Whether or not the NHL season resumes does not change the fact that the Colorado Avalanche will have to do some essential re-tooling on their blue line this offseason. With only four defensemen under contract after the 2019-20 season, four others will require new deals to remain in the Mile High City. The confusion about the salary cap ceiling due to the NHL stoppage means general manager Joe Sakic will have to find players on bargain contracts who are ready to produce on the NHL stage.
Drafting and developing NHL players is at a premium and with some great prospects in the organization, the Avs will be counting on their prospects to step in to fill the empty roster spots – enter Conor Timmins and Bowen Byram. Are these young blueliners NHL ready, and if they are, is it in the organization’s best interest to bring them up?
Defencemen Under Contract Past This Season
The Avalanche have a good balance of young and old players on defense going into the 2020-21 season with Cale Makar, Ian Cole, Samuel Girard, and Erik Johnson already under contract. This is a solid core which gives management some flexibility regarding their upcoming free agents.
Defencemen on Expiring Contracts at the End of This Season
Sakic will have some big decisions to make at the end of this season regarding which blueliners to re-sign and who will have to find a home elsewhere.
The four defensemen on the Avs roster on expiring contracts include Ryan Graves and Nikita Zadorov who are restricted free agents (RFA) and Kevin Connauton and Mark Barberio who are unrestricted free agents (UFA).
Byram Should Not Be on the Avalanche Blue Line to Start the 2020-21 Season
Bowen Byram was selected by the Avalanche with the first-round pick they acquired from the Ottawa Senators in the Matt Duchene trade. The fourth-overall pick from the 2019 NHL Entry Draft spent this season playing for the Vancouver Giants of the WHL. Byram has elite level upside and is one of the best prospects in the Avalanche organization, if not the best.
He put up more than 50 points in consecutive seasons with the Giants scoring 71 points in 67 games in 2018-19 and 52 points in 50 games in 2019-20 before the season’s cancellation. Few players possess the ability to jump right into the NHL at such a young age, and although Byram may appear to be NHL ready, it may not be in the team’s best interest to bring him to the big stage just yet.
Considering the chemistry Makar found with Graves during the 2019-20 season, it’s unlikely that the Avalanche would let Graves walk out the door in the offseason. If he is re-signed, the left defense depth chart would be full, leaving no spot for Byram unless someone moves to their off-side which isn’t ideal.
Another thing to consider before bringing up the young blueliner is the youth and inexperience the Avalanche would have on their back end. Makar only has one year of NHL experience under his belt and Girard is still finding his way. Adding an 18-year-old to the mix (without any professional hockey experience) may become a liability instead of an asset.
Lastly, the Avalanche need to consider the future. A few star players will require significant pay raises in the next two seasons including captain Gabriel Landeskog and Makar, meaning valuable players at low contract costs will be at a premium.
Table 1: Avalanche players who will require new contracts over the next two seasons.
|Player||Contract Status||Contract Expiry||Current Salary|
Maintaining control of a player like Byram will allow the organization to get creative with their contracts in order to keep core players long-term. Byram’s entry-level deal is a slide contract which means the Avalanche can save a year on his deal if he plays less than 10 NHL games in the 2020-21 season. This also provides the team with money available for contract settlements without sacrificing the team’s ability to compete at a high level.
It would be beneficial for both team and player if the Avalanche can postpone Byram’s arrival. He could then continue to develop and mature on and off the ice and build a winning pedigree before making the jump to the NHL stage. It would also give Makar and Girard another year of experience to learn and establish themselves in the league.
Timmins Should Be on the Avalanche Blue Line to Start the 2020-21 Season
Timmins has battled severe concussion symptoms since 2018, which forced him to miss over 12 months of play and delay his NHL debut longer than expected. A concussion affected his development and the young blueliner struggled to find his game once he returned.
Timmins is now 21 years old and has played most of the 2019-20 season with the AHL’s Colorado Eagles where he scored 27 points in 40 games. He also made his NHL debut appearing in two games for the Avs this season.
The former second-round pick is ready for NHL action and with one year already burned from his three-year, entry-level deal, he will likely be a regular on the Avalanche’s back end starting in 2020-21. Defenseman Nikita Zadorov needs an extension and has arbitration rights, so management might have to pay more money than they would like to retain his services.
In the salary cap era, every dollar matters. With several key players needing new contracts in the coming seasons, committing more money to Zadorov may hamper the future of the organization. Timmins is more than capable of replacing Zadorov, which would further provide the team with cap flexibility.
Timmins’ solid two-way game would provide the team with another young defenseman with plenty of upside. If he is brought up next season, the Avalanche will have Johnson and Cole to mentor him and help him acclimate to the NHL. Also, Timmins already has a year of pro hockey under his belt from his season in the minors, so the transition to the NHL should be smoother than it would be for Byram.
Projected 2020-21 Avalanche Defense
All things considered, including salary cap restraints, talent level, and the future of the organization, the Avalanche’s starting blue line in 2020-21 should look similar to Table 2:
Table 2: Projected Avalanche defense pairings for 2020-21 season
|Left Defense||Right Defense|
|Ryan Graves||Cale Makar|
|Samuel Girard||Erik Johnson|
|Ian Cole||Connor Timmins|
This table suggests that Zadorov will not be re-signed by the club and Timmins would be given the opportunity to finally become a mainstay on the blue line. This defense corps provides the team with a versatile group of players that allow each one to play their own style.
The group combines veteran leadership with young talent and strong mentorship to help the youngsters through the grind of an 82-game season.
Table 3: Projected Seventh defenseman and defense prospects for the 2020-21 season
|Seventh Defenseman||In the Pipeline|
|Kevin Connauton, Sign a UFA depth defenseman||Bowen Byram, Josh Anderson|
The Avalanche could do much worse than re-signing Connauton to be their extra defenseman. However, whether that is a role he would embrace remains to be seen. Byram will have to be returned to junior, as his age does not qualify to play in the AHL which could mean the Avalanche may be in the market for another depth defenseman to add to their roster on a short-term deal.
This group projects to be a solid backbone for the Avalanche to build on their success over the past few seasons while still competing at a high level. Although this may not be considered one of the best blue lines in the league just yet, it shouldn’t be long before it becomes one of the best and for the foreseeable future.