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Coaches Room

Avalanche will be tested without Rantanen

Carlyle says Colorado must cope, continue to move ahead with injured forward sidelined

by Randy Carlyle / Special to NHL.com

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019-20 season by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. Paul MacLean, Rob Zettler, Rob Cookson and Randy Carlyle will take turns providing insight.

In this edition, Carlyle, winner of the 1980-81 Norris Trophy voted as top defenseman in the NHL and former coach of the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs, examines the fast start of the Colorado Avalanche.

The Colorado Avalanche have made some subtle but important changes, and those have made their fast start to the season no surprise at all.

The Avalanche (7-1-1) have an increasing maturity in a group that's been together for some time now. The sense that they are a team on the rise is also because of the emergence of forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen as generational players.

It was vital that they got Rantanen, a restricted free agent throughout the offseason, to agree to a six-year contract Sept. 28, before the season started.

But now Rantanen is week to week with a lower-body injury and this will be a real test, especially for their youth. When you're off to the start they've had, when a lot of things have been going their way, hopefully this will not be an event that derails their ability to have success.

Their goal, no doubt, will be to continue being a team comfortable in its growth and confidence, that they're a young and exciting team prepared to take the next step.

Video: COL@TBL: Rantanen whips home goal on backhand

This is a team that seems very comfortable with where its players are slotted, and it has made some changes and additions that strengthen that conviction.

That list is a pretty good one.

New center Nazem Kadri is a big addition from my perspective. He gives them depth at center and helps settle their group. His presence now allows the coaching staff to keep from asking people to play higher in the lineup than they should.

Kadri, who came in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1, gives the Avalanche a solid No. 3 center who can move up and down the lineup and a little bit more nastiness that's required in a checking role that I suspect he'll see frequently. I've coached him and though I wouldn't say he's the quickest guy, he gets around rink, he's strong on his skates, he's competitive and he's matured as a person on and off the ice.

There are other important newcomers.

Forwards Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi and Valeri Nichushkin each signed as free agents this offseason. I would also consider forward Matt Calvert, who signed as a free agent July 1, 2018, and forward Colin Wilson, who was traded back to Colorado by the Nashville Predators on July 1, 2017, as significant additions.

My point is that all these players are highly competitive and change the makeup of Colorado's forward group. Bellemare and Calvert are known for their competitiveness, same with Wilson. Donskoi's a scorer, but he'll go to the tough areas to do it and compete on pucks. Kadri's highly competitive and adds scoring and combativeness. Burakovsky (6-foot-3, 201 pounds) and Nichushkin (6-4, 210) are big bodies who can get around the rink and provide some offense.

The Avalanche forwards who drive the bus, MacKinnon, Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Jost and probably Burakovsky, these are the five main guys who are high-skilled and take the lead. They don't cheat anybody.

Video: COL@TBL: Jost scores first NHL hat trick

The package gives Colorado a work ethic as good as any team on both sides of the puck.

On defense, I see 20-year-old Cale Makar as a key player, someone who was a huge bonus when he joined Colorado in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He provided instant impact, including allowing the Avalanche to trade Tyson Barrie to the Maple Leafs for Kadri on July 1.

Makar's emergence keeps Colorado's defense dynamic. Like Makar, Samuel Girard (5-10, 170) is the modern-day, small-bodied, puck-moving defenseman. Add them to Ian Cole, Erik Johnson and Nikita Zadorov (6-6, 235), who can play large minutes against opposition big bodies, and you've got a strong group.

Including their sharp start to the season, the perception of the Avalanche is evolving. I'd say expectations are higher this season and I think it's appropriate. The Avalanche had 90 points, qualified as the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference last season and reached the Western Conference Second Round, where they lost in seven games to the San Jose Sharks.

They've had that taste, and it's given them an eye-opener to what's needed ahead, an understanding on how they have to play in the new NHL. It's not necessarily about brawn but about competitiveness and getting inside and winning more puck battles and proving your toughness that way night in and night out. And all those added players will be competitive players in those areas, big assets.

It's growing in their minds that they're a more complete hockey club. It's a credit to management and their coaching staff to have had the foresight to make some changes that they felt were necessary, bringing in people who all seem to be competitive, because it's not easy to win in the NHL.

It's really hard to predict that Colorado will be able to carry a 7-1-1 pace through the season; that level isn't realistic. But it's a nice start and gives the Avalanche something to build on. They have had solid goaltending (.924 save percentage), which is important, and strong penalty killing (85.7 percent), which gives them a chance to win every game. When you don't have that, you can't win.

They have some experience and the transition they've made with moves during the offseason lead me to believe they'll be even more competitive and ready to take that next step.

And that next step is not the playoffs. It's the next 20 games, coping with a significant injury to Rantanen but continuing to build a stable, solid, reliable game and to keep moving forward.

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