In the second part of our season review, we’ll take a look at the bottom six group of forwards. Unlike the top-six group that is for the most part locked in for the foreseeable future, a lot of questions remain unanswered for the bottom six group that could look very different next season. As another game-seven playoff loss sinks in, Avs fans know it stings but they have to see this season as another step in the right direction. Although they didn’t get deeper in the playoffs, it’s still important to know you identified some key players that you need moving forward and others that you don’t. Joe Sakic will have another offseason to fine-tune his forward group and that will include some tough decisions. Unlike many other Stanley Cup contenders, Sakic still has a window where he has some cap flexibility so we could see some significant change in the lineup.
What that being said, let’s take a look at how the bottom six performed.
Matt Calvert (12G, 13A, +13)
It’s difficult to say what could have been if the Colorado Avalanche were 100% healthy when they played the Dallas Stars in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season. Sure, the Avs took the Stars to seven games after being doing 3-1 in the series, but they were missing several key contributors in their lineup including forward Matt Calvert. Known for his gritty playing style and ability to get to hard areas, Calvert brings a kind of tenacity to the Avalanche that they were lacking against Dallas. Calvert was declared unfit to play following the Avs’ series against the Arizona Coyotes and his injury hasn’t officially been disclosed.
Injuries were surprisingly a theme this year for Calvert who had played all 82 games last season. He missed several games this season due to a concussion he received after blocking a shot to the head against the Vancouver Canucks back in November. The play was very controversial and received national attention as many criticized officials for not blowing the play dead as a player lay seriously injured.
Despite his injury problems, Calvert had another productive season adding some much needed depth scoring for the Avalanche and finished with a career high plus/minus of 13. His goals reflect his ability to not just be a presence in front of the net, but also on the rush. As Calvert enters his third and final year of his contract with Colorado it’s difficult to say if there is an extension in the works, but it’s evident the Avs need more players like Calvert in the lineup if they want to go deeper in the playoffs next season.
Valeri Nichushkin (13G, 14A, +13)
Joe Sakic has been able to find value-add pieces for the Avalanche in more ways than just the draft. His acquisitions of Ryan Graves, Andre Burakovsky, and Nazem Kadri via trade have been significant as well as his free agent signings of Joonas Donskoi and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. But Val Nichushkin seems like Sakic’s diamond in the rough. The former 10th overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft never found his way in the Dallas system, but something clicked this season when Nichushkin shined scoring 27 points for the Avalanche and finishing 2nd on the team in plus/minus with 26.
Nichushkin is the perfect combination of size and skill that the Avs need on their roster, especially since he proved he was able to play anywhere in the lineup. And for being one of the biggest guys on the team, he showed some breakaway speed and the ability to capitalize. Nichushkin played a lot on the third line and accepted his role as a checking forward. But when he is in the offensive zone, it’s difficult to take him off the puck and stop him through the neutral zone.
With a few players like Martin Kaut, Shane Bowers, and Logan O’Connor knocking at the door for roster spots, there are some difficult decisions to be made in the bottom six for next season. But hopefully, the Avs can come to an agreement for a least a one-year deal so Nichushkin can have an encore to prove he’s worth the long term investment.
Matt Nieto (8G, 13A, +7)
There were only two players that played in all 70 games in the 2019-20 modified regular season and they were Sam Girard and Matt Nieto. Nieto has been a solid add for Colorado the past few seasons providing valuable minutes on the penalty kill and recently some great depth scoring in the playoffs. Last season he had two shorthanded playoff goals and seemed to be always buzzing around the puck, but this year that wasn’t the same situation.
Playing a bottom six role means you’re accepting limited ice time and have you to find different ways to contribute to your team winning games. For some, it’s blocking shots, being reliable, or great defense, but a lot of the time it’s hard to distinguish yourself from the pack. Has Matt Nieto done enough to earn him a spot on the roster next season? Maybe. I know a lot of people respect him and his work promoting hockey in the Hispanic community around Denver so that will be missed if he moves on.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (9G, 13A, +2)
You can look at Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on paper and say that he’s overpaid for a 4th line player and he needs to be the first guy out to clear cap space, blah blah. But in reality, you’re getting a lot of intangibles from Bellemare that are invisible to the naked eye. He exemplifies a veteran who is a great locker room guy. He has a great sense of humor and knows how to keep it light, especially during the grind of a long regular season. Plus he can skate pretty well for being 35 and can still produce in the NHL, not to mention he’s also 50%+ in the faceoff circle.
Off the ice, Bellemare represented the Avalanche and minorities of color in the NHL when the players came together during the Black Lives Matter movement and spoke about the importance of equality not just in all levels of hockey, but everywhere. Bellemare’s combination of value on and off the ice makes him a vital piece for the roster next season, but who is to say what happens beyond then.
JT Compher (11G, 20A, +9)
It’s hard to believe that the trade that sent Ryan O’Reilly to the Sabres five years ago is still bearing fruit on the Avalanche today with Nikita Zadorov and JT Compher continuing to be key contributors. Compher inked his four-year deal last summer with Colorado and has done a good job giving them over 30 points the last couple years, not including his eight points in 13 playoff games this season.
Compher is fine. He isn’t a shutdown, checking center that you can lean on for some top defensive assignments. He can play the middle, or the wing and gives you some versatility, but dare we ask for more? The conversation following the playoff loss to the Stars was “do we need bigger guys?” And you have to ask yourself, is JT Compher the right fit for that role? The Avalanche top six is loaded with offensive talent, but they somehow keep falling behind in games. I understand that Colorado has committed to Compher, but they could look at him as a chip that a lot of teams would come to the table for. He’s a young centerman who can play in the NHL with some offensive upside, and what the Avs really need is a grizzly vet who wants to dig pucks out from corners and mix it up every once in a while. But for now, Compher gets the job done.
Tyson Jost (8G, 15A, +11)
The best way you can describe Tyson Jost’s time with the Avalanche thus far is a mixed bag. Drafted 10th overall in 2016, the former North Dakota Fighting Hawk hasn’t developed into the point-per-game machine that he was in college. His ability to lose defenders behind the net with his shiftiness made him lethal with the puck, especially on a powerplay with Brock Boeser. But today as Jost’s entry-level contract is behind him, the Avalanche will have to make a decision on Jost’s future.
There is no question that Jost has shown glimpses of high potential as he did when he scored a hat-trick back in October. But to score just one point in 12 playoff games this year showed that it’s possible his game disappears when there’s less room to skate. Jost could be a fantastic commodity for another team who could potentially trade for his rights this offseason, but the truth of the matter is that the Avs simply may need a different kind of player.