Should nothing else go wrong, the Colorado Avalanche will resume their season Sunday afternoon. Should nothing else go wrong, the lineup will be nearly whole.
Due to leaguewide COVID-19 issues, a quick break for the holidays ballooned into a 16-day gap between games featuring an unexpected, midseason training camp of sorts. The Avalanche got in a full week of practices, one of them optional.
“I feel good about where our team is at from a preparation standpoint and from a physical standpoint,” coach Jared Bednar said. “The guys are refreshed. They’ve got lots of energy.”
They’ll make up for this luxury once seven postponed games are crammed back into the schedule. Available dates include what was once a break for players to attend the 2022 Winter Olympics. The rest of the regular season should be busy.
“It's an exciting time right now,” defenseman Bowen Byram said.
“The dressing room’s really excited to get back at it.”
The break allowed Byram the opportunity to return to action with the team. He’ll play in Sunday’s matinee against the Anaheim Ducks, Bednar said.
“As unfortunate as it was for the team, for me, I think it was a positive,” Byram said. “Even these last four or five extra days we’ve got here since our last games have been cancelled, I think it’s helped me a lot.”
The defenseman, 20, has been out since Dec. 1. Byram absorbed a high elbow Nov. 11 against Vancouver, returned for two games and then missed the next eight.
“There’s a lot of things that are tied to (concussions) and they can show themselves at kind of any time,” Byram said. “Unfortunately that happened to me a little bit after I was feeling better again. But that's life and I did what I had to do to get better and I’m feeling better now.
“It's kind of a day-by-day thing at times, but I feel like I’ve continued to progress and I’m ready to go. I’m excited to play and hopefully I can stay in the lineup for an extended period of time here.”
Byram made the team out of training camp – the one in September – and has been a top-four defenseman for Colorado. He was tied for third in NHL rookie scoring before the elbowing incident.
“He probably would have been rookie of the year if he’d played all year, I think. He still might have a chance at it. He was playing so well,” fellow defenseman Erik Johnson said Thursday. “Good to see him back out there. He looks as good as new.”
The protocol list has shrunk. The Avalanche had five players enter protocol shortly before the last game Dec. 16, then 11 tested positive afterward. Forward Darren Helm entered protocol Tuesday but has since returned.
“We were playing some pretty good hockey before the pause, even without guys, but it's certainly nice to get as close to our full roster as we’ve had all year back here for the Anaheim game,” Bednar said.
Goaltender Pavel Francouz was in COVID protocol and not expected to rejoin the team until Jan. 5 at one point. With isolation times in the U.S. shortened this week under certain conditions, Francouz is able to back up starter Darcy Kuemper on Sunday.
Bednar ruled out forward Valeri Nichushkin (upper body) and defenseman Ryan Murray (lower body) against the Ducks. Nichushkin “aggravated something” in practice. Murray shed his non-contact practice jersey but needs more time, having last played Nov. 27.
Nichushkin is expected to miss multiple games and possibly seven to 10 days. Kurtis MacDermid, a defenseman in all NHL games prior to this season, is slated as the fourth-line left winger. Bednar said he likes him up front.
“I think he’s done a real nice job for us there,” he said.
“His ice time and where he’s playing, where he’s slotted in our lineup, will just depend on how the rest of our lineup looks.”
The taxi squad has been reinstated and used in practice, but the Avalanche are set to put out a lineup made entirely of their core group against Anaheim. Stefan Matteau is on long-term injured reserve after suffering an injury in 3:39 of ice time during his season debut Oct. 16. Jacob MacDonald is still out following a hit Dec. 12. Along with Nichushkin and Murray, that makes up the injury list.
Times being what they are and the team’s injury history being what it is, the coach offered a stipulation.
“At this point, we’ll likely go with all of our guys tomorrow,” Bednar said. “Hopefully we can stay healthy for another 24 hours.”