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Blue Line Buzz: Trouble in Colorado

Jason Chen

Consistently fires muffins. Blue Line Buzz on Mondays, Daily Puck and DFS on Sundays.

Is this it for the Colorado Avalanche? A 3-0 loss to Dallas on Sunday extended their losing streak to five games, and even worse, they lost top defenseman Erik Johnson for 6-to-8 weeks with a broken fibula after blocking a shot from Tyler Seguin.

Johnson had been averaging 22 minutes per game for the Avs as their top penalty killer, and in his seventh season with the team, has never lived up to expectations as a first overall pick and franchise defenseman. It’s certainly not entirely his fault because the team around him has yet to live up to its potential.

Whether or not this current core of Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Semyon Varlamov, Tyson Barrie and Johnson should remain together is a tough question. Patrick Roy had a big say over personnel until he was replaced, but Joe Sakic remains in charge and a coaching change doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference so far.

Most worryingly, without Johnson, one of the league’s worst defenses takes a big hit. The Avs are currently 24th in goals against per game at 2.96 and 25th on the penalty kill at 79.1 percent. Even with Roy’s departure, their possession stats tell much of the same story: a 24th-ranked Corsi rating and a 24th-ranked save percentage at even strength.

The Avs’ six-man group now consists of Barrie, Nikita Zadorov, Patrick Wiercioch, Francois Beauchemin, Eric Gelinas and Fedor Tyutin, who’s currently day-to-day with a lower-body injury. There’s not much in the way of immediate help either — their AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage, are in last place in the Pacific Division, with 21-year-old Chris Bigras and Cody Goloubef, recently acquired from Columbus, as the most obvious options.

Duncan Siemens, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft, has just one NHL appearance so far, and is quickly going the way of Stefan Elliott and Cameron Gaunce (that is, a bust). That leaves rookie Anton Lindholm (no relation to Anaheim’s Hampus or Carolina’s Elias), a 22-year-old Swede the Avs drafted in the fifth round in 2014, who signed this past summer after two full seasons with Skelleftea in Sweden’s top division and was the former captain of Sweden’s World Junior squad.

Through 21 games, the 5-foot-11 Lindholm has just one assist and has drawn mixed reviews, but was one of the last cuts from camp and has usually been a fixture on the Rampage’s top pairing. There’s some upside but not a whole lot, but when he’s playing well, he’s a skilled two-way defenseman who can make a difference at both ends. If the Avs want to see what he can really do, this is a good opportunity to throw him into the fire.

Journeyman Matt Lashoff, 29, is another option, but he also has a team-worst minus-14 rating, and a team that is still developing its young players would be wasting a roster spot. It wasn’t too long ago Sam Jardine, Cody Corbett, Mason Geertsen and Sergei Boikov — who may be the best of the bunch — were in the ECHL, partly due to a logjam at the position, but none have been really tested yet.

Despite limited options, the Avs just aren’t in the right position to make knee-jerk decisions and trade for immediate help. In the meantime, Barrie will have to take on more responsibility on the power play and Beauchemin on the penalty kill, with the remaining ice time divvied up between Wiercioch and Zadorov, depending on who plays better because neither are particularly reliable. The Avs have frequently gone with a four-forward set on their first power-play unit, but it’s entirely possible that Jared Bednar will occasionally elect to keep Barrie out for the full two minutes, just like Arizona did with Oliver Ekman-Larsson last year. Sell high or hold onto him and hope for the best.

Studs of the Week:

Dustin Byfuglien, Jets
– Other than a 6-3 loss against the Oilers, the Jets have won four of their past five games and Big Buff is on a roll with a four-game assist streak. Their two back-to-back wins over the weekend, both by one goal, against St. Louis and Chicago were particular impressive. Not only were they against division opponents, but the Jets came from behind against the Blues, and survived two power plays and 13 shots in the third period to beat Chicago. Byfuglien played over 27 minutes in both games.

Ian Cole, Penguins – The 27-year-old has never scored more than 12 points in a season since making the NHL, he already has nine points in 25 games thanks to a three-game outburst during which he scored five points. The hockey gods were simply smiling down on the Pens’ leader in blocked shots, and there’s little doubt he’ll establish a new career high this season, but he has a very limited offensive ceiling and averages just over 18 minutes of ice time per game.

Michael Del Zotto, Flyers – After a three-game benching as a healthy scratch, MDZ has been on a tear with two goals and two assists in his past five games, and now has eight points in 12 games this season. The Flyers have been an adventure in their own zone this year, forcing Dave Hakstol to take some drastic measures, but the message has clearly been heard. the Flyers are on a five-game roll and allowed just three goals against Chicago and Nashville on back-to-back nights. He’s unowned in most fantasy leagues and worth picking up for a high-risk, high-reward play.

Brendan Guhle, Sabres – He was a late cut from training camp and the Sabres have always marvelled at his athleticism and skating ability. Assigned to the WHL for the season but called back Friday on an emergency basis, Guhle skated 16:20 in his NHL debut against Boston and finished with four shots on goal, two blocked shots and a plus-1 rating. That’s a very productive night for anyone, let alone a 19-year-old rookie, and he really looked like he belonged in the NHL. Though he’s expected to return to major junior soon, it’s obvious he has the ability to be a core player in the future.

Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce, Hurricanes – Slavin and Pesce registered just one assist each this past week, but so much of what they’ve been doing doesn’t show up on the scoresheet. Over his past four games, Slavin has skated at least 25 minutes per game, including 27:21 against Boston to lead all Carolina defensemen, while Pesce skated more than 24 minutes on back-to-back nights against the Rangers and Lightning. Just how dependable have they been? Despite starting in the defensive zone more than any other Carolina defensemen, Slavin has an even rating and is second in scoring with seven points, while Pesce has consistently been the team’s best Corsi player. Together, they’ve blocked a total of 31 shots this past week, more than any tandem. The Hurricanes defense is very talented and deep and often go with a committee approach, but Slavin and Pesce’s usage have spiked given their excellent play.

Duds of the Week:

John Carlson, Capitals
– The Caps are in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division and have just won four games in their past 10, and talk about the roster becoming a little too stale is closer to the truth than some may think. The regular season is grueling and relentless, and too often the Caps have sounded like a group that just can’t wait to get it over with. In years past, a team of their caliber might be virtually guaranteed a playoff spot, but the Eastern Conference is becoming tougher with each passing year, and it’s hard to believe they can just turn on a switch when the need arises given how poorly they’ve played. At the forefront is Carlson, who has yet to score a goal this season and finished the week with a minus-2 rating.

Jakub Kindl, Panthers – One day, someone’s going to crunch numbers on Kindl and have a tough time figuring out why he never turned out to be a better player. The Red Wings spent years trying to develop him into a reliable top-four defenseman before finally giving up last year, and it’s easy to see why the stats-heavy Panthers front office might like him: since breaking into the league as a regular in 2010, he’s had a Corsi rating above 50 percent every year, and last year led all Panthers defenseman with 55.0 percent. This year has been a totally different story, with a team-worst 45.4 percent and a minus-4 rating for the week.

Jakob Chychrun, Coyotes – You hate to pick on a rookie, but after sitting out the previous four games as a healthy scratch, Chychrun returned to the ice on Dec. 1 against the Kings, only to play just 9:49 in a 4-3 loss. The Coyotes are hoping he can learn by watching, but the 18-year-old also needs to keep playing to develop and gain experience. Even though the cost-conscious Coyotes have already burned the first year of his contract, Chychrun can still be assigned to the OHL. If the Coyotes can’t find a regular role for him, it may be better for his development to go back to major junior. There’s no real need to rush him.

Alex Pietrangelo, Blues – He didn’t really have a bad week (three points) or a good week (minus-3), but was at the wrong end of the play on three separate occasions: once when he made 6-foot-7 offensive duster Jamie Oleksiak look like an oversized Patrick Kane, and then later in the same game when Oleksiak’s second goal went off his skate, and then a third time when Patrik Laine took him inside-out and placed a perfect backhand sauce to Bryan Little for an overtime winner two games later.

Recommended Pickups:

Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher, Canucks
– There’s something brewing in Vancouver, and it’s not a riot. With Alex Edler (hand) and Chris Tanev (ankle) both on the shelf, like it or not, Willie Desjardins has had to fully embrace the youth movement, and that involves sticking to the 23-year-old Hutton and the 22-year-old Stecher on the team’s top power play unit. On Saturday against Toronto, Hutton played a team-high 25:06, while Stecher finished third with 22:17. The points may not come consistently, but they consistently get the best opportunities, and both are very mobile and dynamic on offense, unafraid to carry the puck through the neutral zone or shoot when there’s an open lane. It’s not like they’re going to have a Shayne Gostisbehere-like breakout season, but there’s quite a bit of upside to be had with very little risk.

The Big Board:

^ = stock rising
˅ = stock dropping

1Brent Burns, SJS ^10*1234107*284524:02
2Shea Weber, MTL81017*1464595325:58
3Erik Karlsson, OTT515512612173*27:15
4Victor Hedman, TB51431451384224:46
5Dustin Byfuglien, WPG ^214-22972725227:52*
6Kevin Shattenkirk, STL61302147282220:19
7Ryan Suter, MIN41213852182927:25
8Zach Werenski, CBJ5114468172822:10
9Cam Fowler, ANA ^7104254133423:51
10Duncan Keith, CHI017*8660112826:09
11Roman Josi, NSH ^312-2469173525:05
12Mike Green, DET61011646213224:18
13P.K. Subban, NSH610-71859253724:54
14Drew Doughty, LAK4942059424527:03
15Alec Martinez, LAK59-11055544622:51
16Brent Seabrook, CHI2137644423922:53
17Ryan McDonagh, NYR113101143264923:51
18Andrei Markov, MTL2164833192322:03
19Kris Letang, PIT212-41665423925:55
20Dougie Hamilton, CGY31012677383019:19

Just missed the cut:

Mark Giordano, CGY
Colton Parayko, STL
Alex Pietrangelo, STL
Shayne Gostisbehere, PHI

Notable omissions:

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, ARI
Tyson Barrie, COL
Aaron Ekblad, FLA
John Klingberg, DAL