EDMONTON — File this under the heading of hoping for the best, while preparing for the unknown.
When Colorado Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic put together his shopping list prior to the NHL trade deadline on March 21, he did so with a long playoff run in mind.
It wasn’t about adding high-priced talent or the biggest names since his hockey club already featured plenty of firepower, especially up front.
These were strategic moves, the kind that don’t necessarily make waves on the transaction wire but are the ones appreciated by the scouting staff and the players in the locker room.
First up was defenceman Josh Manson, picked up from the Anaheim Ducks for the rights to defence prospect Drew Helleson and a second-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.
One day later, Sakic moved 2016 first-rounder Tyson Jost to the Minnesota Wild for forward Nico Sturm.
Then on deadline day, the Avalanche acquired versatile winger Artturi Lehkonen from the Montreal Canadiens for defence prospect Justin Barron and a 2024 second-rounder.
One final deal brought in veteran forward Andrew Cogliano from the San Jose Sharks for a 2025 fifth-round pick.
“We feel that we addressed the needs that we needed to address,” Sakic said going into the Western Conference final with the Edmonton Oilers, which resumes Monday with Colorado holding a 3-0 series edge. “You can never have enough depth. Everybody's contributing. Some guys are in and out of the lineup right now, so we have competition here and you need every single player. If you're going to go (through) two months of hockey, which ultimately is our goal, you need that depth.
“You look at any championship team, they have depth on all lines and they all have to chip in somewhat. Your best players still have to be your best if you want a chance to hoist the Stanley Cup, that's for sure. But you also need those (others) contributing and taking some of the pressure off of them.”
Manson is averaging more than 17-and-a-half minutes per game, is anchoring the second pairing, plays on the penalty kill and supplied the overtime winner in Game 1 against the St. Louis Blues last round.
Sturm is a dependable defensive forward who can play centre or wing and adds a bit of size up front, while Cogliano is a fourth-line stalwart who is a solid penalty killer and has already supplied two game-winning goals in 10 playoff games.
As for Lehkonen, he’s basically been a coach’s dream, a guy who has been used extensively on the top two lines and does so many things well — whether it’s winning puck battles, showing a willingness to block shots or chipping in offensively as he has with five goals and eight points in 13 playoff games. He's smart enough and has enough skill to play with offensive players, while also supplying a defensive conscious and playing on both special-teams units.
The experience Lehkonen gained while helping the Montreal Canadiens reach the Stanley Cup final last June has also provided a boost for a franchise trying to get over the hump.
“A real good, complementary player. He brings a real strong work ethic and relentless puck pursuit. He wins a lot of battles,” head coach Jared Bednar said. “I described him the other day as fearless. He does a lot of heavy lifting for his linemates and he's able to play with those skilled players to help them produce.”
All four of those deadline acquisitions are low-maintenance players who fit in seamlessly with the Avalanche.
Given the injury issues the Avalanche have endured during the playoffs, it’s fair to wonder if they would be one win away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final and a date with either the New York Rangers or the Tampa Bay Lightning had Sakic not pulled the trigger on the aforementioned deals.
“We have a significant amount of depth that we didn't have probably in previous years,” said Bednar, noting they played without key pieces through large stretches of the regular season as well. “Moreso than we had in years past, we found a way to get the job done without them. (We’ve had) different guys elevating their game.
“Joe and his staff targeted guys that filled specific needs for our team. And those guys have all come in and filled those needs and in a lot of cases, exceeded expectations in my opinion. They've all played really well for us in their specific role in our team and made us a much deeper team, much more complete team and well-rounded. That's extremely important.”
That depth will be tested once again on Monday as the Avalanche will be forced to play without centre Nazem Kadri, who was hit from behind by Evander Kane just 66 seconds into Game 3.
Kane received a five-minute major for boarding but was not ejected, though he did receive a one-game suspension Sunday from the NHL Department of Player Safety.
Kadri has been seen with a soft cast on his right hand/arm and is believed to be dealing with a broken thumb, though Bednar would neither confirm nor deny when asked specifically Sunday afternoon.
"He's out for the series. Possibly longer,” said Bednar. “We should find that out in the next few days.”
The Avalanche are also without goalie Darcy Kuemper (who left Game 2 with an undisclosed upper-body injury) and defenceman Sam Girard (who was knocked out of Game 3 of the second round against the Blues with a broken sternum after getting hit by Ivan Barbashev).
Forwards Andre Burakovsky and Nicolas Aube-Kubel have also blocked shots in the series and been forced to sit out, though Burakovsky seemed to be skating well during Sunday’s optional skate and could be an option to return for Game 4.
Speaking of options, one of the things Bednar will consider is moving Mikko Rantanen from the wing to centre with Kadri unavailable — something he did earlier this season when Nathan MacKinnon and Kadri missed time with injuries.
“I think I can do it. Obviously, it’s a little different, so make some adjustments,” said Rantanen, who has three goals and five points in the series. “But the coach makes the decisions and I’m just waiting to see what the decision is.
"I’m ready to play whatever position. Maybe not D or goalie. But otherwise, I’m ready.”
Staying ready has been a common theme for Avalanche players on the periphery of the lineup during the stretch run and the post-season and that healthy competition has seemed to keep guys on their respective toes, bringing out the best in both the individuals and the group.
When past injuries have created opportunities, the Avalanche have the option of bringing in players with pedigree (like 2019 first-rounder Alex Newhook) or established NHLers (like Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray, who is the next D-man up) into the lineup rather than rely solely on call ups from the American Hockey League.
“I believe that all of our players' hearts are in the right place and they're going to go out and play to the best of their ability,” said Bednar. “When you have players that have had success for you at different points during the season and in the playoffs, and they're sitting out, and those are tough decisions for a coach to make, you know that they're watching and learning and that they're getting prepared to come in and help you when they get the call.
“You're getting a really hungry player to come in. We've seen that for us through the playoffs. It's a luxury that we probably didn't have like we have now.”