There’s a fine, delicate line between hindsight and yanking theories out of one’s posterior in a pinch. In case you forgot, Nazem Kadri vanished for eight playoff games with the Avs in 2021 — critical ones, too — due to his own demons.
Nasty Naz missed another five with Toronto during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. And three more while the 2018 postseason cranked up. All suspensions. All self-inflicted wounds that helped to sink Kadri’s teams at their most critical, desperate junctures of the season.
Roster construction with a salary cap is three parts research and one part roulette wheel. But to declare that because the Avs faceplanted against Seattle in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the money thrown at Valeri Nichushkin should’ve gone to Kadri instead? That’s a leap Superman wouldn’t make with a straight face.
Revise history all you like. But you don’t get to rewrite it. Remember June 2022? No? Nichushkin was 27 and became a one-man wrecking crew during some of the biggest postseason games in Front Range history.
Kadri was fun, fast and clutch as all heck, but made no secret about seeking a long-term contract after piling up 42 more points (87) than his average point total over the previous nine NHL campaigns (45). He was also due to turn 32 in October of last year.
Naz put up one of the great “walk” seasons in modern Avs history and got rewarded with seven years and $49 million from Calgary last August. During the ’22-’23 regular season, Kadri averaged 0.68 points per game and posted a plus-minus of negative-19 for a Flames roster that missed the big dance. The younger Nuke got eight years and $49 million from the Burgundy & Blue, averaged 0.87 points per game and racked up a plus-15 for a division champ. He looked to be worth every penny, too. Until Game 3.
“(We were) missing a lot of size and speed (with) Gabe (Landeskog), Val, (Andrew) Cogliano, (Josh) Manson, now,” Avs coach Jared Bednar reflected after the ’22 Stanley Cup champs were bounced in the first round of the ’23 bracket. “Those guys have been through a lot of tough battles. And some of that size and physicality would’ve helped in this series.”
The Avs seemed short on men and short of breath. The defending champs got out-toughed and outworked early in the series. Colorado even found itself out-skated at the worst possible moments — in what turned out to be the game-winner Sunday, Seattle winger Oliver Bjorkstrand zipped past Cale Makar and lasered it through Alexandar Georgiev for the Kraken’s second goal of the night.
Against Nashville in the first round of the ’22 postseason, Colorado’s power play (seven goals on 16 attempts) went through the Preds like a chainsaw. The ’23 version, crippled by injuries and big Nuke’s mysterious absence (two goals on 18 tries), hit like a couch cushion.
Long Cup runs demand grit and depth, and GM Chris MacFarland has a lot to answer for on that last front. Bednar did a fine job in wringing a Central crown out of a car that never got four good tires spinning at the same time. Yet the Avs boss and his staff still managed to get out-maneuvered by Seattle coach Dave Hakstol at almost every turn. Playoff tussles are won on guts and fine margins, and the Avs dragged on both fronts from the jump. Kraken replay reviews wiped two Colorado goals late in the series off the board, including a MacKinnon rope in Game 7 that would’ve tied a winner-take-all game at 2-2 late.
“You’ve got to earn the bounces too,” offered Avs winger Mikko Rantanen, who led the roster with seven goals and 10 points vs. Seattle. “I think (early on in) the series, they were outplaying us a little bit.
“I think Games 6 and 7, we were a better team and we probably should have won both games. But (over the) first five, there (were) a lot of collapses in our game and we were just not playing for 60 (minutes) — not one time. So it’s frustrating.”
The Nuke Saga only compounded that. While the Avs didn’t do Nichushkin any favors on the P.R. front, the man’s overall well-being is paramount here. He doesn’t owe the heathen media a blasted thing. That being said, Nuke owes teammates, his bosses and Avs fans some semblance of an explanation. As part of a proud franchise’s championship core, can Colorado faithful trust him again? Can Nathan MacKinnon, who suffers fools only slightly better than he suffers reporters?
“It’s been kind of an uphill battle,” Georgiev told me after Game 7. “But you have to accept it and kind of live in the moment. I think we did that pretty well.”
Yet they still missed Kadri’s moxie, on multiple fronts. They never quite fully replaced that 2C slot, despite the best efforts of Alex Newhook (30 points in 82 games), Evan Rodrigues (39 in 69 games) and Lars Eller (seven in 24 games). Colorado sure could use another agitator in the mix, someone who relishes being the on-ice equivalent of the wrestling heel. Just not someone with Naz’s age. Or Naz’s contract.