Drouin, Nichushkin lead Avs players with most to prove

For most of the top Stanley Cup contenders, there could be a sense right now of wanting to fast forward to the start of the regular season, or even later in the NHL calendar.

Just get to the games that matter. Every one between now and then is just an opportunity for injury.

That sentiment might feel true for some of the most established players on the Avalanche, but there are plenty who need this training camp on some level. It could be to fight for a roster spot, compete for a role in the lineup, move up in the queue for an in-season call-up or simply to give the organization a little less collective stress when the regular season commences Oct. 11 in Los Angeles.

If everyone was healthy, there might only be one spot in the lineup and two to four places on the opening-night roster up for grabs, depending on how many extras the club can keep within the constraints of the salary cap. Everyone is not healthy, however, and more likely than not won’t be at various points in the season. Contingency plans are needed, and training camp is the best place to make an impression.

Here’s a look at the players who have the most to gain from this Avalanche training camp:

Jonathan Drouin, wing

Little went right for Drouin in the final four seasons of a six-year, $33 million contract with the Montreal Canadiens. It’s why he’s in Denver on a one-year pact barely north of the league minimum. There’s an obvious path to redemption – play next to Nathan MacKinnon and rekindle the magic from their days running the QMJHL in Halifax. Avs coach Jared Bednar made it clear that position is not a given and must be earned, but he also noted the early returns on Drouin in camp are promising.

Justus Annunen, goalie

Besides captain Gabriel Landeskog being out for at least the regular season with a knee injury, Pavel Francouz’s absence at the start of camp is most notable. Bednar said Friday there is no timetable for his return. The other goalies not named Alexandar Georgiev have a combined four NHL games on their resumes — all from Annunen. It’s pretty simple if Francouz isn’t ready to start the season. Either Annunen shows he’s capable of filling the No. 2 role for a while, or the Avs will be looking for a more established netminder before Oct. 11.

Valeri Nichushkin, wing

If he’s healthy, it’s clear Nichushkin will play on one of the top two lines, and the Avs are going to count on him to be an impact player. Beyond the remaining uncertainty, at least for everyone outside the organization, about what happened in that hotel room in Seattle, he missed nearly 30 games last season. They “need him” and there will be plenty of external scrutiny if he gets off to a slow start.

Ben Meyers/Riley Tufte/Fredrik Olofsson, center

Bednar himself declared the fourth-line center role “our hole.” One of these three guys is most likely to fill it. Meyers was a high-profile college free agent two years ago. Tufte has not been a center as a pro, but he’s huge and Bednar is intrigued enough to give him a look. Olofsson, or even Peter Holland, could be the surprise pick with a strong preseason.

Joel Kiviranta/Peter Holland/Brandon Kozun, wing

If Andrew Cogliano isn’t quite ready for opening night, one of these guys could earn a fourth-line spot. More likely, these camp tryout invites are trying to convince the Avs they are worth keeping as a 13th or 14th forward, which earns them a contract. Kiviranta would like to regain something close to the form that made him a brief sensation during the 2020 playoffs, while Holland would be quite the comeback story after not playing in the NHL since 2018 and not playing at any level last season.

Brad Hunt/Sam Malinski, defense

The top six spots on the defense corps look secure, and Kurtis MacDermid could be the No. 7, but he’s been playing on the wing early in camp. There could be a roster spot for the veteran Hunt or the rookie Malinski, and maybe even a chance to play in L.A. if Josh Manson’s pre-camp injury lingers or someone else gets hurt.

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