As an eventful November comes to a close, the Colorado Avalanche continue the serial drama. The Good, Bad and Ugly breaks down another soap opera week for the Avalanche.
Breaking with tradition, let’s go directly to the latest hot topic. The NHL Department of Player Safety suspended Avalanche Captain Gabriel Landeskog four games for cross-checking Matt Tkachuk in Saturday night’s matchup against the Calgary Flames. First, did Landeskog cross check Tkachuk? Yep. Second, was the infraction worthy of a suspension? Probably. Third, was it worthy of a four-game suspension? Not by a long shot. There’s a lot to break down in this argument, so let’s start with context.
1. If all someone did was look at the clip of the hit, there’s little doubt a cross-checking occurred. But within the context of the game, the referees on the ice determined the infraction was worthy of a two-minute penalty. Not a game misconduct. In their opinion, the infraction didn’t merit throwing Landeskog out of the game. Those are normally the hallmarks of plays earning a four-game suspension. Within how the match was played and officiated, the hit merited two minutes in the box. Tkachuk was not injured and didn’t miss a shift. If anyone watched the game, there was a fair amount of physicality throughout the night and some questionable hits against Avalanche players as well, which set up the play in question.
2. The Avalanche have suffered more than their share of injuries from dangerous plays to the head already this season, many of which never even led the perpetrators to penalty minutes, let alone suspensions.
If high sticks to the head are the concern, then certainly Anaheim Ducks' Derek Grant should have been suspended for his stick under Nathan MacKinnon’s visor which slashed his eye. He didn’t even receive an in-game penalty, let alone a suspension.
Other Avalanche players injured this season by dangerous plays to the head – Alexander Kerfoot (10/13 - shoulder to head hit by Vegas Gold Knight Brayden McNabb – no penalty or suspension), A.J. Greer (in preseason 9/21 – Dallas Stars Greg Pateryn hit Greer in head during a fight, Greer out a month), and Dominic Toninato , the only one when where a suspension occurred (11/17 – shoulder to head hit by Austin Watson - major penalty, game misconduct, two-game suspension). Tyson Jost suffered a lower-body injury on Oct. 11 when he was cross-checked into the boards from behind by Boston Bruin Adam McQuaid which left him limping off the ice, but neither a penalty nor a suspension occurred. Jost is just now returning to the Avalanche lineup over a month later. And that doesn’t include the complete lack of calls on plays that left Mikko Rantanen lying flat on his face behind the net bleeding.
One could make the argument that if Grant, McNabb, Pateryn, and McQuaid can level players with dangerous play without getting a penalty, fine or suspension, then the NHL set a precedent for what constitutes dangerous play. Within that context, Landeskog’s hit doesn’t even come close to a suspension.
3. The NHL has set a risky standard with their inconsistency in what constitutes hazardous play. If hits to the head are the measure, then why was only one player out of four whose reckless play actually injured Avalanche players this season fined or suspended?
The problem with inconsistency rests with the thought process arbitrary discipline breeds. If defenseman Nikita Zadorov is going to get called for essentially being big every game, why not make a hit and earn that two-minute penalty? If cross-checking is going to be called intermittently (see Niskanen’s hit on Crosby in the playoffs for an example), does one stop cross-checking? Or does one just continue to play, knowing they face a small risk of getting a call?
That’s not player safety. That’s Russian Roulette. If player safety is really the goal, then ALL hits to the head need to face a standardized system of penalties. Not arbitrary rule enforcement. Star players need to be held to the same standard as rookies. And if that were the case, then Landeskog should have faced a one or two game suspension.
But consider this - Tom Wilson got a two-game suspension September 22 for dangerous play and less than two weeks later earned a four-game suspension on Oct. 1 for boarding. If being a repeat offender is the issue, Wilson’s infractions were only 10 days apart. Yet Landeskog’s previous infraction was a year and a half ago, past the CBA definition of a repeat offender. So, way to encourage players to reform – NOT.
If the NHL can’t follow its own guidelines, then the suspensions are just window dressing. They are doing lip service to safety while punishing a few players who don’t have the right connections to get them out of trouble. That’s arbitrary and dangerous, NOT protection. Build the fence – a uniform and consistently enforced fence for everyone all the time – and let the players compete by the same rules. Otherwise, let them live by the pirate code where the rules are more like guidelines, anyway, and enforcers will flourish. Pick your poison, but pick one.
Okay, rant over. Onto cheerier stuff.
1. Forward Mikko Rantanen leads the team in power play goals with six tallied so far this season. His 20 points places him second on the team for total scoring and he’s tied for second in goals and third for assists. Not bad for a sophomore.
2. Defenseman Tyson Barrie moved up to tie Rob Blake with his 208th career point, fourth place among all franchise defenseman for scoring. Now, if only he could eliminate turnovers in front of his own goal. Guess one can’t have everything.
3. Nathan MacKinnon continues to earn his ‘A’ as he leads the team with 25 total points and also leads in assists with 19. He’s racked up 18 points in the last 11 games. He ranks 10th in the NHL for assists and 14th in total points. With Landeskog out, he could be a key player for how the team handles the next five games. Look out world, Big Mack is loose.
4. Something that may have been overlooked in the last three games, but J.T. Compher has been earning some serious respect, playing on both the power play and the penalty kill. The only other forwards playing on both special teams – Gabriel Landeskog and Carl Soderberg. He’s also been fourth in forward ice time for the last two games (behind Landeskog, MacKinnon, and Rantanen) and was fifth behind the same three players plus Soderberg in the Dallas Stars game. He must be feeling better, so keep sending gift baskets to speed up his healing process. The Avalanche are going to need him to step up in Landeskog’s absence.
5. Rookie Alexander Kerfoot has become a fixture on the first power play unit along with MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen. When I spoke to him at a recent event, all he could talk about was the need for the team to get more wins so seeing that drive translate to his on-ice play has been refreshing. Since he’s likely becoming a fixture on the team, it’s important to find an appropriate nickname for such an intense, well-educated competitor. How about Kerfy? Footy? Alexa? Bueller?
6. It may be early in the process, but the Avalanche seem to have found their top four defensemen, running Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, Sam Girard, and – place your bets – Nikita Zadorov. Yes, that Zadorov. The guy working his way out of the dog house. Not only is Zadorov in the top four in ice time among defenseman for the past week, he’s also giving Mark Barberio a run for his money on penalty kill minutes. And, hey, he finally scored a goal the referees didn’t call back for some weird reason. Wonders never cease.
7. Forward Tyson Jost has been recalled from his five-game rehab stint in San Antonio. While he’s still working on finding his timing, it’s looking like coach Bednar will be running him on a line with J.T. Compher and Alexander Kerfoot. The rookies will have an opportunity to show what they can do with all that speed and smarts. Since they all attended college but are still rookies, do they become the smarty pants line? Just wondering.
8. Yeah, it was covered last week but, it’s worth mentioning again. Defenseman Erik Johnson seems to be going full beast mode on the ice right now. He’s fifth in the league in average ice time, logging over 26 minutes a night. He’s also second in number of shifts per game (32.2) and in shorthanded ice time (averaging four minutes per game). Get that guy an energy drink, or ice cream or healing salts. Whatever the Condor needs to stay healthy, do that.
9. It may come as a surprise to some but Colorado’s defense has done something right. The Avalanche are allowing an average of 32 shots per game, placing them in the middle of the pack at 15th place among all teams.
10. Happy belated birthday to Gabriel Landeskog whose special day fell on American Thanksgiving this year! Hopefully he enjoyed all the stuffing he could eat. He may need the energy for all the wedding planning he suddenly has time to do. Have fun discussing stationary and flower arrangements while serving your suspension. It will feed the fire for a speedy return.
1. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov missed all last week with an illness. Nevertheless, his record and Jonathan Bernier’s aren’t stellar this year. While both have made some spectacular saves, they rank 47th and 49th respectively for average save percentage. Bernier ranks 43rd in goals against average while Varlamov sits at 53rd. Not all of that rests on the goaltenders. The defense needs to take some responsibility for those numbers as well. However, a young team – the second youngest in the league – needs the goaltenders to help out more.
2. The Avalanche have only scored seven goals in their last three games. For a team that lives by playing fast and loose, relying on scoring to help propel them to victory, one hopes that’s an anomaly.
3. Coach Bednar unleashed his blender against the Calgary Flame in an attempt to ignite a spark for a comeback. At one point, Rantanen was demoted from the top line and replaced by Compher, while Kerfoot seemed to be playing musical linemates and what happened to Dominic Toninato? One hopes Bednar has a better idea how to roll the line combinations for the remaining portion of the homestand because the team needs to make better in-game adjustments, and wins at home would help their confidence. And the fans.
1. Losing Captain Gabriel Landeskog for four games looks like a challenging blow. Landeskog leads the forwards in ice time as well as special teams play. He’s arguably one of the Avalanche’s most responsible players with the puck and plays a two-way game. One player alone will not be able to compensate for his loss. It will take the entire team to kick it up a notch. This could get ugly.
2. The penalty kill still has a way to go. The team surrendered two goals in eight shorthanded opportunities. But it’s not all bleak. Blake Comeau managed to score another shorthanded goal so there’s still a silver lining in there somewhere.
3. It may be time for the Avalanche to go full on rogue and raise the jolly roger. Play the fast, skilled hockey the front office wants yet be ready to defend themselves. Don’t expect fair officiating - so far it’s only led to injuries and questionable calls. Prepare to get hit and to stand up for themselves. Keep their heads up and their feet moving. See if the other teams can keep pace. Expecting the league to enforce rules consistently won’t work.
WHAT TO WATCH
1. The Avalanche finally have a sustained homestand, taking on the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday night at Pepsi Center at 7 pm MST, then hosting the New Jersey Devils on Friday also at 7 pm MST before a 6 pm MST start on Sunday against their division rival – the Dallas Stars.
2. Jost is returning to the lineup so where he slots in with Landeskog’s suspension should prove interesting. Also, there should be additional information on Anton Lindholm’s status, which could provoke some movement of defensive players. New line combinations should give the rookies plenty of opportunities to rise and fall, and pick themselves back up again.
It’s time for the Colorado Avalanche to prove their resilience. Strap on those helmets, ready those hockey sticks, and fire away!
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