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Renck: Avs don’t have to say it. Everybody knows it. Chris MacFarland’s trades prove they are all-in again

Walking into Ball Arena at 4:30 p.m., the silence creates a comforting hum. A few steps later, the eyes shift to the ceiling where three hockey championship banners hang above Section 362. For most organizations, they would provide a long look back into comfort and goosebumps. For the Avs, they provide a longer gaze forward.

The banners represent motivation, direction. They are a compass. This point was driven home Wednesday morning with a sledgehammer. In 30 minutes, the Avs showed they remain all-in. Again.

The two most important days in a professional sports season are when it starts and the trade deadline when we find out what those in charge really think of their team. The Avs “why” is refreshing. There might as well have been a neon sign flashing above the scoreboard Wednesday that read: “We care.” In an industry, where reasons come camouflaged as excuses, the Avs’ stance warms the heart like an open campfire.

They are not paying their best players to go away (see Arenado, Nolan) or absorbing an $85 million dead salary cap hit to move on from the artist formerly known as Russell Wilson.

The Avs are hunting with a singular vision. Even if that means admitting a mistake.

They acquired Buffalo Sabres forward Casey Mittelstadt and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Sean Walker in two separate deals, shades of when they landed Artturi Lehkonen and Josh Manson two years ago. That season ended with a parade.

As long as Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar dot the roster, the Avs commentary never shifts toward the future. It’s about now.

They addressed areas of concern, made the team better than it was Tuesday. It came with pain. The Avs shipped off promising defenseman Bo Byram for Mittelstadt. Acquiring a functional second-line center became a glaring need, impossible to ignore.

Ryan Johansen was a bust. The Avs might have been better off with a Jonas Brother. Something was off. Or never on. He was a dial-up skater on a fiber optics team. Johansen had to go as did Bo to land his replacement.

“It wasn’t working,” Avs general manager Chris MacFarland admitted Wednesday night. “Bo was a special player. He helped us immensely. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t put a pit in my stomach because it did. But I felt it was the right move at this time for the club.”

Everybody, it seems, loved Bo. Hard not to given his contributions to the 2022 run and his potential. But was he better this season? It’s easier to make an argument that he regressed.

Rather than double down as so many stubborn suits do, MacFarland moved on from Johansen. It required a poison pill, attaching a 2025 first-round draft pick that is top-10 protected.

This is why the Avs are not immune from criticism. There are some who believe they lost focus on the big picture in sacrificing Byram. That they became too desperate. Like five minutes before last call and the person across the bar smiles and has a gap in their teeth bigger than one at the Castle Rock outlets and you smile back.


Of course, unloading Byram comes with risk. But it is unlikely he and Sam Girard both were going to be on the roster next season given their projected contracts. The best leaders don’t worry about what the player leaving will become. Rearview mirrors are for losing teams and GMs.

The Avs also did not ship off Byram for a 30-something rental.

Mittelstadt is 25, a controllable restricted free agent, with keen vision.

He enjoyed a career season with Buffalo this year — 14 goals, 47 points in 62 games — and his passing should flourish when surrounded by a plethora of offensive weapons.

Walker is better than the current version of Byram. He fits coach Jared Bednar’s style, a defenseman capable of pinching in the offensive zone.

The moves also deliver friendly math. The Avs created salary cap flexibility to make another a deal before Friday’s deadline. There have been national rumblings about Colorado adding a goalie even as Justus Annunen has made a compelling case to back up Alexander Georgiev.

The Avs are not the favorite to win the Stanley Cup — the Panthers and Oilers have better odds — but they remain firmly in the conversation.

Val Nichushkin could return as soon as Friday after entering the player assistance program in January. Most important is that he’s mentally and physically healthy. From a hockey perspective, he instantly becomes a blockbuster addition at the deadline. The Avs’ record when he plays suggests they will be skating in mid-June if he returns to form or something close.

“He touches every facet of our lineup,” MacFarland said.

In the bowels of Ball Arena, far removed from those stylish cursive-written banners, I asked MacFarland about the Avs being all in. The thing about this organization is that they don’t even have to say it.

Everybody already knows it. And Wednesday proved it.

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