Avalanche fine-tune roster by bringing in 4 new players to gear up for playoff race

Detroit Red Wings left wing Lucas Raymond, center, runs Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar into the boards, while center Nathan MacKinnon watches during the third period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Detroit Red Wings left wing Lucas Raymond, center, runs Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar into the boards, while center Nathan MacKinnon watches during the third period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — Nathan MacKinnon sauntered across the room in his skates after an optional practice to introduce himself to Casey Mittelstadt, the team’s newest center.

One introduction down, several more to go.

MacKinnon and his Colorado Avalanche teammates have quite a few new names, faces and playing styles to learn in a hurry. The front office has been quite busy before the trade deadline tinkering with the roster in an effort to spark a deep playoff run.

Fresh off adding Mittelstadt and defenseman Sean Walker, the Avalanche made two more moves Thursday as they brought in forward Yakov Trenin from Nashville and forward Brandon Duhaime from Minnesota.

“There’s no question we’re a deeper team today, than we were yesterday,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said Thursday. “There are no guarantees that the depth gets you to where you want to go. But I know this — you’re not getting to where you want to go without it.”

The deals were almost reminiscent of two years ago, when the Avalanche brought in a bevy of players that helped propel them to a Stanley Cup title. For that postseason run, the team picked up forwards Nico Sturm, Artturi Lehkonen, and Andrew Cogliano, along with defenseman Josh Manson.

This season, Colorado rolled the dice again to maximize a season where MacKinnon is the NHL’s points leader and defenseman Cale Makar is operating on yet another level.

To bring in Walker, Colorado traded a top-10 protected 2025 first-round pick and center Ryan Johansen to Philadelphia. The Avalanche also picked up Mittelstadt in a separate deal that sent defenseman Bowen Byram to the Sabres.

Byram was a popular player inside the locker room.

“Great friend, tough to see him go,” said MacKinnon, who has at least a point in all 31 homes games this season heading into Friday’s contest against Minnesota. “Amazing player.”

Walker was on the ice Thursday getting a light skate in with some of his teammates. He hasn’t had a chance to dive too much into the Colorado system, but he plans to do so with Mittelstadt.

Walker said he was caught off guard by the move.

“There are lots of rumors out there and stuff. But actually I’d never seen one about Colorado,” said Walker, who along with Mittelstadt is expected to play Friday. “So it was a little surprising, but I’m really happy.

“It’s just a world-class team. … They know how to win. At the end of day, that’s the goal.”

For Mittelstadt, this was a huge jump in the standings. He went from a Sabres team out of the postseason picture to an Avalanche squad that’s challenging for the top seed (four points behind Vancouver).

“It’s what you dream about as a kid for your whole life,” Mittelstadt said of the chance to compete for a Stanley Cup. “I’m going to go out there and lay it on the line with these guys.”

Colorado may not be done making deals, either.

“We’re going to leave no stone unturned,” general manager Chris MacFarland said. “But we’re breathing easier today than we were yesterday, that’s for sure.”

The Avalanche could soon have back Valeri Nichushkin, who’s practicing with the team as he enters the follow-up care phase of the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program. Nichushkin is a top-six forward who has 22 goals and 20 assists in 40 games this season.

“He touches every facet of our lineup, power play, penalty kill, 5-on-5, all of it,” MacFarland said. “It’s just a massive addition because he’s such a good player.”

MacFarland downplayed any reliability issues concerning Nichushkin after the forward was away from the team in the playoffs last season for what the team explained at the time were personal reasons. He missed the final five postseason games of a first-round loss to Seattle.

“He’s tackled the treatment the way he tackles his on-ice and off-ice conditioning,” MacFarland explained. “We all know his importance. He’s been a monumental piece for us and our on-ice success. So we’re all pulling for him.”

Another intriguing possibility — the return of captain Gabriel Landeskog. The door has been left open for Landeskog to make it back at some point. He’s been sidelined a second consecutive season because of a nagging knee injury.

“We miss Gabe immensely. He’s a super hockey player, but this is uncharted territory,” MacFarland said. “He’s doing everything he can. He’s getting the best medical care. We’re hopeful.”

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