DENVER — Take a guess at the one person who Avalanche star defenseman Cale Makar spends the most time with during an NHL season. Not a coach. Not a teammate.
Answer: Head athletic trainer Matthew Sokolowski.
“I see him the most out of anybody on this team, every single day,” Makar told The Denver Gazette from Colorado’s dressing room. “He’s always around.”
The Avalanche are reeling from a 4-0 shutout loss Wednesday to the Boston Bruins with a roster still ravaged by injuries. Ten prominent players are working their way back to the lineup: Shane Bowers, Bowen Byram, Darren Helm, Gabe Landeskog, Artturi Lehkonen, Kurtis MacDermid, Nathan MacKinnon, Josh Manson, Valeri Nichushkin and Evan Rodrigues.
The good news? Reinforcements are on the way, per coach Jared Bednar.
Nichushkin (ankle) and Helm (abductor), both recovering from surgeries, might be available to play at home Friday night against the New York Rangers. Nichushkin increased his physicality Thursday in practice while Helm skated in a red no-contact sweater. Lehkonen could return soon from concussion protocol. Rodrigues is skating again.
Their collective potential return is a nod to the diligence of Colorado’s athletic trainers and strength staff. Bednar told reporters they’ve been doing “an unbelievable job.”
“Lots of communication,” Bednar said. “I think those guys are really dialed in. Obviously, elite at what they do. You get 11 or 12 guys in the training room at a time. … It’s a lot of early mornings and late nights.”
It begins with Sokolowski — nicknamed “Soko” in the Avs’ dressing room — now in his 33rd year with the Nordiques/Avalanche organization. He’s been the only head athletic trainer for the team since it moved to Colorado in 1995-96. A mostly unheralded piece of three Stanley Cup championships.
“He’s unbelievable at his job,” Makar said of Sokolowski. “He’s so good in terms of knowing how everybody is doing at all times.”
Mikko Rantanen understands the mental and physical challenge of returning from a significant injury. He endured a shoulder injury that held him out for several months during the 2019-20 season. The Avalanche provided Rantanen with the detailed framework of a recovery plan to get him back on the ice — quickly as possible.
“I’ve been hurt, too, a few times,” Rantanen said. “They take care of you really well. They’re all good guys. … With this many injuries, they don’t get any days off I don’t think. They work overtime and do a lot.”
But it’s not just major injuries that need attention.
Forward Alex Newhook took a friendly-fire puck Monday off the stick blade of defenseman Cale Makar that caught Newhook’s left cheek. He dropped to the ice against Philadelphia, slowly limped to the bench and received immediate medical attention.
“Any time you get a puck to the face, you kind of expect the worst,” Newhook said a few days later with a swollen knot still on his cheek. “I came out it with all of my teeth and no fractured orbital bone. So, I’m pretty happy about it.”
Newhook returned to play almost instantly. It doesn’t happen without quick work from athletic trainers to stop the bleeding.
“They take care of us all the time. Even for little things that some guys are maintaining,” Newhook said. “There are always those little things that trainers have to be up to date with, like taping. They do so much more than what people think. We definitely don’t take them for granted.
“They’re as much a part of the team as anyone in this room.”
The Avalanche on Thursday placed forward Martin Kaut, a 2018 first-round draft pick, on waivers. Kaut played in 18 games with the Avs compiling three points (one goal). Kaut will return to the Colorado Eagles (AHL) unless he is claimed by another team.
“Consistency is an issue,” Bednar said. “Quiet game. Quiet game. Good game. That’s what he has to work on. He has a great conscience. He has the ability to play. But he needs to find that game and be able to bring that on a nightly basis. Or 85 percent of that on a nightly basis, to play here.”
AVALANCHE INJURY REPORT
F Shane Bowers (upper-body injury) — week-to-week
D Bowen Byram (lower-body injury) — week-to-week
F Darren Helm (abductor surgery) — day-to-day
F Gabe Landeskog (knee surgery) — week-to-week
F Artturi Lehkonen (concussion protocol) — day-to-day
D Kurtis MacDermid (lower-body injury) — week-to-week
F Nathan MacKinnon (upper-body injury) — four weeks
D Josh Manson (lower-body injury) — four weeks
F Valeri Nichushkin (ankle surgery) — day-to-day
F Evan Rodrigues (lower-body injury) — week-to-week
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