again, and then we’re gonna have to carry it into the playoffs. It’s probably not going to be perfect here to the end of the season either.

For some of the new guys, some of them have never been there, and we’re gonna need to get them there as well. There’s another level. They haven’t gone through the heartbreak with our team for the last five years. It’s a different group. It’s not the same group as last year. It all comes into play.”

Cale Makar talked about what it’s been like activating the hunger from last year too.

“It’s definitely different,” he started. “You know what it feels like, it’s just finding that same determination and the will to want to get back there. So for us, I feel like at times maybe it’s been lacking this year. It’s definitely different, but at the same time, it should just drive you more to want to get to that spot again.”

Makar also addressed the mental grind of the season and the ways it has made things challenging this season alongside the obvious physical grind of it all.

“It’s been a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “We’ve had so many injuries, guys in and out of the lineup, so no consistency in our roster. Especially when that happens, the mental aspect of the game takes a completely different level. To be able to manage that at certain times of the year is important. (There’s) obviously a learning curve, and then hopefully times like that will benefit us in the long run.”

For someone like Makar, injuries have demanded even more of him this season. He still has the highest league average time on ice of anyone.

Last year’s team dominated the back half of the regular season. A near-healthy team pulled the rope in the same direction.

This year’s team, with as many injuries as they’ve had, has asked so much of individual players to pull that rope even harder for the men who’ve gone down. In their most successful stretches, you can point to good process, team-wide execution, and a particular brand of try-hard.

Like Bednar said, it’s not a different demand, but the road to getting there has looked very different.

Strength in the Newness

The context of this season has often been viewed through a lens of loss. The loss of Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, or the Gabriel Landeskog sized hole that has left many longing for the captain.

It’s a reasonable perspective to maintain. Newness means changes, and changes mean adaptation.

Some of the newness has been intentional: Artturi Lehkonen settling in to the group in his first full season, Matt Nieto getting acclimated after a trade, Denis Malgin stepping into Dryden Hunt’s place, Lars Eller playing straight from the airport, Evan Rodrigues coming from Pittsburgh, and Alexandar Georgiev nesting in the starter’s net.

Some of it hasn’t been. There have been growing pains. Alex Newhook has experienced it in his sophomore season. The lack of consistency has asked players to adapt to constant change too. Newhook has had over twenty different linemates. The call-up carousel in response to injuries has been a way in which the newness grew tiresome.

Cale Makar talked about habits after their recent loss to the Los Angeles Kings. “It’s focusing on those habits and bringing them every single night regardless of our opponent,” he said. “Right now, we’re giving them some chances that we aren’t getting on the other side of the game. It’s just tightening those things up. They’re really easy fixes. It’s mentally checking in every single shift and making sure that it all starts with good communication on our end.”

There’s an established culture in the Bednar-era that keys in on habits and buy-in, but this year’s group has struggled with keeping them in check at points this season. I asked Makar why he thought that was.

“With the new guys and everybody, it’s taking time” he started. “There’s some lag when you win, sometimes. That’s for us as a group to basically move forward from. But overall, I feel like we don’t really look at expectations as a group, we know what we internally feel like we’re capable of – it’s about trying to focus on that every day.”

With some of the newness comes positives too.

“There’s always change, you have to embrace it,” Makar said. “There’s always gonna be changes in the business. As a core, it’s how you adapt to those things that really defines your year.”

For Bednar, the positives extend beyond this season.

“There’s a lot (of positives). You gotta remember, adding guys like Lehkonen in that have now become part of our core at the deadline last year. I know they were part of the most important time of year, but we didn’t have them to start last season. Losing guys is part of the game when it’s just a handful. I think we’ve had our more than our fair share.

The addition of Georgiev, of what he’s been able to do in his first year here, I think he started better than any of the previous goalies that we brought in. We’re seeing him play large stretches of hockey, the most he’s ever played in a season, and (seeing him) play real well for us. There’s positive additions, not just to this year’s team for this year, but that we can move forward with. You’re always gonna get evaluated for what you do at the most important time of the year. This team is still going to write its own story one way or the other.”

This year’s story is simply different. It’s new. Referencing the dominance of last year’s regular season, Makar said that they’re not going to win games by seven goals every night.

“This team, it’s even more so important – the details of the game and not letting them slip away. For us, that’s the main focus point.”

AJ’s Observations

A rare overtime

Last night’s Avalanche win over the Arizona Coyotes had a rare overtime feat accomplished when the Coyotes won the initial faceoff, which is always of the utmost importance in 3v3, but then never actually crossed the center line with the puck.

It’s become pretty common for the team that wins the initial faceoff to gain possession, work their way through the process of finding a quality scoring chance and winning the game without the other team ever really getting a chance. We saw it just last week when the Seattle Kraken did exactly that in Ball Arena, so when the Avs lost the faceoff to begin OT last night, I was curious how it would go.

A lot of 3v3 overtimes take on similar shapes; games end with one team winning right away, teams trade chances, and there are even a decent amount of games that have included 4v3 power plays to get to the final score.

What you don’t see very often is overtime decided by an aggressive forecheck. That was the case last night. Here’s the sequence of events and then I’ll post the entire overtime for your viewing pleasure.

-Arizona wins the faceoff, retreats to their own zone
-Nichushkin and Toews forecheck hard, create a turnover and a scoring chance with Compher
-Avs win puck back after they don’t score, eventually leading to a MacKinnon rush chance
-Arizona regains control after MacKinnon doesn’t score
-Rantanen and MacKinnon forecheck causes turnover
-Makar wins it

The forecheck accomplished two key, well, goals. It won the puck back for Colorado, obviously, but it also kept the Coyotes on the ice. J.J. Moser played the entire overtime and the tired legs no doubt helped Makar take advantage of him on the game-winning goal.

As promised, the full overtime but keep an eye out for that aggressive forechecking. It made the difference last night and is a unicorn in 3v3.

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