As the NHL moves ahead with its Return to Play plan, Last Word on Hockey is taking a look toward the offseason. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. How teams respond to a multitude of changes this fall remains to be seen. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make.
The third batch of Offseason Primers moves to the Western Conference, featuring Central Division teams. Today’s edition delves into the possibilities surrounding the offseason for the Colorado Avalanche.
Colorado Avalanche Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
The Colorado Avalanche, guided by general manager Joe Sakic, have a lot of personnel choices to make this offseason. A lot of roster players are in need of new deals. However, none of the pending free agents are truly huge names. It’s up to Sakic to choose how Colorado will manage their depth going forward, as this offseason will do a lot in terms of shaping it for the future. Their unrestricted free agents are Vladislav Namestnikov, Colin Wilson, Matthew Nieto, Mark Barberio, Kevin Connauton, Michael Hutchinson, Mark Alt, and Jayson Megna. Antoine Bibeau is a Group Six UFA.
Colorado has a healthy list of restricted free agents as well, including Andre Burakovsky, Nikita Zadorov, Tyson Jost, Valeri Nichushkin, Vladislav Kamenev, Ryan Graves, Logan O’Connor, A.J. Greer, Sheldon Dries, and Hunter Miska.
Salary Cap Outlook
The planning and forethought of Joe Sakic in recent years is beginning to truly pay off. The Colorado Avalanche have a sum of roughly $22.36 million in cap space this offseason, per the team’s CapFriendly page. It’s an extremely healthy amount considering the lack of true talent they have to re-sign, and it enables a real contending team to add in free agency. That’s a rare sight in this flat-cap-world we live in.
While the Avalanche have the cap space to retain Namestnikov if they wish, the shoe just doesn’t quite fit for Namestnikov in Denver. While his offensive production with Colorado was superb (six points in nine games), Namestnikov doesn’t have a clear long-term role with the Avs. He only cost Colorado a fourth-round pick to acquire from the Ottawa Senators and was a clear ‘rental’ option for the squad.
After Namestnikov’s promising performance this season, though, he’ll have no problem finding a home on the open market. Teams continue to look for consistent offensive depth.
As noted by Last Word on Sports writer Doug Winkey, Nieto has been an under-the-radar impact player for Colorado in recent years. He produces offensively in a fourth-line role, with three straight 20-point years in Colorado. However, this consistent offensive production will likely lead him to sign with another team. This cheap depth comes at a premium, and a team will likely offer him money on the open market that exceeds what Colorado would want to pay for a fourth-line player.
It really was a successful run for Nieto in Colorado, and he’s used his play to parlay his reputation of a dependable depth player in the NHL.
The 25-year-old with a giant 6′ 6″ frame had a rough go of it this year. After showing promise with his combination of size, physicality, and defensive skill, Zadorov’s play dropped off significantly this year. Zadorov became a significant defensive liability at times, as he saw his offensive totals drop as well.
Colorado won’t want to invest in potentially sinking stock. Additionally, the emergence of Cale Makar and Samuel Girard has made Zadorov an expendable asset, as he was consistently fighting to even stay in the lineup.
Before his rights were acquired via trade from the Washington Capitals prior to the season, Burakovsky was a player brimming with potential who never had his breakthrough. After multiple seasons floating around 30 points, primarily in a bottom-six role, Burakovsky found his niche with Colorado this season. Along with significantly increased usage, Burakovsky saw a giant jump in offensive production. Posting 45 points in only 58 games, Burakovsky was slotted on the second line and even saw some time on the first unit with Nathan MacKinnon.
Because Burakovsky’s now proved he can be an impact player at the NHL level, he’ll command a raise. However, his history works in Colorado’s favour, as his inconsistency brings down his market value. Using Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections (subscription required), Burakovsky is projected to earn a four-year deal making him $4.44 million a season. It’s an affordable price for a player of his ceiling, and it still leaves the Avs with $17.92 million in cap room.
Graves was another impressive breakout piece for the Avs this year. Originally a fourth-round draft pick of the New York Rangers, Graves supplanted himself as a defensive force. With 26 points in 69 games, Graves also led the league in plus/minus (+40).
He complemented youngster Cale Makar incredibly well on the top defensive pairing. Colorado envisions him as a long-term part of the team’s future, as they should. Evolving-Hockey’s model projects he’ll receive a four-year deal worth $3.76 million a season. Colorado would then have roughly $14.16 million in space.
After an extended stint in Russia and several disappointing campaigns with the Dallas Stars, Nichushkin was yet another breakout player for Colorado this year. He became one of the team’s best defensive forwards, along with posting 13 goals and 27 points.
Nichushkin is still fairly young at 25 years old, and Colorado could still get more offence out of him. After a promising showing this year, Colorado should be willing to take that bet. Evolving-Hockey suggests a two-year deal at $2.52 million per year. It’s a fair deal as Nichushkin tries to prove himself as an NHL force.
Colorado is left with $11.64 million in cap room.
There’s no question that Jost has failed to live up to expectations. A couple 20-point seasons are not what you’d expect from a former tenth-overall pick. However, Jost is still extremely young at 22 years old. There is absolutely no guarantee that Jost won’t break out, and he’ll come at a cheap enough price to make that possibility worth a deal.
Considering his poor play, his new deal will be of minimal cost to the team. Evolving-Hockey says a three-year, $2.14 million deal is most likely. Colorado would have $9.5 million left to use in free agency.
Potential Free Agent Additions
There’s no question the Colorado Avalanche have become a scary team to play against in the Western Conference. What’s even scarier is that they have the potential to add another incredible impact player this offseason.
Sakic will likely utilize his extra cap space to acquire a high-caliber free agent. With their exceptional amounts of cap room and their contender status, they’re one of the few teams that can realistically land Taylor Hall. Colorado also has a logical fit for him, too.
Considering the wing position is probably Colorado’s weakest area, Hall could slide in multiple places. If the team wants to preserve the integrity of the top unit, Hall could easily perform alongside Nazem Kadri on the second line. Hall could also capably serve on the first unit as well.
Make sure to check out the Chicago Blackhawks offseason primer as well.
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