‘Fragile’ Colorado Avalanche face crucial NHL trade deadline

Avalanche forwards Mikko Rantanen and Matt Duchene collide embarrassingly resulting in a good chance for the Los Angeles Kings.

Barring an unforeseen change of plans, there is no lifeboat coming for Nathan MacKinnon.

The 21-year-old forward is strapped to the Good Ship Avalanche and the vessel is taking on water at a furious pace. He will see teammates and friends abandon ship these next few weeks – Jarome Iginla, possibly Matt Duchene and/or Gabriel Landeskog – but he figures to be around beyond the wreckage of this season.

“I wouldn’t want to get traded to a Cup contender this year,” MacKinnon said in a recent interview. “I want to stay in Colorado and figure this thing out. I mean I don’t think I’m going to get traded – but you never know – obviously it’s a business and (they’ve) got to make the right moves to make the team better.

“It sucks, though.”

The Avalanche have gone 21 games since their last win in regulation. They were fortunate to even get one back on Dec. 11 courtesy a 3-1 victory in Toronto that included an empty-net goal and 51 saves from Semyon Varlamov.

This team is not just bad, it’s almost 1999-00 Atlanta Thrashers bad.

Those Thrashers were an expansion outfit and these Avalanche are on pace to have the worst season in the NHL’s Salary Cap Era … and, unlike some others, they’re not intentionally tanking to do it.

It’s little wonder why general manager Joe Sakic figures to be the most aggressive seller ahead of the March 1 trade deadline. He won’t face much resistance from the men whose names have been surfacing in recent rumours.

The 39-year-old Iginla sent out an SOS call on Wednesday night – telling Yahoo’s Puck Daddy blog “I would like to, at the deadline, go somewhere. I would like to be in the playoffs.” – while Duchene has previously acknowledged that he’s open to being moved.

Fedor Tyutin, John Mitchell and Rene Bourque are among the other veterans on expiring contracts, and Sakic has made it clear that everyone other than MacKinnon and 20-year-old Mikko Rantanen are in play.

The GM’s priorities are to get younger and amass assets, particularly on the blue line. His asking prices have been high, but there’s still 27 days for the market to move towards him or for him to move towards the market.

In the meantime, his team sputters through a lost season. They were beaten 5-1 in Anaheim and 5-0 in Los Angeles on back-to-back nights this week and are now headed to Winnipeg for a Saturday afternoon date with the Jets.

Buried in the NHL basement at 13-33-2, there’s a feeling of disbelief in the dressing room.

“It’s definitely a big turnaround,” said MacKinnon. “We thought we were going to be a Cup team in the next five years. We won the division my first year (in 2013-14). I guess looking back I kind of took it for granted how hard it is to win. I came in, we won 50 games and made the playoffs.

“This is after I won the Memorial Cup (with Halifax), so I thought I was making the playoffs every year after that.”

Asked what changed for the worse, he replied: “We’re pretty fragile, I think. I don’t want to beat up the team too much.”

[pullquote]”I guess looking back I kind of took it for granted how hard it is to win.”[/pullquote]

The players know change is coming. Their death march could take on an even grimmer look with a 13-games-in-25-days stretch to endure before the deadline.

Looking back, they never really recovered after defencemen Erik Johnson was lost to a broken right fibula in early December. That deepened the issues on the blue line, already their biggest weakness. Varlamov also struggled and was recently shut down for the season because of hip and groin issues.

MacKinnon had basically adopted a Gallows humour by the time he arrived in Los Angeles for the All-Star Game last weekend, joking with reporters: “Bet you guys probably didn’t think an Avalanche was going to be here.”

This was the morning after the NHL had unveiled its Top 100 all-time players list.

“Hopefully the top-two pick we get this year will be in the Top 100 as well,” MacKinnon cracked. [sidebar]

If you’re searching for positives, there are a few to be found. Colorado will almost certainly end up with the best odds of winning the draft lottery – perhaps giving them the chance to choose between Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier in June.

The Avalanche also have $11.2-million coming off the books in UFA contracts this summer and will likely end up with even more flexibility than that when you factor in the impending trades.

Done right, this deadline should arm Sakic with the cap space necessary to start building a much more competitive team for next season. That’s the only thing that could make all of the losing worthwhile.

“I mean it could be a blessing,” said MacKinnon. “Eventually, I will make the playoffs and I’ll be on a winning team; hopefully in Colorado that will happen for us.

“I’m not going to take it for granted again.”


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