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Why Rantanen’s injury puts Avalanche in the spotlight with the trade deadline approaching

Colorado had the cap space and the assets, but after losing Mikko Rantanen to an upper-body injury, the Avalanche now have the need to make a splash at the trade deadline.

The outlook wasn’t good for the Colorado Avalanche from the moment Mikko Rantanen peeled himself off the ice.

After his legs were taken out by Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak, the star winger collided with the boards and was left writhing in pain on the ice. As he got to his feet, Rantanen nursed his left arm, his right arm reaching up into the area of his left shoulder. He skated to the bench and was immediately down the tunnel, and the post-game report wasn’t the least bit promising. Said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, Rantanen will be sidelined for weeks. That’s plural. And while this isn’t the absolute worst-case scenario for Colorado – Nathan MacKinnon is still healthy, and here's hoping he stays that way – it’s not all that far from it.

Offensively, there’s little question Rantanen’s absence will hinder the attack. Though he’s already missed a dozen games this season, he exited Monday’s contest three points back of Andre Burakovsky for second in Avalanche scoring despite playing 13 fewer games. Rantanen’s 19 goals are level with Burakovsky and Nazem Kadri for second in Colorado, and Rantanen’s 41 points in 42 games give him the second-best rate of per game production. Add in his prowess on the power play and it’s obvious losing Rantanen for any considerable length puts the Avalanche in a bind.

Without a doubt, there was never going to be a good time for Colorado to be without one of their premiere offensive weapons, but losing Rantanen as the Avalanche are fighting for positioning in the Central Division and gearing up for the post-season is far from ideal. Adding to the distress is the fact the Avalanche are the walking wounded right now, as battered, bruised and beat up as any other club. Last week, Kadri landed on the shelf with a lower-body injury that’s going to cost him at least a month of action. Matt Calvert is expected to miss at least the next couple weeks, putting his timeline for return at early or mid-March. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer is sidelined indefinitely. None of this is to mention, either, that bottom-sixer Colin Wilson has been out for almost the entirety the campaign, skating in only nine games this season.

If there is any silver lining, however, it’s the timing.

Rantanen falling injured prior to the trade deadline gives Avalanche GM Joe Sakic an opportunity to address his team’s needs, whereas if the injury had come after the deadline, Colorado would simply be stuck trying to make do with the pieces in place. Surely, the Avalanche were already kicking tires and looking at ways to load up for what has potential to be a lengthy playoff run, and their rumored interest in eventual Lightning acquisition Blake Coleman is an indication that Colorado is indeed looking to land a notable piece or two. Given Rantanen’s unsettlingly vague timeline for return, though, what we might now see is an Avalanche front office that is more aggressive in the market than before, more willing to pay steep prices to patch holes and ensure they don’t miss a beat heading into the post-season.

One imagines, too, that the focus now, no matter what it was before, is the top six. With Rantanen out and Kadri absent until the late stages of the regular season, the top two lines need to be addressed. And Sakic isn’t without options. At the top of the list could be wingers such as Chris Kreider and Mike Hoffman, and kicking the tires on a pivot such as Jean-Gabriel Pageau doesn’t seem all that farfetched if it’s a versatile middle-six piece Sakic seeks ahead of the deadline. Truth be told, though, the Avalanche have the power to be in the mix for just about anybody and everybody. There might not be another team in the NHL that has a greater ability to land the pieces they’re after.

That’s in part because the Avalanche have more cap flexibility than any other contending team. Their current cap space is upwards of $24 million and projected deadline cap space is nearly $28.7 million, according to CapFriendly. Colorado has ample spending room with which to operate at the deadline, which means they can avoid dollar-in-dollar-out deals and won’t necessarily need trade partners to retain salary in any swap. More importantly, Colorado is asset rich at a time when sellers are going to be seeking futures.

Aside from a second-round pick this summer, the Avalanche possess draft choices in every round of the next two drafts, and Colorado has among the deepest stable of prospects among contending clubs. Chief among those who could be moved is defenseman Conor Timmins, who has plenty of upside but is arguably the most expendable of the high-quality rearguards in the system. But nothing is stopping the Avalanche from floating other valuable trade chips such as A.J. Greer, Shane Bowers, Logan O’Connor and Calle Rosen. And if Colorado wants to swing for the fences, there’s always the option to move Bowen Byram, Alex Newhook or the recently recalled Martin Kaut, though a trade involving any of the three prospects seems incredibly unlikely.

So, while it was always likely the Avalanche would be at the forefront of trade action ahead of the deadline, the Rantanen injury makes it seem more certain than ever Colorado will be making a splash or two in order to bolster a group that has designs on true Stanley Cup contention.

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