As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. 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. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the Colorado Avalanche offseason.
2021 Colorado Avalanche Offseason Primer
Colorado has surged in recent years thanks to a quality mixture of players that trends heavily in a skill-oriented direction. The combination of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen is among the league’s best and none are even 30 years old yet. The future is particularly rosy when you consider the ceiling of players like Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, and a bevy of solid young prospects.
However, the front office was not content to rely only on internal talent for 2020-21. That is why they made savvy, inexpensive deals for both Brandon Saad and Devon Toews. Both of those players were outstanding members of the team and huge parts of its success during the regular season. The Avalanche eventually fell to the Vegas Golden Knights despite their strong roster construction, but there are numerous bright spots just the same.
Pending Free Agents
Several pending unrestricted free agents loom large. Landeskog will grab significant attention, but Saad, Philipp Grubauer, and even Pierre-Edouard Bellemare deserve strong consideration as well. If there is one good thing about so many free agents hitting at one time, it’s that many of them are forwards. That is an area of strong prospect depth in the event someone leaves for another team.
Restricted free agents can’t be ignored either. Makar is worthy of a max-length deal keeping him in Colorado for his entire prime. Tyson Jost is also worthy of retention after a strong season that garnered some Selke chatter. The good thing is that the players listed comprise the majority of offseason priorities. The Avs have been able to structure their contracts so that no offseason is too packed to manage and that seems to be the case this summer as well.
Salary Cap Outlook
CapFriendly’s current tracking puts Colorado’s available money at around $25.5 million. The trio of Makar, Landeskog and Grubauer will eat well over half of that figure. They might even consume close to $20 million and leave almost nothing to keep anyone else. That could seriously hamper future efforts to keep Andre Burakovsky and others after the 2021-22 season.
The expansion draft may help mitigate some things though. Depending on who they protect, a forward like Nazem Kadri and his cap hit of $4.5 million could be headed to the northwest. That would be huge if the Colorado Avalanche plans on making any big offseason acquisitions. The same can be said of either Toews or Ryan Graves on defence, but that depends on whether Erik Johnson waives his no-movement clause. It is highly unlikely that Joe Sakic trades anyone to Seattle in exchange for leniency during the expansion draft itself.
Most Likely Departures
Saad was brilliant at times for Colorado with 15 goals and 24 points during the regular season and seven goals and eight points in the playoffs. The sad reality is that the veteran’s previous cap hit of $6 million will climb after another strong campaign. That likely puts him out of reach unless both he and the team are committed to maintaining the relationship long into the future. Such a scenario would mean another forward, someone younger would be exposed in expansion regardless of which protection scheme (7-3-1 or 8-1) the organization employs.
The French skater has been everything the team needed since signing for the 2019-20 season. His 18 goals in two years are the most of any previous stretch as an NHL skater. The problem is that he will be almost 37 when next year begins. The team has too many young forward prospects that can handle the fourth-line duties. Bellemare may return to Colorado, but not until many of the priority free agents are addressed.
Jost’s future should inspire some healthy debate within Avalanche circles. He did not break out, but he didn’t regress either. The former 10th overall pick found himself playing heavy defensive minutes and still managed to post a positive raw Corsi For. The question boils down to how much a 23-year-old defensive forward is really worth. Jost certainly did enough to stay in Denver, but the organization has enough depth to replace him too.
Major Likely Re-Signings
There should be no question whether or not Landeskog stays with the only franchise he has ever known. The Swede has been the team’s captain since day one and is one of the most vital players in its history. It is hard to imagine a maximum deal taking Landy through into the final part of his career, but expect something sizeable as an acknowledgement of both what he’s done and what he can still do.
Similar things can be said about Makar. Generational talent might be an overused phrase in the modern era, but it is a fair descriptor of a 22-year-old who already has a Norris Trophy nomination under his belt. There isn’t a franchise in the world that wouldn’t want to keep a defender who has 20 goals and 94 points in his first 101 NHL games. The electric Albertan is already putting together a case as the league’s best blueliner. Expect big things for as long as he stays in Denver.
It is easy to forget that Timmons came from the same class as Makar given how different their careers have gone so far. Timmons battled concussion issues early but has a strong future as a second or third-pairing defender in Colorado. 2021-22 will be a big season for the former second-round selection.
Potential Free Agents Additions
Depth At Goaltending
The Colorado Avalanche might need to address their netminding depth externally this offseason. It’s clear that they need serious help behind Grubauer if they are going to make another run at a title. After all, we can’t assume Pavel Francouz will return healthy after missing the entirety of 2020-21 due to injury. Alternate backups like Devan Dubnyk and Jonas Johansson also do not inspire much confidence. Consequently, it might be worth investing in someone like either James Reimer or Petr Mrazek for 2021-22 until the team’s younger goaltenders are more ready. Adam Werner and Justus Annunen are intriguing, but young and largely untested in North America.
More Strength Down the Middle
Possibly losing both Kadri and Bellemare would devastate the team’s centre position. Internal replacements exist, but none with the record of production. That lack of solidity could mean spending on the position in free agency. A Paul Stastny return would be an interesting one given his history with the organization. It would also be worth exploring Phillip Danault‘s interest if he leaves the Montreal Canadiens.