Explaining Jared Bednar’s recent lineup tweaks to Avalanche top-six

It goes without saying that if the Avs are fully healthy, their six best defensemen and their six best forwards stack up with almost any team’s.

But what if the reality is simply that the Avalanche will not be fully healthy when the playoffs arrive in one month?

That’s increasingly plausible, especially for the forwards as captain Gabriel Landeskog inches without a timeline toward returning from his October knee surgery. As long as that remains the case, it’s Jared Bednar’s job to concoct a contingency plan as to who would be Colorado’s sixth member of the top six.

The first five are established: Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Valeri Nichushkin, Artturi Lehkonen and J.T. Compher. MacKinnon and Compher are the centers. For a sense of Bednar’s thought process about how to color the lineup around them, start with the most essential characters: MacKinnon and Rantanen, “our two best offensive players” as Bednar said Saturday after a 3-2 win over Arizona.

For weeks now, Bednar has divided those two, with Rantanen playing right wing on the second line. MacKinnon centers the top line.

“Everyone has their own opinion on what our lineup should look like. Lots of people want me to put MacKinnon with Rantanen,” Bednar acknowledged earlier this week. “But MacKinnon’s on pace for a career high in points, and Rantanen already broke his career high in goals. So I think both those guys are playing well away from each other, which gives our team more depth.”

MacKinnon’s 1.49 points per game rank third in the NHL. In 16 games since the NHL All-Star break, he has 15 goals and 10 assists. Rantanen, meanwhile, is chasing the Avalanche’s first 50-goal season in 20 years.

So Rantanen has teamed up with Compher, where “I think it’s been a pretty easy match for me,” Bednar said. Alex Newhook started the season as the second-line center candidate, but Compher emerged as the clear choice.

The coach’s more specific mission, then: “I’m looking for someone to play with Compher and Mikko,” he said. “That’s my priority.”

With Rantanen and MacKinnon split up, Lehkonen and Nichushkin are the two wings that fill in on MacKinnon’s top line. The left-handed Rantanen likes playing on his off-hand side. So the opening in question is second-line left wing — where Landeskog would feasibly fit.

Bednar frequently blended his lineups in pursuit of an answer during a recent slump that saw the Avalanche (36-22-6) lose four consecutive games when facing playoff teams. Evan Rodrigues has the best offensive skillset among the candidates, making him a sensible fit, but his point production has declined recently with four points in the last 16 games.

Bednar moved Rodrigues down to the bottom six during Colorado’s 7-3 loss in Dallas last Saturday. He had tried Newhook in the LW2 opening earlier in the week but didn’t like the 22-year-old’s fit.

“I think he’s really started to skate better in the center position,” Bednar said. “Obviously that stretch for me was the best we’ve seen him play at center. … Right now I’d like to keep him in the middle of the ice if I can.”

The vision is Newhook and Lars Eller as bottom-six centers.

Bednar also experimented with Matt Nieto. That didn’t last either. Denis Malgin has played recent shifts with the top six and shown bursts of individual prowess with the puck, but Bednar’s gut going into last week was still that Rodrigues is “the guy that I see there, when I look at our lineup, and who should be there and who can probably help those guys the most, creating offense.”

“I do think a couple of those guys should be pushing for that second-line left wing spot,” the coach said Tuesday before the Avs faced the Sharks. “But I mean, we’ve tried a few guys there. It hasn’t worked out. Might have to cycle back and go again.”

So he did. Back to Rodrigues, who scored a net-front goal Thursday vs. Los Angeles. Then vs. the Coyotes, Bednar reunited MacKinnon and Rantanen as linemates. That’s less likely to be a permanent fixture, given Bednar’s astute point about their unaffected production while away from each other. To him, that was more of a temporary shake-up the whole team needed. As well as the player who joined them on the top trio for a day: Rodrigues.

“My feeling is that E-Rod needs to play on that (second) line,” Bednar said. “He’s the guy.”

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