Colorado Avalanche Depth Tested by Cap Constraints

Colorado Avalanche depth
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The 2020-21 Colorado Avalanche team, as Joe Sakic put it, was “as deep a team as we’re going to have here“. And really, it’s hard to disagree with him. Every position, especially after the trade deadline acquisitions, sat stocked full of capable pieces. A “Cup or bust” aura circled around the team, both inside and outside the locker room. The Colorado Avalanche depth boasted well and went all-in for a championship… only to fall short again in round two of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Now, they must try to get back to that place and go further in 2021-22. But they’ll do it without a lot of the players they took with them last time around.

NHL free agent frenzy

Cap Constraints Taking a Toll on Colorado Avalanche Depth

Colorado parted ways with a considerable chunk of players at all positions this summer. They shipped Ryan Graves to the New Jersey Devils ahead of the Seattle Kraken expansion draft to avoid losing him for nothing. The Kraken stole Joonas Donskoi in his stead. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Brandon Saad with the St. Louis Blues. Patrik Nemeth left for the New York Rangers, and Carl Soderberg for Europe. Matt Calvert retired, and depth players Liam O’Brien, Kyle Burroughs, Dan Renouf and Sheldon Dries found new homes too.

That’s before even discussing goaltenders. Vezina finalist Philipp Grubauer, who appeared in 40 of the team’s 56 games, left via free agency to the Kraken as well. He posted seven of the team’s eight shutouts last season, tied for most in the NHL. Oh, and the deadline acquisition to back him up in the playoffs? Devan Dubnyk remains an unrestricted free agent, unlikely to return. In their place, the Avs traded for Darcy Kuemper, costing them defenceman Conor Timmins (yes, another departure from last year’s club).

Money Out…

The combined cap hit for all those players lost above sits at $24.067 million annually. Some remain signed for as many as five seasons ahead, too. That’s without factoring in Timmins’ eventual contract, as he signed a two-year $850,000 AAV deal with the Arizona Coyotes. Oh, and the former NHL’ers (Calvert and Soderberg) combined for $3.85 million last season, for what it’s worth. All that together results in somewhere around $30 million in cap space that the team cleared watching these players leave Colorado.

Of the 43 skaters and goalies who logged games for the Avs in 2020-21, 16 won’t do so in 2021-22. That figure represents just over 37% of the team’s roster. It had to happen, though, in order to retain the cornerstone pieces. Gabriel Landeskog received nearly a $1.5 million pay raise via an eight-year deal worth $7 million annually. Tyson Jost doubled his income, and will earn $2 million annually for the next two seasons. Erik Johnson returns from long-term injured reserve, re-introducing his $6 million cap hit to the payroll. The same is true of Pavel Francouz and his $2 million cap hit.

But the biggest new cost to the Avalanche is paying for their prized possession on the blueline. Cale Makar graduated from his entry level contract and into a six-year deal with a whopping $9 million cap hit annually.

…And Money In

Take all the raises and injured reserve money that returns to the books, and we’re looking at $18.5 million in new spending. Remember the roughly $30 million in space that the team cleared? Yeah, its down to about $11.5 million.

That’s what Sakic had left to replace the 16 bodies he lost. Because, again, the money spent above only represents players who were¬†already on the team. They didn’t get anything new for the $18.5 million they spent; they just avoided losing certain players at the cost of losing others. Kuemper will take $3.5 million of the chunk as well, and Mikhail Maltsev (acquired in the Graves trade) $809,167, both for one year.

To repair some of the Colorado Avalanche depth, Sakic then signed Darren Helm, the career Detroit Red Wings forward, to a one-year, $1 million contract. Ryan Murray joined the defence corps for $2 million on a one-year deal. Kurtis MacDermid came via trade from Seattle, and carries an $875,000 cap hit. A few other minor additions occurred as well, each with less than $1 million cap hits; money that likely won’t all hit the cap since the bulk will be AHL players.

Colorado Avalanche Depth to be Heavily Tested Next Year

With everything said and done (well, at least as of today’s date… still well ahead of opening night), Colorado possesses just $2.38 million in cap space. That doesn’t leave much room to breathe. It also means if the team plans to add any roster players, it’ll cost them a roster player in return to make the finances work out. Aside from that, Colorado could only truly get cap relief if they end up having to slide someone onto long-term injured reserve again. Signs suggest the team will be fully healthy though (knock on wood, especially for Johnson!), and this is a route no one in their right mind would hope for.

So, how does Colorado expect to be as competitive next year despite so many significant departures? Thankfully for them, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Landeskog will all be back. That trio has been one of the league’s best lines for a few years now. Without Saad and Donskoi to support Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky, though, the forwards could get split up and shuffled to help balance lines. With Graves, Timmins and Nemeth all leaving on defence, too, Johnson returns with some lofty expectations on him. Hopefully Murray and MacDermid can help replace those lost minutes on the backend, too.

What Avs fans pray for, though, is some huge strides for the team’s top prospects.

Forwards to Watch

If there was one candidate in particular to fill the second-line void, it’d be Alex Newhook. The former first-round pick for the Avs in the 2019 draft, scored 16 points in 12 games with Boston College last year. Then, Newhook signed with the Avs and promptly scored five goals and four assists (nine points) in eight games with their AHL club. This earned him a call-up to the big club, where he potted three assists in six regular season games last year. He even forced his way into the lineup in the postseason, dressing for eight games and notching his first NHL goal to boot. His skill and creativity could definitely line him up for a top-six role, especially given current circumstances.

Besides Newhook, Colorado hopes Logan O’Connor can become a regular in the lineup. He suited up for 22 games last season, and brings a very effective, hard-nosed style to every single shift. He can help fill that “pesty” role Calvert used to serve. Kiefer Sherwood, Jayson Megna, Sampo Ranta, and Martin Kaut all played a little for the Avalanche in depth roles last year too. Ranta and Kaut are only 21 years old, both drafted in the 2018 draft by Colorado.

Defence and Goaltending Situation

On the back half of the ice, Colorado expects Jacob MacDonald to take a step forward as well. MacDonald played 33 games last year, and posted solid advanced metrics while also passing the eye test with flying colours. He should take away some of the burden lost with Graves’ departure. Plus, the club has touted prospect Bowen Byram ready to jump into a more consistent role. Injuries forced him out of the lineup last year, but he still logged 19 games with over 17 minutes in ice time per night.

If Johnson is still the same player he was before missing nearly the entirety of last season, there are far fewer questions on defence for Colorado. Between him, Makar, Samuel Girard and Devon Toews, the Avs still possess one of the best defence corps in the entire NHL. Murray, Byram, MacDonald, and MacDermid can comfortably support that top-four group.

In goal, Kuemper should become the Avs go-to guy. Francouz missed the whole 2020-21 season; similar to Johnson, though, if he is the same goalie he was two years ago, the team is fine. If not, Jonas Johansson re-signed to provide the Colorado Avalanche depth in their third goalie slot, too. Youngsters Trent Miner and Justus Annunen, both drafted by Colorado, are on entry level contracts behind Johansson and Hunter Miska. As long as Kuemper plays the way he’s been playing for the last few seasons, the net is locked down. He could be a dark horse Vezina candidate playing behind this club’s stellar defence.

Its “Cup or Bust” All Over Again

Colorado only owns four picks in next year’s 2022 entry draft, and their first pick doesn’t come until the third round. They also only possess six picks in seven rounds for both the 2023 and 2024 drafts as it stands today. Of course, plenty will change between now and each of those drafts. But it still highlights where this team sits today: Cup or bust.

Just like last season, the Avs look at the team they have currently and believe themselves to be contenders. Vegas odds have them as one of the favourites to win it all, something we’ve seen now for a few consecutive years. Last time around, the fear was what would happen to the Avalanche and their depth when Grubauer, Landeskog and Makar all needed new contracts. The result…is all of the above article.

This time around, Colorado looks at the books and sees, yet again, another bunch of key contracts set to expire next summer. Burakovsky, Kadri and Valeri Nichushkin are all top nine forwards that become UFA’s after 2021-22. Only MacDonald, Murray and MacDermid expire on the blueline (insert enormous sigh of relief). But in net, Kuemper, Francouz, Johansson and Miska will all be free agents after this year.

Cue Joe Sakic 2.0: “this is as deep a team as we’re going to have here”…

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