Colorado Avalanche Quest to Repeat

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The Colorado Avalanche did it. After consecutive years of disappointment and falling short, they finally broke through. In 2021-22, the Avs brought home the Stanley Cup for the first time in 21 years. It marked the third Cup-winning season for the franchise, all three with Joe Sakic at the helm. He captained the team when they won it back in 1996 and 2001. This time, he served as the General Manager and architect of the team, building it through the draft, trades, and free agency. The Avalanche cup win felt incredible, as the fanbase took a huge sigh of relief. They can rest assured that their star-studded team earned immortality and their rightful place in history, with their mark etched (and dented) onto the Stanley Cup for all time. Now, just days and weeks later, the focus immediately shifts. They sit atop the mountain but will be back at the bottom looking up in just a couple months’ time. The work starts all over again as the Avalanche aim to repeat a Cup championship. It’s no longer can this team win a Cup, but now how many Cups can this team win?

Avalanche Aim to Repeat Cup Win in 2022-23

Repeating championships in any professional sport is no easy feat. In the salary cap NHL era of today, the challenge sits even higher. But, having watched the Tampa Bay Lightning go back-to-back in the two seasons prior, Colorado knows it is possible. Heck, they sat two games away from a third consecutive Cup, had the Avs not been able to put an end to their reign. Coach Jared Bednar cited Tampa as a prime motivator; a template and a model for his team. They learned directly from the best, and that wound up pushing them over the edge. It allowed them to end Tampa’s three-peat bid themselves.

NHL free agent frenzy

Quick Turnaround, Short Offseason

Though it might feel too early to look forward, that’s the reality of hockey. The offseason is short, and free agency already dealt blows to the roster. Some players signed elsewhere, before even getting their day with the Cup, setting up for a somewhat-awkward scenario upcoming where they will wear their “old team’s” uniform to celebrate their championship despite already revving up for a new season with a new team. Erik Johnson said it himself when the 2022-23 schedule dropped on July 6th. That gave the team just ten days of pure celebration before eyes began turning ahead. With the Cup next to him in bed, players and fans around the world already pondered how they could steal it away in one year’s time.

So for 2022-23, they can look right back at their predecessors and opponents in the Stanley Cup Final to learn how to repeat. By no means will it be easy, though. And by no means can Colorado expect to execute their next championship in the same fashion as the last. Their lineup already looks different due to that salary cap variable mentioned earlier. They couldn’t afford to retain all the pieces that helped win it last month. A Stanley Cup win adds value to every single player on the roster, upping their asking price and dropping the odds that Colorado could retain each of them.

Simply put, the road ahead for the Avalanche to repeat and win the Cup will be longer and harder than it was the first time around.

Roster Work – Between Cup and Free Agency

When free agency opened in on July 13th, the Avs already made a handful of moves affecting their roster. With limited cap space to work with, the front office knew the importance of getting deals in place with certain unrestricted free agents they really wanted to keep. Most notably among this group, Valeri Nichushkin inked a massive eight-year extension, running at a $6.125 million cap hit annually. His growth since arriving in Colorado couldn’t be ignored. His impact on the team comes from his relentless play on both ends of the ice. He stepped up big time in the playoffs too, which likely made him a necessity to retain for the Avalanche and their attempt to repeat a Cup championship.
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Aside from Nichushkin, the Avs re-signed Andrew Cogliano to a one-year deal. The forward noted he pondered retiring at the end of this season. After landing in Colorado at the deadline, though, everything changed. He enjoyed the run and won his first Cup, re-igniting his fire to play the game. Colorado also extended Jacob MacDonald for two more years at a favourable price of under $1 million annually. That’s someone who could receive a promotion internally and play far more often now as the cap crunch impacts the players Colorado can retain.

General Manager Joe Sakic also traded three draft picks (all in the third round or later) to the New York Rangers in exchange for goaltender Alexandar Georgiev. That came before the 2022 NHL Entry Draft and signalled to the league Colorado’s plans in net. Georgiev immediately received a three-year deal from Sakic at $3.4 million per season, too. Obviously, this meant Darcy Kuemper, a pending UFA, would not be back in burgundy and blue. Winning the Cup simply priced him out of the Avalanche and their tight budget. (He wound up signing a large contract with the Washington Capitals on the opening day of free agency.)

Roster Work – Free Agency Opens

Despite the preparation work Sakic and Co. put in place ahead of July 13th, still, plenty of pieces had to be put into place. Sakic received a well-deserved promotion to the title of President of Hockey Operations. His second-in-command, Chris MacFarland, took over his previous role as the new GM. MacFarland splashed right away, too. He worked out a contract with Josh Manson, who many expected to be a cap casualty for the team as a UFA. MacFarland also tied off a five-year deal with Artturi Lehkonen. “Lehky”, a deadline acquisition, worked his tail off to become part of this team’s core group of forwards. The last retained piece from last season, Darren Helm received a one-year deal to stay in Denver.

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The remaining deals in free agency build around the edges for Colorado. But to win the Cup, teams need good depth. For the Avalanche to repeat and win the Cup back-to-back, they’ll depend on plenty of fresh faces. Between forwards Charles Hudon, Spencer Smallman, and Callahan Burke, the Avs snagged some cheap, flexible players who can move up and down from their AHL team as needed. The same goes for defencemen Brad Hunt, Andreas Englund, and Josh Jacobs. All those players and goaltender Jonas Johansson signed with Colorado as free agents between July 13th and 19th. And frankly, most (if not all) of them will spend the majority of the season with the Colorado Eagles of the AHL.

Remaining Questions on Avalanche Cup Repeat Quest

So, most of what Colorado accomplished locked in vital pieces of the team for the foreseeable future. They retained their hard-working veterans and shored up their AHL or replacement level depth. Their top six wingers (Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Nichushkin and Lehkonen) all now possess deals through 2024-25 at the earliest (and 2029-30 at the latest). Manson joins Cale Makar and Samuel Girard on deals through at least 2025-26, plus Devon Toews remains signed for two more years too. And in net, Georgiev assumes the starting role, with Pavel Francouz as his backup. That tandem will be in Colorado for at least two years together.

Holes still remain, though. The above does not cover every area of the ice. The most concerning spot, unfortunately, goes right up the middle. Most eyes look straight to the gap at centre on the second line, left vacant by Nazem Kadri. He became a UFA and remains available, but Colorado probably can’t afford him. At 32 years old, this summer likely ends up being his last shot at a big, long-term payday. He’s maintaining patience to allow for the best possible offer. If Colorado wanted to sign him, they’d need to free up some cap space. The $3.9 million they have left won’t come close to the number Kadri desires.

Options at Centre – Internal and External

The Avs might enter the season with the centre position left as-is. J.T. Compher filled in tremendously when Kadri went down in the playoffs to injury. Whether he can do so on a permanent basis remains to be seen; the 27-year-old had a career-high 18 goals and 33 points last season. While those were great for him, they remain a far cry from Kadri’s 28 goals and 87 points.

If they prefer to purchase a free agent, Paul Stastny would be intriguing. He’d be a welcome, familiar face for some old teammates and the city in general after he spent the longest stretch of his career in Denver. There’s also other veteran names like Jay Beagle and Derek Stepan, but none of these look like realistic replacements for Kadri’s level of production. Perhaps sticking to the prospect pipeline internally gives them the best potential fit.

Alex Newhook, at just 21 years old, is primed for a growing season. He enters his second full-time season at the NHL level, after posting 13 goals and 33 points as a rookie in 2021-22. The Avs would be over the moon if Newhook could double that production, and it would give them a formidable 1-2-3 punch at the position (MacKinnon-Newhook-Compher). Beyond that, Ben Meyers should compete to be a roster regular in his debut season. Shane Bowers, still a pending RFA, could earn a look too. All these options may be young, but that also makes them cheap.

What the Future Holds…

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More important, though, is the pending void at centre next summer. Nathan MacKinnon will receive a massive raise from the $6.3 million cap hit he carries today, and Colorado without a doubt will pay whatever it takes to retain him. So, realistically, that first-line centre spot isn’t a concern itself. It is the waterfall effect it’ll have on their cap situation that makes fans sweat. Erik Johnson’s $6 million cap hit falls off the books next summer, and MacKinnon could literally command that whole amount on top of his current pay rate if he wants.

Probably the most significant piece to remember is the trade deadline. Colorado’s roster, as it stands right this second, looks strong. They just won a Stanley Cup and retained nearly every major piece except for Kadri and Kuemper. They addressed goaltending, though with unproven options. At centre, they can fill from within, again with unproven options. But all-in-all, they remain deep at every position and are one of the most talented teams at the very top of their lineup.

So, they absolutely could ice this team today and win plenty of games during the regular season. Then, as the season progresses, MacFarland can assess which pieces have proven sufficient and which haven’t. They can acquire needed items at the trade deadline to fill those holes. Colorado is good enough to take that approach without much concern. And if the Avalanche are going to repeat and win the Cup as Tampa Bay did, that just might be the path to take.