Defense is what makes Avalanche so scary

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Joe Sakic has pieced together one of the NHL’s best rosters with the Colorado Avalanche, and it is starting to get on a roll and play up to its potential.

Its thoroughly dominating 5-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night was the Avalanche’s fifth win in a row and improved them to 9-2-1 over the past 12 games. This game was about as one-sided as any game in the NHL this season with the Avalanche outshooting Minnesota by a 55-20 margin, while attempting 79 total shot attempts to Minnesota’s 39.

That sort of territorial edge has become a trend in Colorado over the past couple of weeks, especially as the roster starts to get healthy.

When you think of this Avalanche team and what makes it so dominant the first thing you think of is probably their superstar top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. And for good reason. They are great, and as good of a line as you will find anywhere in the league. They are the foundation of a potential championship roster.

But what could take this Avalanche team to an entirely different level is the makeup of its defense. Because it is scary good, and it might already be the best unit in the league.

Cale Makar and Bowen Byram were back in the lineup on Thursday and it gave the Avalanche close to its full complement of defenders (they are still without Erik Johnson and Conor Timmins).

It is simply a sensational unit from top to bottom full of impact players, almost all of whom are just now starting to enter their prime years.

Makar, the reigning Calder Trophy winner, is an emerging superstar and could be in the Norris Trophy discussion within a year or two. He is that good already. Heck, had he not missed so many games this season he might have entered that discussion this season. With half of a season still to go, maybe he still will. He is only 22 years old and already has a knack for controlling the game.

They are also still reaping the benefits of the Matt Duchene trade from a couple of years ago that produced Sam Girard, who is having a monster season of his own, and the first-round draft pick that resulted in Byram. Byram and Girard are 19 and 22, respectively, and still have their best days ahead of them.

Then there is Devon Toews, one of their big offseason additions this year. They landed him for the small price of two second-round draft picks and are being rewarded with a quietly dominant season. His offensive numbers may not match Makar or Girard, but he is a perfect fit for the Avalanche’s transitional game and has been a sensational possession driver this season. In Thursday’s game, for example, the Avalanche had a 30-6 shot attempt edge and 18-1 shot on goal advantage with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

When you look at their performance on a team level, it is hard to argue that there is anybody better at the moment.

They allow the fewest shots on goal per game (by a wide margin). The fewest shot attempts per game (by a wide margin). The fewest scoring chances and expected goals (via Natural Stat Trick) per 60 minutes. And they have the NHL’s second best penalty kill behind only the Boston Bruins. The only thing that has kept them from being the top goals against team is the fact that their goaltending has been a little inconsistent.

Over the past six games they have allowed the following shot totals: 20, 22, 28, 18, 14, 14. They have not allowed more than 30 shots on goal in a game since January 31, a stretch of 18 consecutive games. In five of those games they have allowed 20 shots or less. They have seven such games for the season. It is just a staggering defensive performance. And what makes it so dominant is that it does not come at the expense of offense. This is not some team playing a dull, conservative system that slows the game to a crawl. They can still swarm you in waves offensively and dominant with the puck. They are also as good as it gets offensively in the league, with the defense being a huge part of that.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.