The Avalanche have a lethal top line — now it's time to address the lack of depth

Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog are arguably the best line in hockey right now. But without depth to support the top unit, the free-falling Avalanche won't be much more than also-rans in a competitive Central Division.
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With an assist on Matt Calvert’s first-period goal on Wednesday against the San Jose Sharks, Nathan MacKinnon hit the 60-point plateau. It was a special accomplishment, too, as it made MacKinnon and linemate Mikko Rantanen, who compose two-thirds of the most lethal line in hockey alongside Gabriel Landeskog, the first set of teammates to register 60 points through 41 games since some guys named Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux managed the feat back during the 1996-97 season.

That MacKinnon and Rantanen have been so prolific this season is astounding, and the dynamic duo — or top-scoring trio, depending on how you want to label the line — is worthy of every bit of praise that has been heaped upon them. Rantanen has established himself as a true top talent in the league, a precision passer and dangerous set-up man who was tied for the top assist total throughout the past calendar year. MacKinnon has taken it a step further, flirting with entering the rarified air of the perennial MVP candidate. Make no mistake, after finishing second in voting last season, he’s on the radar for the Hart Trophy once again.

But on a night the two should have been celebrated for their remarkably rare achievement, they instead skated from the ice with their heads hung low. It was a secondary story, one that neither was all too keen to boast about, particularly not in the face of a sixth consecutive loss and fourth straight one-goal defeat. It was another reminder that a single lethal line isn’t the most dangerous distinction in the NHL. It’s depth. And in that category, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Colorado falls woefully short of other top teams in the league.

In many ways, the play of the Avalanche top line has masked a lot of what has ailed this team. The offensive firepower in the top line alone has dug this team out of holes, bringing them back from the brink on some nights and putting them so far ahead so as to never be caught on others. This much is clear in just a cursory glance at the team’s output. Colorado has scored 138 goals with Rantanen’s 62 points, MacKinnon’s 60 and Landeskog’s 45 pacing the attack. But diving slightly deeper points to how thin the offense has been beyond the top line.

Based on scoring plays, Rantanen has factored in on 44.9 percent of the offense. MacKinnon slightly less at 43.5 percent. And Landeskog rounds out the trio at 32.6 percent. More incredibly, MacKinnon has been on the ice for 83 of the goals that the Avalanche have scored this season, or 60 percent. Rantanen has been on the ice for 78, or 56.5 percent. Landeskog again rounds out the trio with 77, or 55.8 percent. Combined, the three players have scored 167 points. The rest of the Avalanche roster has 205 points. Suffice to say, it’s a lot of weight for three players to carry. It’s also not conducive to winning, as we’ve seen over the course of these past six games.

Though the trio’s offense hasn’t dried up, per se, it has definitely hit a speed bump of sorts during this skid. Entering this six-game slide, the point per game paces of Rantanen, MacKinnon and Landeskog were 1.66, 1.57 and 1.20, in that order. Over the course of the losing streak, though, Rantanen’s rate of scoring has been .67 points per game, MacKinnon’s .83 and Landeskog’s a mere .50. And that has wreaked havoc on the attack. Prior to this slide and dip in per-game production from the top line, the Avalanche were averaging 3.54 goals per game. Throughout this slump, Colorado has produced just 2.33 goals per game. And therein lies the problem.

While the Avalanche do, indeed, have some stealthily proficient scorers throughout their attack — a pair of double-digit goal scorers in Carl Soderberg and J.T. Compher, the former also one of two other 20-point forwards — it’s not near enough to keep up if the top line isn’t firing on all cylinders. That’s trouble in an era where line-matching is a buzzword on every other night in the NHL and opposing coaches burn out projector bulbs breaking down film in an attempt to slow other team’s top stars. So, if the Avalanche want to make more of this season, turn this from a remarkable year by its top stars into one in which it makes some noise come the post-season, it might be time to consider making some noise on the trade market.

This isn’t to suggest that GM Joe Sakic and Co., who have done a nice job stocking the cupboard with prospects such as Cale Makar, Connor Timmins, Martin Kaut, A.J. Greer and Shane Bowers, go ahead and flip high-profile prospects for quick fixes and bandaids. Rather, it’s to float the idea that maybe now could be a worthwhile time to put the trade cap back on and consider what could be had if some pieces were moved along.

Though he’s vastly outplayed Philipp Grubauer, could now be a good time to flip Semyon Varlamov and his expiring deal? Is there a GM willing to listen on blueliner Nikita Zadorov, who has slipped down the depth chart in Colorado? Or what about a deal that sees third-pairing blueliner Patrik Nemeth head out of town before the pending free agent sees his deal expire? The Avalanche, though clearly not in a win-now position, could also entertain the option of shipping out valuable draft picks at a time when they have the benefit of two first-rounders, including a potential first-overall pick by way of the Ottawa Senators. If there’s a deal to be made for a secondary or scorer two who could supplement the top line and take some of the offensive onus off of the Rantanen-MacKinnon-Landeskog trio, it would be worth Sakic’s time to listen.

There’s potential in Colorado. Lots of it. And while the top line has driven this bus, they can’t continue to do so alone.

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