Puck Daddy Bag of Mail: Avs' dominant No. 1 line, and what's fair for JVR?

How good has the Avalanche’s top line been? (Getty)

I saw my first “If the playoffs started today dot dot dot” tweet of the season and that means the playoffs are now perilously close. They do not, however, start yesterday or today or indeed even tomorrow. They start in like three and a half weeks, and a decent amount is going to change between now and then.

However, that does mean we now live firmly within the shadow of the playoffs, and every result is filtered through, “Well what does this mean for so-and-so?” I guess this isn’t true of games in which two non-playoff teams are competing — shout out to tonight’s Chicago/Vancouver tilt! — but nonetheless, they might be impactful if those teams are then playing another team on a back-to-back or something like that.

Point is, tight races, whether it’s for home ice in the first round or the last wild card spot, are pretty much everywhere and pretty much all anyone is talking about. So you’ve got questions and I’ve got answers and I’m pretty sure that’s a car store thing?

Let’s go:

Trevor asks: “Is the Landeskog/MacKinnon/Rantanen line really one of the top lines in the NHL? Also, how valuable is that in the playoffs?”

I mean I think you know the answer to the first question pretty clearly. Of course it is. Mainly through MacKinnon, they’re pouring in more goals per 60 minutes of full-strength hockey than any heavily used line in the league. Only 21 groups of three forwards have played at least 400 minutes together this year and they’re about a third of a goal per hour ahead of the next-highest-scoring trio (Nylander-Matthews-Hyman).

They do allow a decent amount of goals per 60 as well (15th out of 21 here) but they’ve outscored their opponents by 23 this season, so I don’t know what else they could really be doing.

It is, of course, vital to have a dominant first ine in the playoffs. Look at what happened to the Predators last season; they were a buzzsaw through the Western Conference, then Ryan Johansen went down with an injury. Suddenly a tough-but-reasonable matchup of Crosby vs. Johansen became Crosby vs. Fisher, and we all know what happened next. Pittsburgh ran over the Predators in the Cup Final in what would have otherwise been a much tougher series.

A good top line is not, however, going to guarantee you anything. Look what happened with Boston, which routinely has one of the best top lines in the game (it’s ninth in adjusted expected-goals percentage this season, and that’s probably something of a down year for them) but they lost to the freakin’ Senators in the first round last year. Bad stuff can happen even to teams with elite talent, but it’s still super-important to have it.

And now, a very related question.

Sam asks: “Just how big a hole is the No. 1 center position for teams that don’t have it?”

Ask yourself this: How often does a team without a No. 1 center who was not only clearly a No. 1, but widely acknowledged as a top-tier No. 1, won a Cup or even made a Cup Final?

Pittsburgh/Nashville, Pittsburgh/San Jose, Chicago/Tampa, LA/New York, Chicago/Boston, LA/New Jersey, Boston/Vancouver, Chicago/Philly, Pittsburgh/Detroit (twice), Anaheim/Ottawa, Carolina/Edmonton.

Of that group, how many teams didn’t have incredibly elite centers? The Rangers and Devils probably. Maybe you say Philly. Definitely the Oilers. But otherwise, it’s just a list of teams with truly elite No. 1 guys, and usually a pretty damn good No. 2 as well.

In theory there are, of course, 31 No. 1 centers, but given the way talent is distributed in the league, there are plenty of teams that don’t have a true No. 1. For instance, Pittsburgh has three of the 31 best centers in the world right now, so that means two teams go without. Nashville probably has two. You can go on like this.

That means there are plenty of teams that simply go without and the gap between them and the elite clubs in this league is sizeable. But honestly, don’t discount that need for a good No. 2, because look what happened in Edmonton this season with the best player in the world.

Hannah asks: “The Blue Jackets have been on the up and up for the past few seasons, but they’ve flopped in the postseason. Do you think that’ll be the case this season?”

Let me put on my If The Playoffs Started Today hat: Right now Columbus seems destined to play either Pittsburgh, Philly, or Washington, which is to say they’re probably going to play a division rival.

The kind of tear they’re on right now would obviously make it hard to pick against them, but anything can happen in the last eight games of the season.

In good conscience and all things being equal, I would feel fine picking them over the Caps or Flyers. I think those would be more or less weighted coin flips, but I think Columbus is just a smidge better than both of them, not that the results necessarily reflect it right now.

I’d have trouble picking them over Pittsburgh, though. Not just because, “Ah well the Pens are the reigning Cup champs,” but also because I don’t like how Columbus’s depth (which is fine) matches up with the Penguins’ (which is scary). I love (most of) Columbus’s defense and maybe I like about half of their offense. I love Pittsburgh’s offense basically right down to the fourth line but obviously the defense is a bit suspect. Who knows what the goaltending situation looks like for Pittsburgh, but obviously the Blue Jackets have a star.

I think it’d be a fun series and everything, but I also think I just talked myself into Columbus over Pittsburgh too. Hmm. I guess it wouldn’t surprise me.

That was weird though.

JJ asks: “When the league expands to 32 teams, should the number of teams to make the playoffs also increase?”

No. I’ve seen talk of a play-in game for the Nos. 8 and 9 seeds but honestly who cares. There are too many teams in the playoffs as it is. The NFL is 32 teams and only 12 teams get into that. And that feels like a good number! It makes total sense!

Obviously the NFL is less gate-driven than the NHL is by a factor of what I would estimate to be about a trillion. So it helps the NHL to just pack 18,000 into a rink (or 15,000 if you’re Ottawa ha ha ha) for the extra rounds. I get it and I guess it’s fine, especially because teams would hate to sit out the extra week if they started getting byes. And frankly, eight teams in the playoffs is too few.

So if the NHL, over the course of a few years, goes from getting 53 percent of the league into the playoffs to just 50 percent, that’s progress I’d take happily.

Michael asks: “Do you think there will be significant coach turnover in the offseason?”

It’s interesting. The reason no coaches were fired in the regular season (“yet,” I suppose) was that so many either had good seasons or were just hired in the past two years or so.

No joke: 16 coaches have been hired across the league since the 2016 offseason, and before that Mike Sullivan was added in mid-December 2015. All but seven of the league’s coaches were added since the 2015 offseason, so changes there are probably unlikely as well.

The only guy I can really see losing his job in that group is Todd McLellan, but the Oilers’ problems certainly aren’t his fault. Maybe Jeff Blashill too, but I’d tend to doubt it.

So let’s talk about the other seven. A few of the longer-tenured guys will probably stick around regardless of what happens in the postseason (Cooper, Laviolette, Maurice). So that whittles it down to four others, and they’re all deeply interesting.

Bill Peters might or might not survive whatever’s going on in Carolina. Barry Trotz is out of contract this summer and I haven’t seen any updates about what that means. Alain Vigneault is almost certainly gone as the Rangers rebuild. Chicago could go either way with Joel Quenneville.

I can, however, see some teams getting a little more aggressive with their changes if a guy like Quenneville or Trotz hits the market. If Quenneville in particular goes, one can easily imagine half the teams in the league at least kicking the tires on a change just because, “Well, he’s Joel Quenneville.”

David asks: “I could see Winnipeg or Nashville as Cup contenders in the Central but are there any teams in the Pacific that look threatening, or should I just pencil in whoever wins the inevitable NSH/WPG series?”

Yeah I think I said it on Twitter the other day, but I really do see the Central second-round matchup as the Western Conference Final. I’m not saying LA or Vegas would be a total pushover or anything, but it’s just tough for me to see either one winning four games out of seven against either Winnipeg or Nashville. Those teams are just too powerful!

Mike asks: “What’s a fair contract for JVR this summer and which team is most likely to give him a contract they’ll regret?”

I think there’s a difference between what’s “fair” for a soon-to-be-29-year-old having a career year shooting 15-plus percent, and what’s “fair” within the marketplace.

However, since we’re obviously talking about the marketplace, someone is going to overpay him, both in terms of years and dollars. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of time for James van Riemsdyk as a going concern, I just don’t see him as a consistent 50-point guy for even the next four years, let alone the next five or six, which is what I think someone’s going to give him this summer.

As for the salary, well, when you’ve scored 60-plus goals over the previous two seasons and you’ve pretty much always been good for 25 to 30 goals, teams are going to be willing to pay for that. The probably will, in fact, be willing to pay something like $6.5 million for it. That’s on the higher end, I think, but the cap might go up as much as $7 million this summer so it’s not as much as it probably sounds like right now.

As with any other forward who will be turning 30 before the first year of his new contract expires, I wouldn’t want my team to be the one giving it to him unless we really only had like one more or two more kicks at the can before we had to make hard decisions. But it’s not like he hasn’t earned that contract to some extent, right?

Chris asks: “Is Minnesota men’s hockey still a desirable job for top coaches?”

First of all, thank you for asking a college hockey question.

Second, yeah of course it is. This is probably the premier college hockey job in the country, at least in the same stratosphere as North Dakota, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

With this job opening up, Minnesota has the time to wait for the NCAA tournament to come to an end, then they can interview pretty much anyone in the sphere of college hockey, high-level Junior A, and probably even a handful of guys in the AHL or NHL assistants. This is that big and important of a job, and one assumes the pay was commensurate (Lucia’s most recent contract, which ended this season, paid him a base salary of more than $600,000, though some of that money was deferred for retirement).

So if you have, say, half a million to throw at a coach, you can hire just about anyone. Minnesota will certainly kick the tires on higher-end guys. But if one of the big criticisms of Lucia was that he wasn’t a Minnesota alum (and weirdly, that was indeed one of the big criticisms) then you have to think the search at least priortizes a guy like that. Someone who immediately springs to mind in that regard: first-year Northern Michigan coach Grant Potulny, who plaed for Minnesota in the early 2000s, played a handful of years as a pro in the AHL and overseas, then became an assistant under Luica, and more recently also at World Juniors the last two years.

Potulny took over at Northern just this past summer and they were probably better than anyone would have expected; they went from 17 wins to 25. So if you want a Minnesota lifer with a decade of experience behind the bench in various positions, Potulny seems like a natural fit. Might not be the flashiest hire, but it might not matter.

Point is: They almost certainly have their pick of the litter, but Potulny is a guy who probably checks a lot of boxes for them.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless noted otherwise.

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