January 31, 2023

The Colorado Avalanche read my mind.

Just this morning I wrote in my mailbag that the Avalanche needed not one but possibly two depths forward.

one down. one more to go.

With the addition of Matt Nieto, the Avalanche could finally roll four lines again. Anton Blidh, who the Avalanche sent down yesterday, surpassed nine shifts just once in his last five-game outing. That game was a thumping win over the Red Wings, so of course he got some more ice time.

The return of Nieto, 30, gives Jared Bednar a forward he knows and trusts, particularly in the defensive zone. His eight goals this season is more than any AHL call-up the Avalanche has used this year. He won’t be averaging 15:39 in a game like he did in San Jose, so I doubt the production will hold up, but he will provide valuable minutes in the bottom six.

The way the Avalanche have utilized their roster is unsustainable over an entire season. While they’ve been winning games lately, they’ve essentially been doing so with three lines. That could probably get them into the playoffs. But that’s not good enough to last four rounds of hockey.

And the Avalanche know that.

Nieto’s pace fits the roster perfectly, and like Cogliano last season, he’s a veteran who played a lot of playoff hockey.

He could also be just what Ben Meyers needs.

The young forward has struggled to score but hasn’t had a truly stable linemate since his return to the Avalanche. While it doesn’t necessarily have to be Nieto, acquiring another depth forward means knocking someone down. That should mean a more consistent Ice Age for Meyers. Nieto could be a good veteran mentor for Meyers.

While it’s unlikely we’ll be getting any confirmation on anything any time soon, the trade likely doesn’t bode well for Darren Helm’s health. Nieto is a good pickup to replace a lot of what Helm can bring.

Ryan Merkley

This is the classic swap part of trading. Merkley asked for a trade from San Jose earlier this month and got his request.

What kind of players get the Avalanche? Well, one that has a lot of work to do, to say the least.

Our friends at San Jose Hockey Now have created a great visual breakdown of the issues plaguing Merkley’s game. There’s still a lot of work to be done on the puck’s defensive side, but he’s not doing much offensively either.

He has 14 points in 30 games in the AHL. All of these points are assists.

An NHL executive told SJHN that Merkley’s “offense isn’t [consistently] something special and he doesn’t defend well at all.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement. There are certainly tools to work with, but this is an organizational project.

Since they haven’t given up anything of real value, I think it’s a risk worth taking. The Avalanche have successfully developed defenders over the past few years, and they’re in no rush to bring him to the NHL. Merkley, as a right-hander, fills the hole left by Justin Barron and Drew Helleson’s trades last season. Greg Cronin has something to do with Merkley, but the talent is there.

Martin Kaut

The writing was on the wall.

This season, Kaut has had more of a chance with the Avalanche than he has in years, playing 27 games amidst injuries. Unfortunately, he didn’t really take this chance. When he was sent down over a week ago, it felt a bit like the end of the road.

Like Merkley, Kaut needs a change of scenery. Stylistically I don’t think it fits the way the Avalanche want to play. He’s really fond of slowing things down, and the Avalanche play at a pace I’m not sure he can pull off. He’s a smart, defensively responsible winger, but there’s no ability that really stands out. This makes it difficult to really break through at the highest level.

I would imagine given their record in San Jose that he might get a chance to play more in the NHL. Is he a full-time NHL player? I’m not sure, but if he makes it, it’s now or never.

Jacob McDonald

In recent years, MacDonald has been a really valuable depth piece for the team. He wasn’t quite the same this season.

He got a pretty good look at defense but the consistency wasn’t there this year. When they moved him forward and called Brad Hunt to take his place on defense, a message was sent. It appears both Hunt and Andreas Englund jumped at him on the depth chart. When that happens, you are replaceable.

By trading Jacob MacDonald, the Avalanche seem pretty confident that not only will Josh Manson return after the All-Star hiatus, but so will Bowen Byram. You don’t trade deep defenders unless you know some defenders are returning.

The judgment

This is a big win for the Avalanche.

They’re getting a clear upgrade on a defender they’ve been reluctant to use all season. The coaching staff know what Matt Nieto brings and will have no problem throwing him in the lineup and playing him 10-13 minutes a night. It fits perfectly.

The Kaut/Merkley portion of the trade will be a wait and see thing and both could end up fighting in their new locations, but the Avalanche are a better team today than they were yesterday.

And that’s what really matters.

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