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Internal wild cards, trade deadline could drastically alter Avalanche forward corps

The makeup of the Colorado Avalanche forward corps is going to change this week, possibly more than once. It could change again in the coming weeks, and maybe again in the coming months.

How much it will change because of external additions, and how a couple of internal wild cards could alter Jared Bednar’s lineup plans once the postseason arrives, is arguably the most intriguing storyline for the Avs over the final weeks of the regular season.

“At this time of the year, it’s kind of a weird situation. You never know what’s going to happen,” Avs forward Mikko Rantanen said. “Yeah, it’s going to be interesting what other teams do and what we do to make the team stronger for the playoffs.”

Let’s start with the known change. Valeri Nichushkin is back with the team and could return to the lineup Wednesday or Friday night at Ball Arena. His addition is massive, and the effect he can have is already apparent.

The Avs are a dominant hockey team when Nichushkin plays. The strength and depth of their forward group instantly improves. Questions about how quickly Nichushkin can shake off the rust and whether or not he can reach the same level he was playing at before he entered the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program are valid. But the Avs know what he can be in their quest for the Stanley Cup this season.

Another addition could arrive later this week, because the NHL trade deadline is Friday afternoon. The Avs have been reportedly interested in multiple players, including defenseman Chris Tanev before he landed in Dallas, but another forward makes sense. Particularly if that player can play center, where the depth behind Nathan MacKinnon could use a boost.

Two other potential internal additions on the horizon are far lesser-known quantities. One is captain Gabriel Landeskog, who could return during the playoffs. If he does, it will be after missing two full regular seasons of action. It will be with a rebuilt knee, and a wide range of potential outcomes about how effective he can be.

Does Landeskog’s potential return, which remains far from a given, impact the Avalanche’s plans before the deadline?

“No,” Bednar said. “We don’t know if he’s going to be able to come back or not come back. He can’t play in the regular season. We know that, with the timeline from his surgery. We’re hoping that he’s a guy that can get to a spot where maybe he could come back and help us at some point during the playoffs.”

The timeline for Landeskog’s recovery from knee surgery was set at 12-to-16 months. The early end of that is sometime during the playoffs, while the latter is closer to training camp next season.

He could be a turbo boost of energy for the club, particularly on an emotional level, at some point during a long playoff run. Or he could have to wait until next year.

The other internal addition is Russian prospect Nikolai Kovalenko. He is on loan to Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod in the KHL but is expected to join the Avalanche when his season is over. Torpedo is currently down 2-1 in a first-round playoff series to a superior opponent, so that could be very soon.

Kovalenko was a sixth-round pick in 2018, a long-term project who has blossomed into a highly effective KHL player with back-to-back excellent seasons.

“They’re in the playoffs right now and he’s had a great season,” Bednar said. “He could be a guy that we add when they finish. I don’t know all the circumstances behind it. He is our player. If we can add at him at some point and we feel like he can help us, then we’re going to do it.”

How much can Kovalenko actually help the Avs? Colorado has shown no fear of dropping untested players into Stanley Cup Playoffs conditions. Cale Makar, Alex Newhook and Sampo Ranta have all played in postseason games with little or no NHL experience.

Kovalenko is a physical player with a mean temperament on the ice, but also one who might have the skills to play a regular role in the NHL. Whether or not he can do it a couple of weeks or a couple of months from now is unknown.

“He’s been an important part of Torpedo for the last two seasons,” said Corey Pronman, a prospects analyst for The Athletic. “I see a potential bottom six winger. He plays hard and is very skilled, but he is a so-so skater and isn’t that big, so there will be questions on how well his game will translate. I don’t think he’s a sure thing to be a difference-maker, but his play style is likable and he should get a fair opportunity to prove he can play.”

More talent and depth equals more options, which should be a good thing for Bednar and the Avs. Who plays and where should be interesting subplots to monitor in the coming weeks.

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