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Avalanche analysis: Flurry of trades look like direct response to last season’s early exit

No team has been more active ahead of the NHL trade deadline this week than the Colorado Avalanche, and that’s not a coincidence.

General manager Chris MacFarland made four trades in a span of about 24 hours. The Avs have a new second-line center, a replacement for the young defenseman that it cost to acquire said center and two depth forwards who are known as much or more for their physical style of play as their ability to help produce offense.

Why so many moves for a team that was already positioned as one of the top Stanley Cup contenders? No need to look any further than what just happened last year.

The Avs were the defending champions when the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs began. They had the same core of high-end talent, but the roster was not as deep as the 2022 edition.

When the second round of the 2023 playoffs began, the Avs were at home, stewing that their repeat bid had ended so soon.

“You’re not winning in this league without depth. You’re just not,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “We had a good team last year. We had 51 wins last year. We were lacking depth and you saw what happened. There’s no guarantee the depth gets you where you want to go. But I know this — you’re not getting to where you want to go without it.”

The Avs did not like their center depth, and they weren’t satisfied with Ryan Johansen’s play as the latest player to try and be the No. 2 guy behind Nathan MacKinnon. They were proactive, and feel like they’ve found a better solution.

Casey Mittelstadt has produced like a top-six center for the Buffalo Sabres each of the past two seasons. He’s 25 years old, and in a different place than the recent candidates. Johansen was older and had a serious injury recently. Alex Newhook was younger and wasn’t ready for the role. And J.T. Compher was more of a ‘tweener than a true No. 2 guy.

“I bring maybe a little more puck possession,” Mittelstadt said. “I’m not much of a shooter, maybe more of a playmaker. I like to get the puck to the guys I’m playing with and go from there. I’ll try to play my best and see what happens.”

Walker is older than Bo Byram and doesn’t have nearly the same long-term upside. That said, he’s also a right-handed shot, which balances out Colorado’s three defense pairs with three lefties and three righties. He’s also been a strong penalty killer, and Bednar acknowledged that Walker’s presence could allow the Avs to play Cale Makar less in that phase of the game.

He also looks, on paper, like a strong stylistic match.

“Yeah, it’s a fast transition team,” Walker said. “A lot of guys that want to go. I think I fit really well into that.”

Those two moves gave MacFarland and the Avs the financial flexibility to do a lot of different things. The priority was clear: more depth, and more players who play a physical brand of hockey.

Yakov Trenin could be an adequate third-line player on a contender but profiles as potentially an above-average one on the fourth line. Brandon Duhaime provides a lot of what Kurtis MacDermid did, but has earned the trust of previous coaches to play more.

“Every player you add helps,” Bednar said. “We have more bodies. We have guys that play a different style, a physical style that can handle the heavy lifting in the playoffs. There’s no question we’re a deeper team today than we were yesterday.”

MacDermid was big and tough, but the Avs didn’t trust him to play a regular shift. Fredrik Olofsson, Chris Wagner and Joel Kiviranta have all been solid players and good soldiers, but the Avs just added two bruisers and have another guy (Nikolai Kovalenko) on the horizon who definitely embraces the physical chaos.

Bednar has a lot more options. The Avs have certainly loaded up for a long playoff run. Consider last season a lesson learned. When the club had flexibility to augment the roster this time around, “more is better” was clearly the message.

“To be able to add players like this and to bolster the strong group that we already have is a rarity,” Bednar said. “It’s something that everyone in our room is grateful for, but our room has to put in the work in order to get to that point. We feel like we’re a good team. Our stars are playing great. We have to support them, and that’s what they’ve done here today. Now it’s up to us to go and play the way we can play and get the job done.”

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