Most of the initial hoopla around free agency has died down, so teams looking to shake up their rosters must start looking towards the trade route to make significant alterations. Although Nazem Kadri has yet to make a decision and whispers say that he could return to the Colorado Avalanche, the Stanley Cup champions appear to have a hole at the second-line center position heading into the 2022-23 season.
Kadri’s age (31) and unexpected scoring outburst in 2021-22 are likely making many teams, including the Avalanche, wary of offering him a long-term, big-money contract in case they get burned by regression to his career mean. At the moment, J.T. Compher, Alex Newhook, and Mikko Rantanen are potential candidates for the second-line pivot slot. Still, those three either don’t possess the ability required for the workload or are unaccustomed to the position. To restore order to an uncertain lineup, a deal bringing a prime-age, bona fide, top-six center should be one of the Avalanche’s main priorities for the rest of the offseason.
Here are three trade candidates who are both younger than Kadri, and boast a more established track record of elite production at center in the NHL.
Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets
The first trade candidate is 29-year-old Mark Scheifele, the current first-line center for the Winnipeg Jets. The 2021-22 season was disappointing for both team and player, with underwhelming performances and a seemingly long-overdue head coaching change that was the result of a reportedly polluted locker room situation. Even while missing the end of the season with an upper-body injury, Scheifele managed to tally 70 points in 67 games, eclipsing the 70-point threshold for the fourth time in his NHL career. He is under contract for two more seasons, and is owed $6.125 million against the cap.
Scheifele has faced questions about his dedication to the defensive side of the puck, but carrying the load offensively means he’s had to expend his energy wisely while leading the Jets’ attack. Apart from Connor McDavid, no other center played more often at 5v5 than Scheifele last season, averaging 16:11 minutes per night. With superstar center Nathan MacKinnon serving as the primary scorer, the Jets’ alternate captain could thrive in a more sheltered role where he could be deployed against lesser competition in an attempt to massage his defensive inconsistencies.
That aside, Scheifele possesses a demonstrable offensive skillset as one of the most incisive playmakers in the game, adept at finessing passes around defences and carrying his weight in transition. He completed the 11th-highest rate of primary 5v5 shot assists (final pass before a shot) among NHL forwards this season, and was above-average in terms of zone entries per 60 minutes and the rate at which he entered with possession. If paired with someone like Rantanen, who is one of the NHL’s most reliable finishers, that duo could feast on the secondary competition.
The 6-foot-3 center’s availability likely hinges on how the franchise sees itself in both the short and long term. Credible rumours surrounding potential trades for captain Blake Wheeler and center Pierre-Luc Dubois — reportedly eyeing the Montreal Canadiens — suggest the team is ripe for a retool. The Avalanche possess enough assets to make a trade discussion worth the Jets’ while, but whether they find a true teardown palatable is the sticking point in any conversations. All three of Scheifele, Wheeler and former Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck are slated to become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2024, putting the end of their competitive window firmly in sight.
Given how close the franchise got to a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2018, their turbulent descent down the mountain has been excruciating. It can be difficult to move on from loyal and tenured servants, but every core has a shelf life, and it seems as though this one has overstayed its welcome.
J.T. Miller, Vancouver Canucks
A second viable target is the Vancouver Canucks’ J.T. Miller, whose name has been bandied about in trade rumours since the Canucks’ 2021-22 season flatlined. Reports indicate that a potential return could exceed the Minnesota Wild’s haul for Kevin Fiala, so an extension should be tabled if such a heavy fee is to be extracted from interested suitors. He carries a $5.25 million average annual value (AAV) for one more year, making him an appetizing deadline acquisition if he is not moved this summer at the right price.
Miller finished the 2021-22 campaign with 67 assists and 99 points, totals which ranked sixth and ninth in the NHL, respectively. He led the Canucks in shot assists per-60, but didn’t grade out among the league’s upper echelon in terms of his 5v5 shot-rate or transition numbers, suggesting he’s not an overly impressive play driver. Notably, Miller converted on 15.7 precent of his shots (SH%) at 5v5 and owned a 13.1 percent on-ice shooting percentage (OiSH%) in all situations, with those two marks representing the highest and second-highest conversion rates of his career in each respective category. He’s a gifted and versatile talent, but teams should be careful to not overpay for face value.
Miller was acquired with an eye toward accelerating the Canucks’ contention window, but the development of the team’s young talent has stalled, and they look far from being Stanley Cup contenders anytime soon. New general manager Patrick Allvin looks to have a plan in place to move on from the disastrous Jim Benning era, but the 29-year-old is quickly moving out of his prime and his next contract could be much less of a bargain than his current cap hit.
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Given that Miller’s contract carries one less year than that of Scheifele, trading for him is a bigger risk than inquiring about the Jets’ pivot. He boasts a history of consistent production in posting 217 points in 202 games since joining the Canucks, but his underlying numbers suggest he’s not much of a play driver at this point of his career. A team like the Avalanche has enough forwards who thrive in transition that Miller could focus on what he does best, but the potential acquisition cost and likely hefty extension are significant question marks.
Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames
The third and final trade target for the Avalanche is Calgary Flames’ center Elias Lindholm, whose future is up in the air after Johnny Gaudreau’s shocking free-agent departure this week. As is the case with Scheifele, the 27-year-old’s availability is predicated on where Flames’ management and ownership see the team going in a post-Gaudreau reality. Toss in rumblings surrounding the status of restricted free agent (RFA) winger Matthew Tkachuk and you have the ingredients for one tumultuous summer out west.
Moving back to Lindholm, he formed one-third of one of the NHL’s best forward lines last season, tying for ninth in goalscoring (42 goals) while centering Gaudreau and Tkachuk for the Pacific Division winners. It’s easy to say the Swede’s numbers were inflated by playing alongside two of the league’s top wingers, but he contributed just as much to the line’s success. He is a capable transporter of the puck through the neutral zone and possesses the awareness to get into dangerous areas to capitalize on his teammates’ penetrating vision. Further, he functioned as the line’s defensive conscience, contributing disruptive two-way play on the way to being named a finalist for the Selke Trophy as one of the NHL’s most effective defensive forwards.
Even so, Lindholm’s scoring outburst should give teams pause before making a move for the center. Prior to this season, he never scored more than 30 goals in a single campaign and has hovered around the 50-point mark for most of his career, save for two strong seasons in Calgary. There is more to hockey than just points and they can often be more a product of teammates and deployment than a player’s true talent, but it’s something to keep in mind. More so than other teams, the Avalanche can surround incoming players with a solid infrastructure of offensive talent and elevate their specific skill sets. If there is anywhere in the NHL where players can buoy their scoring, it’s in Colorado.
If general manager Brad Treliving can sign a forward to replace Gaudreau while keeping Tkachuk, the Flames can stave off most of the negative repercussions of their start to free agency. The Western Conference is not particularly strong, so reversing the narrative and making a deep playoff run next season is not out of the realm of possibility. Still, replacing a superstar who tied for second in league scoring with 115 points is a daunting task, and the Flames may be running out of time to do so. If a retool is in the cards, dealing Lindholm could be one of the first dominoes to fall, and the Avalanche should be patiently waiting to pounce if such a thing comes to pass.
Avalanche’s Cap Space Dwindling, But Moves Can Be Made
With any move the Avalanche may make, they must keep in mind the impending extensions owed to MacKinnon, Newhook, and Bowen Byram after this season. The expiring deals of Compher ($3.5 million AAV) and Erik Johnson ($6 million) give them some breathing room for any potential maneuvering, but someone like Samuel Girard — made redundant by Byram’s emergence and Josh Manson re-signing — could be traded to acquire further flexibility.
Difficult decisions must be made to be sure, but the Avalanche have a wide-open window to once more capitalize on a weaker Western Conference next season. If newly-minted general manager Chris MacFarland plays his cards right, the Avalanche could be well-positioned to win back-to-back titles. After all, where’s the fun in stopping at one?
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.