Welcome to Last Word on Hockey’s 2022 summer series, exploring the best and worst free agent signings for each NHL team of the post-lockout, salary cap era. With this past offseason seeing some big splashes (and potential gambles) like Johnny Gaudreau, Claude Giroux, John Klingberg, and others, it’s time to take a look at how teams have boosted and stunted their progress in recent history. Today, we take a look at the Colorado Avalanche free agents history.
Colorado Avalanche Free Agent Hits and Misses
Best Signing: Valeri Nichushkin
SIGNING UPDATE: #Avalanche sign F Valeri Nichushkin to a one-year contract. Mulitple reports say it’s worth $850,000…
Follow all the summer deals on our FA Tracker: https://t.co/XI4JdOHo1j #TSNHockey pic.twitter.com/gNNOhfC7p9
— TSN Hockey (@TSNHockey) August 19, 2019
This name will surprise many fans as the of the best Colorado Avalanche free agent signings. Remember, the options exclude players drafted by Colorado, or acquired via trade. Once those options are removed, not many Avalanche all-stars or icons remain. The organization drafted Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Adam Foote, Alex Tanguay, Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly, Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar. And they traded for Rob Blake, Ray Bourque, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy, Samuel Girard, Erik Johnson, Artturi Lehkonen, Andre Burakovsky, and basically every decent goalie they’ve ever had. Let’s go ahead and pause to look back at that list of names. Man, this team knows how to draft. And man, they know how to wheel and deal.
Beyond those names, Nichushkin was an enormous diamond in the rough. After a great rookie season with the Dallas Stars in 2013-14, his career flew off the rails fast. He produced 14 goals and 34 points that first season. Then, he played just eight games the season after due to injury, recording a single assist. He bounced back with 29 points the season after but opted to return to Russia for 2016-17. He spent two years in the KHL, before attempting an NHL comeback with Dallas. That comeback season, 2018-19, saw him fail to record a single goal in 57 contests, plus he only posted 10 assists.
Nichushkin Explodes in Denver
So, he looked like someone destined for the AHL, or to return again to the KHL. Then Sakic took a flier on him in free agency with a one-year, $850,000 contract. He rewarded Colorado with 27 points in 65 games and earned a two-year deal worth $5 million. That contract just ended, and he exploded for a whopping 52 points in 62 games this past season. That set career highs in all scoring categories, including 25 goals and 19:02 in average ice time. Even his possession metrics, with a relative Corsi-for of 7.5%, reached higher than ever before. Most importantly, he posted 15 points in 20 playoff games en route to a Stanley Cup Championship.
Nichushkin came to Colorado on his last limb. Now, he’s a permanent fixture within the Avs core forward group. The original free agent signing became a perfect example of a “low risk, high reward” move.
Now, rather than letting the big-bodied forward reach free agency this summer, new General Manager Chris MacFarland locked him up. Val received a massive payday and starts an eight-year contract in 2022-23 worth $6.125 million annually.
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Honourable Mentions: P.A. Parenteau
Honestly, there aren’t many big-name free agent signings for the Colorado Avalanche. They grow much of their top talent from within or acquire it via trade. The vast majority of their signings from the open market fill depth roles. By no means does that take away from those signings though, as they contribute plenty in their own right. Matt Calvert and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare belong in this category and are worth noting.
Probably the best honourable mention though is P.A. Parenteau. He inked a four-year deal worth $4 million annually back in 2012. The team missed the playoffs the two years prior to Parenteau’s arrival and missed again in his first season. The last lockout happened that season (2012-13), shortening the year to just 48 games. Parenteau played all 48 and scored 18 goals and 43 points. That pace would’ve meant his first (and only) 30-goal campaign in his career. The following season, he dipped a bit but still managed 33 points in 55 games. The team squeaked into the playoffs that year too but lost their first-round series in seven games. He left Colorado via trade that summer.
Worst Signing: Joe Colborne
#Avalanche signed Joe Colborne to a 2-year contract: https://t.co/CZSseorr3c
— Avalanche PR (@AvsPR) July 1, 2016
When looking for the worst Colorado Avalanche free agent signings, it’s kind of hard. Being a team that does not take high swings in free agency, there are not too many big disappointments. That doesn’t mean they haven’t made mistakes, however.
Joe Colborne came to Colorado in 2016 when Sakic gave him a two-year deal worth $2.5 million annually. That dollar amount exceeded every deal he earned previously, and justifiably so. Well, at least on the day he signed it looked that way. He just posted a career-high 44 points in 73 games with the Calgary Flames the year before. And at just 27 years old, Colborne appeared to be entering his prime.
On opening night, Colborne recorded his one and only NHL hat-trick to help the Avs win a 6-5 game. Then, he contributed only a single assist and no goals over the next 41 games. He scored his fourth and final goal in early February and ended the year with just eight points in 62 contests.
The next year, he couldn’t even crack the NHL squad. He also struggled in the AHL, with four points in 13 games. A concussion ended his career from there, wrapping a devastating tenure as an Avalanche player. An unfortunate end for a player who looked primed to build on his breakout season in Calgary. The hat trick in game one was quite the tease, too.
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Honourable Mentions: Jarome Iginla
Colorado just doesn’t take big risks in free agency. However, they did go big on an eventual Hall of Famer in the summer of 2014. Jarome Iginla came to Denver, raising hopes sky-high for Avs fans. However, the right winger’s best years were well behind him at that point in his career. He just wrapped a one-year stint on the Boston Bruins, after an emotional departure from the Flames the year prior. He played the first 15 and a half years of his career in Calgary and served as their captain for over a decade.
His contract in Boston came at a low cap hit of $1.8 million. He scored 30 goals and 61 points, proving he still had gas in the tank. Colorado then pounced on the 37-year-old, awarding him $5.33 million. That wasn’t the problem, and in that first year with Colorado, he led the team with 59 points and 29 goals. The reason this deal was “bad” was that the Avs weren’t a contender, and they didn’t sign him for just one year. Iginla received a three-year deal. One that ended when he reached 39 years old. In his last season, he posted 18 points in 61 games before the Avs flipped him to the Kings at the deadline. They had to retain half his salary to make the trade happen, and the return amounted to nothing too.
The “Iggy” deal sold jerseys during a difficult period in Avalanche history. Fans enjoyed watching him play, but it didn’t accomplish anything beyond some fun. Even this feels like a stretch to deem a bad free agent signing. For a team with little to none worth complaining about though, it’s as close as it gets.