‘Stale’ Avalanche split up MacKinnon, Rantanen

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The Colorado Avalanche are struggling, so coach Jared Bednar decided to try to spread the wealth.

Bednar’s experimented before, but in the last instance, it just meant moving Gabriel Landeskog off of the team’s explosive first line, giving Tyson Jost and others opportunities to stick with stars Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen.

This time around, Bednar is making a bolder move: Rantanen’s going with Landeskog to Carl Soderberg‘s line, with MacKinnon centering Alex Kerfoot and Colin Wilson. (The trio will still operate together on the power play, though.)

The Denver Post’s Mike Chambers reports that Bednar consulted with his top stars before making the tweaks, with MacKinnon explaining that “we’ve gotten stale.”

“The team hasn’t had a lot of success here recently so we’re trying something new,” Bednar said. “Talked to those guys about it and they’re really open to it. So we’re trying to put some combinations together that gives us a little bit of depth and see if we can get some of those top guys to drag some of our other guys along, get us moving in the right direction and get some guys excited about playing with them. So we’ll give it a try.”

The Avalanche organization should look at this as a great opportunity to collect some data about Rantanen in particular, as the 22-year-old is headed toward a huge raise, being that his rookie contract will expire after 2018-19.

Can Rantanen carry his own line? Chances are, the answer is likely “yes,” but he hasn’t really been asked to do so just yet.

According to Natural Stat Trick, he’s only spent 51:13 of even-strength time away from MacKinnon this season, versus 736:09 with the speedy center. Rantanen’s numbers with Landeskog are nearly identical, and things are just as lopsided when you add 2017-18 minutes.

The good news is that, even if Rantanen “breaks the bank,” the Avs are still sitting pretty compared to how other teams pay for elite talent. MacKinnon, 23, is probably the best non-rookie-contract bargain in the NHL, as his $6.3 million cap hit doesn’t expire until after the 2022-23 campaign. Landeskog, 26, costs a bit less than $5.56M per season, and he’s locked up through 2020-21.

Even so, the more values you pile up, the better you improve your chances to add better talent around that big three. That’s especially true if the Avs are working with an internal budget below the cap ceiling.

Splitting up those top players is about more than getting a better gauge on what Rantanen is worth.

How effective could the Avs’ attack be when they split Rantanen and MacKinnon on two lines, versus the current standard of loading up? Would Landeskog mix better with MacKinnon or Rantanen?

Getting more insight in that regard could help steer the Avalanche’s future moves. If Rantanen really clicks with Soderberg, or MacKinnon can prop up less dynamic linemates in a Connor McDavid-like way, then GM Joe Sakic might alter what kind of players he tries to acquire, whether that would be at the trade deadline or (more likely) during the summer.

So, while the Avalanche are likely frustrated right now, these challenges could inspire the sort of innovation that might help this team find another gear.

It might end up being wiser to go with that super line approach, particularly with plenty of other teams also loading up in that way, but maybe Colorado will stumble upon an even better solution with this approach?

The Avalanche return to NHL action when they host the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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