Avalanche line combinations: Eight configurations that coach Jared Bednar could look at ahead of the playoffs

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar doesn’t have to worry about his team making the playoffs or staying atop the Western Conference standings, but he still has plenty to consider with the playoffs creeping closer.

Bednar has talked about wanting to try different line combinations during this coming preplayoff stretch. That way, if things go awry and Bednar switches up the lineup in a must-win game, players will be familiar with each other.

Health has limited the Avalanche’s ability to experiment, but Colorado still has 12 games left. So let’s take a look at line combinations — some more realistic than others — that Bednar could consider either in the remaining regular-season games or in the playoffs.


The straightforward lineup

Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen
Valeri Nichushkin-Nazem Kadri-Andre Burakovsky
Artturi Lehkonen-Alex Newhook-JT Compher
Andrew Cogliano-Nico Sturm-Logan O’Connor

Healthy scratches: Darren Helm, Nicolas Aube-Kubel

The top line is a known commodity. When they’re together, Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen have been as good as any line in hockey the past few years. They have chemistry, skill and, with Landeskog, grit in front of the net.

Even with Landeskog and MacKinnon missing significant time to injury, the top line has played 340 five-on-five minutes together this season, per Evolving-Hockey. And, regardless of how game lineups start, this is the trio that will likely take the ice in big-time situations. Bednar has thrown them out together at the end of periods even when he has them broken up for the rest of the game.

Nichushkin, Kadri and Burakovsky have had success this season, posting a 54.78 Expected Goals For percentage, per Evolving-Hockey, as the Avalanche’s second-most-used line. Lehkonen has been an aggressive forechecker, and he, Newhook and Compher would likely be reliable defensively. That leaves a fourth line of grinding players, including two of the team’s deadline acquisitions in Cogliano and Sturm. Helm and Aube-Kubel could also work into the mix here.


Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon (Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)

The “here’s who’s currently healthy” lineup

Burakovsky-MacKinnon-Rantanen
Lehkonen-Compher-Nichushkin
Newhook-Sturm-Aube-Kubel
Cogliano-Helm-O’Connor

Injuries: Landeskog, Kadri

The Avalanche used this lineup Saturday against Pittsburgh, and Colorado got goals while both the first and third lines were on the ice. Cogliano, Helm and O’Connor didn’t score, but they all play with speed and feistiness and could be a line Bednar pulls out in the playoffs, depending on which players he scratches.

The Lehkonen-Compher-Nichushkin line interested me most Saturday. Pairing two relentless forecheckers (Lehkonen and Nichushkin) with a quality defensive center in Compher makes for a top-notch checking line.

The “Holy cow, Nichushkin and Lehkonen are a force together” lineup

Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen
Newhook-Kadri-Burakovsky
Lehkonen-Compher-Nichushkin
Cogliano-Sturm-O’Connor

Healthy scratches: Helm, Aube-Kubel

As discussed earlier, Bednar knows what he’ll get from the top line. This lineup would let him keep that intact while also spreading the wealth in the middle-six forward group. If that’s the route he goes, could Lehkonen, Compher and Nichushkin emerge as Colorado’s shutdown line in the playoffs? Kris Letang certainly didn’t enjoy playing against them:

Newhook, Kadri and Burakovsky have played a bit together and have a sub-50 xGF%, according to Evolving-Hockey. But a 60-minute sample size isn’t large, and depending on when Kadri returns from injury, they could have time to build some chemistry before the season ends.

One potential downside with this lineup: Nichushkin has been an elite player this season. Would the team be better served keeping him on the second line and maximizing his minutes?

The “spread the wealth” lineup

Nichushkin-MacKinnon-Rantanen
Landeskog-Kadri-Compher
Lehkonen-Newhook-Burakovsky
Cogliano-Sturm-O’Connor

Healthy scratches: Helm, Aube-Kubel

Though Landeskog’s absence has been felt on the top line, Nichushkin has filled in admirably and has shown he’s capable of playing with elite players. Keeping him with MacKinnon and Rantanen would allow Bednar to play Landeskog with Kadri, which would not be a fun duo to go against. Burakovsky could stay as a second-line wing, but to even out the lines, I put him with Lehkonen and Newhook.

The “spread the wealth” lineup, Part II

Burakovsky-MacKinnon-Rantanen
Landeskog-Kadri-Nichushkin
Lehkonen-Newhook-Compher
Helm-Sturm-O’Connor

Healthy scratches: Helm, Aube-Kubel

The Avalanche know Burakovsky is a streaky player. But if he’s on, he has a first-line skillset. Just watch his highlights from his December hat trick against Florida.

If he’s playing like that, Bednar has the flexibility to play Landeskog on the second line with Kadri and Nichushkin. That’s a line that can wear down opponents while also contributing on the offensive side of things.

The “bottom-line shakeup” lineup

Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen
Nichushkin-Kadri-Burakovsky
Lehkonen-Newhook-Compher
Helm-Sturm-Aube-Kubel

Healthy scratches: O’Connor, Cogliano

If healthy, Colorado will scratch at least two forwards, so there could be multiple variations of the fourth line by the end of the season. Sturm feels like the only lock to play because he’s the best on the team at taking draws. Aube-Kubel has, in flashes, shown the ability to mix physicality and skill. Consistency will determine his role. Helm is one of the only players on the team who knows what it takes to win a Stanley Cup, so he could be valuable, and he can play with speed and is a solid penalty killer.

The “let’s get an enforcer in there” lineup

Landeskog-MacKinnon-Rantanen
Nichushkin-Kadri-Burakovsky
Lehkonen-Newhook-Compher
Cogliano-Sturm-Kurtis MacDermid

Healthy scratches: O’Connor, Helm, Aube-Kubel

This lineup is similar to the previous one, just with the newly extended MacDermid in the fold. He’s moved between defense and forward throughout the season, but Colorado can shelter him more if he’s playing forward. The Avalanche can double shift top-six forwards to limit his ice time and put him on the ice only when they feel an opponent is taking liberties on players.

The “let’s get funky” lineup

Landeskog-MacKinnon-Compher
Lehkonen-Rantanen-Burakovsky
Newhook-Kadri-Nichushkin
Cogliano-Sturm-O’Connor

Healthy scratches: Helm, Aube-Kubel

I tried to find a way to make three trios that could qualify as top lines. To do so, I put Rantanen at center, a position at which he’s had success this year. MacKinnon, Rantanen, Kadri up the middle would be difficult for any team to counter.

To round out the lines, I paired each center with another top-six forward: Landeskog with MacKinnon, Burakovsky with Rantanen, and Nichushkin with Kadri. Then I filled in the gaps, making sure to keep the remaining forwards on their shooting side.

Is this the best way to use the team’s top players? Probably not. Is it fun to think about? Yes.

(Top photo of Artturi Lehkonen, Alex Newhook and Andre Burakovsky: Brett Holmes / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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