Given that all of Cale Makar, Devon Toews, Bowen Byram, Erik Johnson, and Samuel Girard remain under contract on the Colorado Avalanche blue line through at least the 2022-23 season, this article feels a bit foolish to write. At this point, the final regular spot will be contested by Kurtis MacDermid, the only other signed defensemen who saw regular NHL time this season. Even so, the Avalanche have several unrestricted free agents (UFAs) who could act as depth options next season. Let’s first examine the ones whose negotiation rights still reside with the Avalanche, then move on to free-agent alternatives.
Avalanche Blueline Has Questions on the Edges
Trade deadline acquisition Josh Manson delivered in the Avalanche’s impressive Stanley Cup run, seamlessly taking on Girard’s minutes after the latter’s untimely injury and adding a new dimension to an uber-skilled blue line. As one of a few in-demand right-handed rearguards, he’s likely priced himself out of a return to Colorado.
Veteran Jack Johnson made the team after being extended a professional tryout contract (PTO) in training camp and played a simple game to help kill minutes while the team’s stars took to the bench. Even though his familiarity with the Avalanche system could aid his chances of a return, the 35-year-old might fetch a contract larger than the league minimum if other organizations were impressed enough with his play.
Another UFA – 28-year-old Ryan Murray – once again struggled with injuries as he only made 37 appearances due to a hand injury and others passing him on the depth chart. The $2 million average annual value (AAV) he earned in 2021-22 is rich for a rotational player, but he could be in that ballpark if the Avalanche envision a regular role for him next season.
Elsewhere, 29-year-old Jacob MacDonald represents another option on the fringes of the lineup, but he was only featured in eight total NHL games last season. With 25 points in 33 American Hockey League (AHL) games, however, he could be worth a look for teams looking for depth defensemen with some offensive upside.
Lastly, the team penned their 2018 fifth-round pick Daniil Zhuravlyov to a two-year deal prior to the start of the playoffs – a young (22 years old), affordable option earning less than $1 million next season. Since 2019-20, he’s played in 117 Kontinental Hockey League games, posting 27 points over the course of three seasons. The Russian could be a capable bottom-pair choice given his significant amount of professional experience.
2022 Free Agent Targets: Defensemen
Considering that the Avalanche already boast four of the best defensemen in the league, they still have a few holes to fill on their blue line. Assuming they look for a bottom-pair defender, that player must be affordable since the Avalanche are creeping up to the cap ceiling, can fit within the team’s active system, and be serviceable penalty-killers.
Brett Kulak, Edmonton Oilers
Although it appears as though the Edmonton Oilers have the inside track on re-signing Brett Kulak, he represents a bargain addition who could provide top-four value at a very affordable cap hit. The 28-year-old is coming off of a three-year deal which paid him $1.85 million annually and has experience playing on both sides of the defence.
Kulak enjoyed a productive stint with the Oilers after joining the Western Conference finalists at the trade deadline, producing eight points in 18 regular-season games and five assists in 16 playoff games. His 21 total points in 74 games on the season represent a career-high, underscoring his underrated physical presence on the blue line.
Kulak played just over 17 minutes a night in the regular season for the Oilers and helped the team control 55% of the shot-share (SF%), 58% of expected goals (xGF%), and 53% of scoring chances (SCF%) at 5v5. If teams need someone to hold down the fort while their top defensemen rest, there are few available options more effective than Kulak. He hasn’t been frequently used as a penalty-killer throughout his career, but the Oilers threw him out for over a minute-and-a-half per night during the regular season. Even so, he possesses the on-ice awareness and wherewithal to thrive in that regard, making him the best bargain option available who can positively impact play in all situations.
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In terms of how he fits within the Avalanche system, Kulak grades out as above-average in terms of generating zone entries and exits with possession of the puck and is a sturdy defender of his own blue line. Colorado plays a high-flying system that makes them vulnerable to counterattacks on occasion, but he thrives at shutting down clean entries, denying dump-ins and carry-ins with strong positioning and active stickwork.
Unfortunately, the Avalanche have to navigate a number of expensive contract extensions, so if Kulak is looking for a raise on his previous contract, he might become unaffordable. Still, he could eat up Murray’s 2021-22 cap hit and bolster an already formidable blue line. There are more cost-effective options out there, but few match his on-ice impact.
Mark Pysyk, Buffalo Sabres
In a trade deadline piece I wrote earlier this year, I pinpointed the undervalued Mark Pysyk as an underrated deadline addition for the Avalanche. Not much has changed since then, and he could be enticed to play for a winner if he so desires.
Over the course of his career, Pysyk has flitted around break-even in terms of even-strength shot- and chance-share, mostly on poor possession teams which make his positive relative on- and off-ice numbers all the more impressive. His previous teams have frequently deployed him as a penalty-killer and he’s played over a minute-and-a-half per game while shorthanded in five of his eight full seasons (minimum 41 games) in the NHL.
Pysyk’s micro-stat profile suggests he is someone who can generate an impressive ratio of clean zone entries and exits, although he is rarely tasked with a heavy workload in that regard. He remains calm with the puck on his stick and can complement strong puck-carrying forwards in transition with quick outlet passes. Given that the Avalanche have found success in beating primary forecheckers and creating rapid counterattacks, he is another capable playmaker on the backend.
The 30-year-old right-handed defenseman made less than $1 million against the cap last season and isn’t likely to command much more than that on the open market. Although Pysyk isn’t flashy or physically imposing, he does the simple things well which bodes well for his fit within Colorado’s system.
Ilya Lyubushkin, Toronto Maple Leafs
The third and final free-agent option on this list is Ilya Lyubushkin, a defensive-defenseman who is a departure from the skilled puck handlers starring on the Avalanche’s current blue line. His utility is in preventing scoring chances but he offers little going forward and can occasionally be caught flat-footed. If paired with a dynamic partner (of which the Avalanche have several), he could focus on leveraging his physicality and delivering a positive defensive impact in his own zone.
Lyubushkin does struggle with conceding the blue line and often looks hesitant if he ventures too far in attack, but he is an inexpensive stopgap for an elite defensive group which needs little refining at this point. He has limited experience on the penalty kill but is a reliable shot-blocking rearguard. Intriguingly, Corey Sznajder’s tracking data also paints him as an individual capable of facilitating clean zone exits after retrieving the puck in his own zone, whether through short, quick passes or carrying it out himself.
Lyubushkin may not resemble the typical Avalanche defenseman, but he offers a different dimension and owns specific skills that could work within the broader system. After only earning $1.35 million against the cap last season, the 28-year-old blueliner should be affordable for a team looking for affordable bargains at the bottom of the lineup.
2022 Free Agent Market Gives Avalanche Depth Options on Blueline
As the Avalanche have their core blueliners locked up for the foreseeable future, they have no reason to venture into the throes of the free-agent wilderness and tangle for the most expensive options. By scouring the bargain bin for players with specific skills, they can shore up an already elite rearguard contingent. Affordable, dependable, and healthy is the name of the game in the summer of 2022.
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.