After a slow start (4-5-1), the Colorado Avalanche are the hottest team in hockey. They’ve gone 13-2-1 in their last 16 games, winning their last five in a row. Most impressive, they’ve done this while still battling the injury bug, with captain Gabriel Landeskog and first-line defenseman Devon Toews the latest to be sidelined. In short, the team is finally using its skill and depth to live up to its Stanley Cup aspirations.
It’s a good thing, because the Avalanche are built to win this year. Five players will become unrestricted free agents (UFAs) at the end of the current campaign, and six more will be UFAs or restricted free agents (RFAs) at the end of the 2022-23 season. Given that several players are having career years, and that the team will need to negotiate a new, blockbuster deal with superstar center Nathan MacKinnon before July 2023, Joe Sakic, Colorado’s executive vice president and general manager, will have some tough decisions both before this year’s trade deadline, and again in the offseason.
With that in mind, here are five players I predict will not be in an Avalanche sweater when the puck drops on the 2022-23 season.
#5 J.T. Compher
In his sixth season with Colorado, J.T. Compher is having the best year of his career. But even with that, his 120 points in 286 games show him to be a role player. A good role player, but a role player nonetheless. With the steadily improving Alex Newhook and Logan O’Connor both committed to the Avalanche at lower price tags next season, and with a group of strong prospects in the team’s minor league system (Oskar Olausson, Shane Bowers, and Sempo Ranta to name a few), Sakic will have the luxury of moving Compher out.
With one year left on his $3.5 million contract, the Avalanche can extract some value from Compher by trading him before the start of the 2022-23 campaign. Still only 26 years old, he is a proven commodity who will be an enticing prospect to some teams.
#4 Andre Burakovsky, and #3 Nazem Kadri
All three skaters on Colorado’s second line — Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, and Valeri Nichushkin — become UFAs at the end of this season, posing a unique challenge for Sakic. With MacKinnon’s new deal likely to come in at $11 million (or more), and the need to either re-sign Darcy Kuemper or find a comparable goaltender in the offseason, which will likely cost $5 million (or more), there just isn’t any way to retain all three members of the second line, and probably not even two.
At age 31, Kadri is not only having the best season of his career, he’s playing out of his mind. His 1.61 points per game is fourth best in the league, and more than twice his average prior to this season (.637 points per game over 667 games from 2010-11 through 2020-21). If he sustains this for the balance of the season, or even comes close to sustaining it, he will cash in next year.
But players in their thirties don’t suddenly double their production. Water, the old saying goes, seeks its level, so you have to expect Kadri to come back to Earth. The likelihood that he’ll be able to recreate this effort in the future is a strong bet against. Unless he takes a big home-town discount (very unlikely), expect Kadri sign with another team in the offseason.
Like Kadri, Nichushkin is also having a career year. His most productive season as a goal scorer was his rookie campaign (2013-14), when he scored 14 goals in 79 games. He already has nine goals in only 17 games this season, putting him on a pace to score 43 for the season. If he tallies even half that number, he will have outperformed expectations. He has also established himself as an elite penalty killer, showing diversity in his game.
Nichushkin is five years younger than Kadri, meaning there’s a lot more upside, and likely at a much lower price. Of the three second-line forwards, he is the most likely to stay.
That leaves the trickier question of what to do with Burakovsky. He’s a productive goal scorer who has filled in nicely on the team’s top line when one of the big three (MacKinnon, Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen) are injured. But he can be a streaky player, and will also be looking for a bigger payday. If Nichushkin wasn’t producing at an elite level, I think it would be a no-brainer that the Avalanche retain Burakovsky. But Nichushkin is matching Burakovsky’s production and will be a lower price tag. Given the cap space issues created by the MacKinnon contract and the need for goaltending, I think Burakovsky will be on the outside looking in.
#2 Erik Johnson
When this season ends, Erik Johnson will have one year left on his $6 million contract. The need to free up cap space makes him not only expendable, but a liability.
At 33 years old, Johnson is definitely on the downhill side of his career. His average time on ice has been steadily declining, from 25:26 in the 2017-18 season, to 21:03 in the 2019-20 season, to just 18:38 so far this year. Couple that with a penchant for injuries — he has played in 70 or more games only four times in his 10 years with Colorado — and it’s hard to make a case for keeping him on the team.
Unless he retires, Sakic will need to move Johnson in the offseason. Either way, don’t expect him to be in burgundy and blue next year.
#1 Tyson Jost
A first-round pick in 2016 (No. 10 overall), Tyson Jost has never lived up to his potential. In some ways, he is to the Avalanche what Valeri Nichushkin was to the Dallas Stars. He has four goals and five assists in 26 games this year, and just one goal and one assist during the team’s recent five-game winning streak. And this is on a team averaging 4.31 goals per game.
Still only 23 years old, and with a reasonable $2 million contract that expires at the end of the 2022-23 campaign, another team will likely see potential in Jost and the Avalanche will be wise to move him. I expect Jost to be gone by the trade deadline, and absolutely believe he will start the 2022-23 season in a different sweater.
On the Bubble
Several players are on also on the bubble. The biggest is Darcy Kuemper. The injury-prone goaltender is a UFA at the end of the season. How he performs in the current campaign, and how many games he’s able to play, will determine whether or not he gets a new contract, or if the Avalanche will need to look elsewhere. It’s a similar story for backup netminder Pavel Francouz. Also a UFA at the end of the season, his $2 million contract and injury history make his return questionable at best.
And then there are a spate of players who signed one-year deals with Colorado, most of whom I suspect will not be back, including Darren Helm, Jack Johnson, and Kurtis McDermid. I also polled the other writers covering the Avalanche to see who they thought would be gone:
Marko Zlomislic — Andre Burakovsky, Darren Helm, Erik Johnson, Nazem Kadri, Kurtis McDermid
Craig Jones — Darren Helm, Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Nazem Kadri, Valeri Nichushkin
Consensus (all three of us agreeing) Picks — Darren Helm, Erik Johnson, Nazem Kadri
Colorado is back in action tonight when they face the Predators in Nashville.
Hockey dad, beer league hockey captain, rabid Avalanche fan. Author of five novels for young adults, including The Scar Boys, Life in a Fishbowl, and Hard Wired. Lives in Littleton, Colorado with two middle school-age kids, one awesome wife, and three pets. Voted least likely to break 100 on a golf course.