Avalanche 2022 Free Agent Targets: Forwards

After winning the 2022 Stanley Cup, the Colorado Avalanche are in a situation familiar to most reigning champions in the salary cap era: looking at a number of departures as pending free agents look to capitalize on the open market. As a result, the high-flying Avalanche will have a number of holes to fill within their forward group, most notably at the second-line center spot. In assuming the Avalanche prioritize re-signing playoff hero Valeri Nichushkin, this list highlights potential candidates to replace the (likely) outgoing Nazem Kadri. With that, let’s dig in.

Claude Giroux, Florida Panthers

Kicking off this list is Claude Giroux, who the Avalanche were rumoured to have pursued at the trade deadline, but were rebuffed in favour of the Florida Panthers. By most measures, the 34-year-old’s tenure in Sunrise was a success. He made an instant impact upon his arrival, producing 23 points in 18 games after the deadline. His postseason tally stood at eight points in 10 games but he, like most of his teammates, was stymied by the Tampa Bay Lightning, only posting a single assist in a demoralizing sweep. The surprising nature of their four-game demolition at the hands of the Lightning might give potential suitors pause, but the Avalanche would do well to pursue the veteran forward once more.

Claude Giroux Florida Panthers
Claude Giroux, Florida Panthers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Although Giroux has gradually transitioned to more of a winger in the twilight of his career, he remains a reliable pivot option. He took the 28th-most faceoffs last season and won 60.3% of his matchups, third among players to have taken at least 100 draws. He also graded out as one of the Philadelphia Flyers’ top offensive options before the trade, even as he moves further from his prime. According to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, he ranked second on the team in scoring chance assists, third in high-danger shot assists, and remains an above-average player in facilitating zone entries. On an Avalanche team where he would be clearly second-fiddle, he could potentially replicate his late-season performance with the Panthers.

You might debate the reasoning behind signing an older Giroux if Kadri outproduced him and is several years younger, but the former has a more established track record of producing at an elite level. As he showed in his brief stint with the Panthers, he could experience an offensive rejuvenation in the right system and fortunately, only the Avalanche came close to playing at the same pace as the 2021-22 Presidents’ Trophy winners. He could also function as an elder mentor of sorts to a young Alex Newhook, who has yet to cement a regular spot as an NHL center.

Related: Avalanche’s Top Priorities for the 2022 Offseason

A short-term deal could shield Colorado against the effects of an age-related decline, and Joe Sakic could drive down the cost by dangling the legitimate prospect of an elusive championship. Still, that could mean the Avalanche might find themselves in the same position again in another season or two, but the upside is tantalizing enough that it makes Giroux the top target on my list.

Vincent Trocheck, Carolina Hurricanes

When it comes to viable (and affordable) second-line center options still within their prime, free agency can often be a barren wasteland. Still, 28-year-old Vincent Trocheck is a player who could replace some of Kadri’s impact while better aligning with the Avalanche’s competitive timeline. He scored 51 points in 81 games in 2021-22 and tallied 75 points in 82 games as recently as 2017-18. He has fallen slightly out of favour with the Carolina Hurricanes, but could be in line for a career rejuvenation in the Avalanche’s free-flowing system.

Trocheck was the Hurricanes’ most effective puck carrier up front last season, leading the team with a controlled zone entry rate (i.e. with possession) of 65% as well as ranking first in shot attempts off the rush. Only the Panthers generated more entries leading to scoring chances than the Avalanche last season, suggesting his playing style would fit in seamlessly with the reigning Stanley Cup champions. His skating also allowed him to evade opponents and draw penalties at the 62nd-highest rate among qualified forwards (minimum 200 5v5 minutes). With no shortage of offensive talent around him, choosing the Avalanche could enhance Trocheck’s diminished reputation around the league.

Vincent Trocheck Carolina Hurricanes
Vincent Trocheck, Carolina Hurricanes (Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

As Kadri made $4.5 million against the cap last season, Trocheck’s next contract could fit within Colorado’s pre-existing salary structure. Contract projections estimate that the veteran pivot could command a deal worth around $6 million per year over four years (from ‘Top 50 NHL unrestricted free agents: From Johnny Gaudreau to Filip Forsberg and more – Dom Luszczyszyn, The Athletic, 06/09/22), a minor bump for a similar (in style) player to Kadri, only three years younger. Trocheck should be in high demand come the opening of free agency, but the Avalanche can offer a playing environment favourable to scoring as well as championship pedigree. Could he be a suitable Kadri replacement?

Mason Marchment, Florida Panthers

The next entry on this list is an enigma among both the traditional scouting and analytics crowds. After being cast aside by the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade for Denis Malgin, Mason Marchment‘s NHL career looked to be on thin ice. He showed a spark by scoring 10 points in 33 games in 2020-21, but he truly broke out the following season, providing enormous value with 47 points in 54 games on a contract worth less than $1 million.

Mason Marchment Florida Panthers
Mason Marchment, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Unlike most breakout players, Marchment’s offensive eruption doesn’t appear to be the result of increased playing time or due to favourable deployment. Compared to 2020-21, he played about 15 seconds more per game at 5v5 and actually featured a few seconds less per game on the power play. The vast majority of his 5v5 minutes came alongside Sam Reinhart and Anton Lundell, strong players in their own right, but not necessarily capable of singlehandedly juicing Marchment’s numbers to this extent. One thing to note is that his 5v5 on-ice shooting percentage (OiSH%) sat above 11%, suggesting somewhat unsustainable finishing rates could be the reason behind the jump.

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Even so, Marchment generated career-high rates in a number of offensive categories including shots (46th in the NHL), scoring chances (33rd), and individual expected goals (seventh) per 60 minutes at 5v5. He leveraged his massive 6-foot-4 frame to draw penalties at an absurd rate, the 12th-highest among players with at least 200 5v5 minutes. Of interest to the Avalanche is that he was a forechecking demon last season, leading the Panthers and sitting among the league’s best by the rate at which he successfully recovered dump-ins. Size, commitment to defence, and a deft scoring touch? Someone is about to be paid this summer.

One of the most significant (and potentially costliest) decisions concerns the validity of Marchment’s offensive results last season. The history of NHL free agency contains countless cases of one-season wonders being handed massive deals on the open market based on eye-popping numbers in an extremely small sample. Enough evidence exists to suggest his unexpected breakout was not a mirage and could continue in the right system, but interested suitors should be wary of the deal potentially blowing up in their face.

Zach Aston-Reese, Anaheim Ducks

Although the Avalanche’s offensive stars drove the bus during their title run, the depth forwards did much of the heavy lifting in terms of shutting down opposing attacks. The likes of Andrew Cogliano and Darren Helm were forechecking terrors and anchors on the penalty kill, providing bursts of momentum when the top guns weren’t firing. With those two nearing the end of their careers and uncertain to return in 2022-23, winger Zach Aston-Reese could be part of the next group of defensive stalwarts.

Zach Aston-Reese Anaheim Ducks
Zach Aston-Reese, Anaheim Ducks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Aston-Reese’s offensive upside is limited (15 points in 69 games in 2021-22), but scoring would not be one of his core responsibilities on this Avalanche squad. He was deployed as a frequent forechecker in his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins and posted elite defensive results by essentially keeping the puck as far away from his net as possible. He thrives at controlling play along the boards and boasts intelligent on-ice awareness. His game is far from pretty, but it’s extraordinarily effective.

In terms of a contract, Aston-Reese’s low-scoring totals depress his market value. He was awarded a salary of $1.75 million in arbitration last summer and likely will command something in that ballpark this offseason. For a team as analytics-driven as the Avalanche, the 27-year-old represents the type of savvy gamble they’ve made in recent years, such as plucking Nichushkin from the Stars when his value hit rock bottom. The comparisons end there as Aston-Reese’s defensive results are derived from a less proactive approach than the Russian, but the reasoning is the same.

Johan Larsson, Washington Capitals

Like Aston-Reese, Johan Larsson is a strong defensive forward who provides little to nothing when it comes to offense. On a team flush with scoring options, his reliability and under-the-radar contributions are highly desirable in the bottom-six. As veterans Cogliano and Helm demonstrated in Colorado’s Stanley Cup run, playing opposing bottom-six groups to a draw allows the team’s stars to gain the upper hand elsewhere.

Larsson’s last contract came in at two years at $1.4 million per season and at age 29, could be a long-term option in the bottom-six as the aforementioned vets retire. He has experience playing on the penalty kill and even showed some scoring touch last season, scoring 21 points in 43 games split between the Arizona Coyotes and Washington Capitals. Interestingly enough, he was the Coyotes’ most effective forward by a wide margin at generating zone exits through successfully retrieving the puck within the defensive zone. Since the Avalanche love to transition rapidly from defence to attack, Larsson’s versatile skill set could come in handy at a very affordable rate.

2022 Free Agency Full of Forward Options

Compared to the rest of the league, the Avalanche are in the enviable position of possessing one of the most talented attacking cores in the NHL. That reality means that the organization only has to add around the margins and augment an already skilled group up front. Sakic and company have demonstrated the ability and willingness to mine underrated gems for relatively inexpensive financial commitments. With the Avalanche’s cap space set to dwindle after 2022-23, he will have to perform one last trick to potentially win another Stanley Cup.

Data courtesy of All Three ZonesEvolving HockeyHockey ReferenceMoneyPuck, and Natural Stat Trick.

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