The Tampa Bay Lightning have won their second Stanley Cup in two years, wrapping up another NHL season as every team in the league now turns their attention to the offseason, with 30 of those teams’ immediate concern being the expansion draft (with Vegas being exempt). We will soon hear each team’s protected list and if you haven’t heard the term a million times already, you will hear “we are going to lose a good player” about a million more before the expansion draft takes place.
The Colorado Avalanche are not exempt from this phrase and saying it repeatedly doesn’t lessen the fact that it’s true. The Avalanche have a Stanley Cup roster as they sit right now. So much is expected of them that the first odds released for next season already have them as the favorite. So yes, losing a player on a roster with high expectations going into the 2021-2022 season will hurt, and no matter who the Kraken selects, Colorado will have a plan to replace the lost player.
The Avs could make a side deal with Seattle in effect having control over who the Kraken takes off the Avalanche roster. That type of deal is pretty unlikely, so the player the Kraken will take is out of the Avs’ hands for the most part. The best the Avalanche can hope for is Seattle not to take a player that would have a major role for Colorado heading into next season. For me, that guy is the one showing up most on mock expansion drafts as the guy Seattle will take: Ryan Graves.
Look at just about any website or hockey social media post about the expansion draft and when it comes to who the experts think the Kraken will take from the Avalanche, it almost always is Graves. It makes sense. He did not have the follow-up season most of us expected him to have after a 2019-2020 season that saw him with a league-leading plus-40 rating to go along with 26 points. Not bad for an 11th-hour deal Joe Sakic made with the New York Rangers that barely made a blip on the hockey trade newswire.
What Went Wrong With Graves?
This past season was a struggle for Graves. The Avs were not looking for him to be an offensive defenseman in the style of Cale Makar, but they were expecting him to take on the role of traded Nikita Zadorov in being the muscle of the defense. Graves has no issues mixing it up with anyone at any time. He doesn’t seek out to disrupt plays the way Zadorov does. He lets the melee come to him, then reacts to it. In this role, I would say he performed serviceably with room for improvement in being the disruptor.
Graves got off to a slow start to the season, and it looked like the shortened training camp and January start to the season had him struggling to find his legs. On a team that depends on speed, his lack of it was noticeable to even the most casual hockey fan. Then in mid-February, the Avs season stopped for two weeks thanks to COVID-19. He used that time to take a hard look at the first handful of games he played and figure out what was wrong.
For a while, it worked. Graves was the player from the year prior we all assumed was a lock for protection from the Kraken draft. You can’t look at the stats when breaking down his game. He does the dirty work. Fights for pucks along the boards, getting in passing lanes blocking shots and being a part of the penalty kill. An Avs 5-on-3 penalty kill against the St. Louis Blues where he stuffed multiple high danger Blues chances sticks out in my mind as one of the best shifts of his season.
However, those moments were wildly inconsistent with Graves. Even though he is not known for his offense, sometimes He tried a little too hard to get in on the offensive action and Avs fans don’t have to think too far back for when it got him in trouble. Game 5 in overtime against the Vegas Golden Knights. He took one shot attempt that got blocked but got sent right back to him, where he tried another shot from the point instead of passing to a streaking Makar on the left wing. The shot got blocked again and Mark Stone found himself in open ice with Graves trailing behind. The rest is history.
Ask Ryan how his season went and he would say the same. In an interview with Peter Baugh from The Athletic, Graves said
“Personally, I think there were ups and downs throughout my year. I had a slower start than I would’ve hoped, and I came around on it and thought I had a pretty strong finish the last couple months. In the playoffs, I think there’s better to be had. I had some ups and downs again.”Ryan Graves Q&A with Peter Baugh of The Athletic
Ups and downs are probably the most simplistic yet perfect way to explain Graves’ season. If you watched each of the Avs’ 56 regular-season games along with their 10 playoff games, that would be apparent from the eye test alone. There were times Ryan was as noticeable on the ice as any of the Avs top scorers and other times he was a ghost. From a stats standpoint, Graves was right where you would expect him to be. Excluding Patrik Nemeth, who the Avs acquired at the trade deadline, Graves lead the team in 91 blocked shots and 77 hits, both of which lead the team. However, Graves trying to do too much on the offensive end is evident by some awful offensive numbers.
Graves’ 226 shots were tops for Avalanche defenseman. With him scoring only two goals on the season, that adds up to a horrific 2% shooting percentage. Ryan needs to play within his role. If a shot is available, take it, but find the playmakers the Avs have so many of and let them work their magic.
Graves and the Kraken. A Sure Thing?
So the question is, which Graves is the real Graves. The 2019-2020 version or 2020-2021? Right now, the Avalanche are not the only ones asking that question. The Kraken is as well.
Graves, in all likelihood, will not be a protected player. The Avalanche will probably go in the direction of the 7-3-1 category of protected players, which would leave him on the outside after Makar, Devon Toews and Sam Girard are protected (assuming Erik Johnson waives his no-movement clause). It is a genuine possibility he is the player the Kraken will select with the hope he reverts to his more consistent 2019-2020 season.
This is all conjecture, of course, since we do not know what other defensemen will be available to Seattle by means of the rest of the league. If other D-men pique the interest of the Kraken, maybe they bypass Graves and go a different route. The Avs will have several appealing players available to the Kraken and if the Avs have a preference on who they lose, I think they would feel better about moving forward with Graves still on their roster and losing a forward. If that’s the direction the Kraken goes, we might have seen the last of Joonas Donskoi in an Avalanche sweater?
Why would the Avalanche prefer to keep Graves? First of all, he’s 26 years old, so if he progresses the way the Avs hope he does, he could have a nice career going forward in Denver.
Secondly, he’s the physical presence the Avs need on the defensive end. One of the glaring improvements the Avs need to make this offseason is getting more physical on the defensive end of the ice. Graves was basically a one-man show in this regard, so getting him help would alleviate some of that pressure to be the only muscle on the back end. With a healthy Erik Johnson returning, that would give the Avs two big bodies the Avs lacked. The Avs just need to get better at being more physical. They don’t need to be the league’s top team in hits.
Finally, his $3.1 million cap hit the Avs can stomach in these cap-strapped times. Let’s also not forget those Seth Jones rumors swirling around. If the Avs do make a deal for Jones, that would be a third physical style body and those physicality questions about the Avs are essentially gone.
Would the Avalanche Be OK With Donskoi?
There is no easy way to say this but losing Donskoi would be the best of the worst situation for Colorado. Let me be clear in saying I don’t want to lose him. He had a great season and has been a great addition to the Avalanche franchise the past couple of seasons. Had it not been for a shortened season, he likely would have had career numbers, but the business side comes in to play here and the Avalanche will have to make some business decisions or hope the Kraken make those decisions for them.
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If the Kraken are set with defenders selected from other teams and are looking to the Avs for forwards, they likely will have Donskoi and J.T. Compher, along with one of Valeri Nichushkin and Nazem Kadri, to choose from, depending on who the Avs protect. It’s possible the Avs don’t protect Kadri with the thinking Seattle would not want a player one nasty hit away from a lengthy suspension. If Kadri is left exposed, I would think the Avs would protect Nichushkin over Donskoi, and here is why.
What Nichushkin offers on the defensive side of things is unmatched by other Avalanche forwards. You don’t give a player like that up just like that. Plus, he is the same age as Graves, 26, and on an even sweeter team deal of $2.5 million and in this flat cap era, every dollar is important.
Donskoi is approaching 30 years old with a cap hit of $3.9 million for the next two years. That’s not an awful deal, but between Graves, Donskoi and Nichushkin, he is making the most money against the cap. The Avalanche would be able to do two things with the money saved from Donskoi. Find a free agent to replace him, or let one of their several prospects take over and set them loose.
It’s important to remember that if the Avalanche loses Donskoi, you aren’t losing his stats. You are losing the difference between what his stats are and the guy who replaces him. Can Alex Newhook, given a full year in the NHL, approach the 17 goals, 14 assists for 31 points Donskoi put up last season? If you don’t think so, then you find a more reliable player in free agency.
It All Comes Down to Money
In the end, all roads lead back to two things, money and team need. The Avs need to be careful when it comes to the cap. So with Donskoi making almost $4 million a year, that can go a long way in finding a replacement or let a young gun take the role and use that money towards your own free agents like Makar or Gabriel Landeskog.
What the Avalanche need is a more physical defense. They know Graves can play that role and he needs some help from pieces that were not there last year. Johnson coming back would help. If the Avs lose Graves, they are back at the drawing board with Johnson as the team’s only muscle on the defensive side. If they can keep him, you don’t have to address much, if anything, on the blue line.
So for the one-millionth time, the Avalanche are going to lose a good player. Looking at the salary cap situation and positions, the Avs need to address, losing Graves to the Kraken would hurt the Avalanche most.
A lifelong Colorado Avalanche fan and general hockey enthusiast. Host of the Locked on Avalanche Podcast, a daily podcast about the boys in burgundy and blue. Avid fan of comic books, Star Wars, Marvel, Ghostbusters and golf