The opening game for the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 12, at home against the Chicago Blackhawks, is just 50 days away. The club and its fans will celebrate raising the Stanley Cup Championship banner to the rafters of Ball Arena that night, where it will join similar banners from 1996 and 2001.
For the third consecutive year, the team also heads into the new season as the betting favorite to win the Cup. Different Las Vegas sportsbooks have the Avalanche between plus-375 and plus-450 to win back-to-back championships. (The lowest odds on the next closest team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, are plus-800.) That’s remarkable for a team that lost its second-line center Nazem Kadri, winger Andre Burakovsky, and goaltender Darcy Kuemper to free agency and that has the 23rd-ranked pipeline — prospects and players under the age of 23 — in the NHL (from ‘Colorado Avalanche rank No. 23 in NHL Pipeline Rankings for 2022,’ The Athletic, 8/23/22).
To be fair, it appears the Avalanche never intended to re-sign Kadri, Burakovsky, or Kuemper, and club president of hockey operations, Joe Sakic, while he was still general manager, used the team’s farm system and draft capital to acquire the pieces needed to bring the Cup back to Denver for the first time in 21 years. Still, in the last 30 years, only three teams have won back-to-back championships: the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017, and the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020 and 2021. With missing pieces and a depleted farm system, Colorado has a steep mountain to climb in 2022-23.
With this in mind, there is any number of storylines swirling around the Avalanche. This article will focus on three of the most compelling. All statistics below come from the NHL statistics archive, and all salary information from CapFriendly.com.
Nathan MacKinnon’s Contract
Nathan MacKinnon has what is arguably the most team-friendly contract in the NHL. Paid at an average annual value (AAV) of $6.3 million — which is the 104th most expensive contract in the league — the Halifax, Nova Scotia native has been outplaying his salary for years.
Over the last five seasons among skaters who have played at least 100 games, MacKinnon ranks third in the league in points scored (442), is tied with Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers for third in average points per game scored (1.31), and is seventh in goals scored (167), assists (225), and plus-minus rating (plus-88). He also ranks seventh in average time-on-ice among all forwards (21:00). Beyond his stats, he is a 200-foot player, using his size and physicality to cut an imposing presence on the ice. He’s a top five, and on some lists, top three player in the league.
MacKinnon’s contract expires at the end of the season, making him an unrestricted free agent (UFA) when the NHL free agency period opens in July 2023. The 26-year-old superstar can expect to be paid on a par with the best players in the game. The top three contracts in the NHL belong to Connor McDavid of the Oilers ($12.5 million AAV), Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers ($11.64 million), and Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs ($11.64 million).
Presuming MacKinnon would command at least $11.5 million AAV on the open market (and it’s easy to argue he could fetch north of $12 million), how much will the Avalanche be willing to pay to retain his services, and how much can they afford?
The club currently has a projected cap space of $3.9 million. While that number will move between now and next summer, we’ll use it as a starting point here. Add to it the total value of rostered contracts expiring at the end of the 2022-23 season:
|Nathan MacKinnon||$6.3 million|
|Erk Johnson||$6 million|
|JT Compher||$3.5 million|
|Andrew Cogliano||$1.25 million|
|Darren Helm||$1.25 million|
That means the Avalanche will have $25 million to work with. More than enough to re-sign MacKinnon at a fair market price. But what about the other free agents? Two of them, Alex Newhook and Bowen Byram, are restricted free agents (RFA), which gives the club a little more leverage, but both are likely to command significant pay increases, especially Byram. The team will also need to look forward to the following offseason when defenseman Devon Toews, also on a very team-friendly contract, will earn a significant pay increase.
Even considering all of that, Sakic and current general manager Chris McFarland have arranged their cap space to allow for re-signing MacKinnon. It would be a major shock if this doesn’t get done before free agency opens next year, if not much, much sooner.
Identifying the Sixth Member of the Top-Six
When Nazem Kadri signed a seven-year deal with the Calgary Flames, it made official what the Avalanche and their fans already knew: the team was going to head into the 2022-23 season without one of its most potent offensive stars. He had a career year for the Avalanche in 2021-22; his 87 points were a career-high, as were his 59 assists, which nearly doubled his previous best. His departure leaves a gaping hole to fill among the team’s top-six forwards.
The top five remaining forwards project to be: MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Valeri Nichushkin, and Artturi Lehkonen. With Kadri and Burakovsky gone, one of the most pressing questions for the Avalanche is how to fill that sixth spot. Absent a free agent acquisition before the season starts, Newhook and J.T. Compher appear the mostly likely to step up to the top-six on a regular basis, with the nod likely going to Compher.
The 27-year-old native of Northbrook, Illinois, has skated on the top line before, and his performance in the 2021 playoffs (five goals and three assists in 20 games) has earned him the opportunity. But expect Bednar to give him a short leash. If Compher isn’t playing to his potential, and isn’t producing, the team will likely move to Newhook and/or look for help on the open market.
Samuel Girard’s Future in an Avalanche Sweater
Samuel Girard, Colorado’s smooth skating defenseman, engenders passionate feelings among fans. Some see him as one of the top defenders in the league, while others see him and his $5 million AAV contract as a liability. The contract ranks 56th in the league among defenseman in terms of salary.
Girard, who stands only 5-foot-10, is under contract through the 2026-27 season. His 144 points over the last five seasons rank 49th in the league among defensemen, very much in line with how he’s paid. It’s even better over the last two seasons, having scored 60 points, good enough for 39th best in the league.
The issue with Girard has never been his skating (even casual observers will recognize him as one of the team’s best skaters) or his ability to help generate offense. It’s his size and durability as a defender.
To be fair, there are plenty of small players in the league who have done very well (and full disclosure, the author of this article is definitely smaller than Girard). Case in point, Johnny Gaudreau is only 5-foot-9. But Gaudreau plays offense. Of the 345 defensemen who played at least one NHL game last season, only 22 are Girard’s height or smaller. On a nightly basis, he’s asked to defend against larger, more physically adept players.
Many people will say if the skill is there, size doesn’t matter, and maybe they’re right. But on a team that already has offensive-minded defensemen, including two of the best in the league (Cale Makar and Toews), is Girard a good fit for this club at this time? Would he make more sense on a club that needs to generate more offense from the blue line?
This will be a question that Sakic and McFarland wrestle with as they try to fill other holes on the team (see above regarding the sixth member of the top-six forwards). Girard, with his skill and ability to score, is a valuable member of the Avalanche, but he might be more valuable as a commodity to trade. This will be one to watch closely this season.
Up Next for the Avalanche
While dates for Avalanche training camp have not yet been announced, the team’s first preseason game will take place on Sept. 25 when they will have simultaneous split-squad games, one at the Minnesota Wild and another at home against the Vegas Golden Knights.
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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.