The front office of the Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche—president of hockey operations Joe Sakic and general manager Chris McFarland—have done a masterful job in building a team to compete for several years to come. Key players Gabriel Landeskog, Artturi Lehkonen, Cale Makar, Josh Manson, and Valeri Nichushkin are all under contract through at least the 2025-26 season. Defenseman Devon Toews and forward Mikko Rantanen, also key contributors, are under contract through the 2023-24 and 2024-25 seasons respectively.
The team’s biggest offensive star, Nathan MacKinnon, is an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. The Avalanche have signaled their intent to re-sign MacKinnon, and MacKinnon has made it clear he wants to stay. Even if MacKinnon is willing to negotiate a team-friendly contract, it’s still likely to cost the club as much as an additional $5 million/year. (MacKinnon’s current contract, with an average annual value (AAV) of $6.3 million, ranks 103rd in the league. His 1.35 points-per-game in the 2021-22 season ranked seventh in the league.)
The team will also have to reckon with defenseman Bowen Byram and forward Alex Newhook next offseason. Both were impressive in the 2021-22 regular season and playoffs. Each will be a restricted free agent at the end of the current campaign and will likely merit significant pay increases.
As of this writing, the Avalanche have $3.9 million in cap space. Presuming the team doesn’t re-sign forward Nazem Kadri (rumors have Kadri on the cusp of signing with the New York Islanders), they’ll still have to free cap space to deal with contracts next year. They’ll get a chunk of financial breathing room when defenseman Erik Johnson’s contract, at an AAV of $6 million/year, expires at the end of the current season. But still, between the raise for MacKinnon, the need to pay Byram and Newhook, and with Toews’s contract on the horizon, the club might want to focus on developing young talent over the next 24 months, rather than acquiring talent on the open market.
With that in mind, here’s a look at five of the top prospects in the Avalanche organization, subjectively ranked by value to the team. For the purposes of this article, prospects are non-rostered players under contract with the Avalanche.
Oskar Olausson (Right Wing)
Playing for both the Barrie Colts and the Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) last season, Oskar Olausson is the top prospect in the Avalanche organization. The six-foot, 184-pound native of Stockholm, Sweden notched 49 points in 55 games between the two teams and added two points (both assists) in four playoff games with the Colorado Eagles in the American Hockey League (AHL).
A first-round pick (28th overall) by the Avalanche in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, Olausson has plus speed and a high hockey IQ. The EliteProspects 2021 NHL Draft Guide had this to say about him: “Olausson’s skating posture allows him to effortlessly maneuver through opponents with his top hand in full control, pushed out from his body. You’ll rarely see Olausson attempt the same neutral zone rush twice in the same game.”
The 19-year-old will play for Team Sweden at the upcoming World Junior Championship. While he will likely start the 2022-23 season with the Eagles, Olausson will be a closely watched commodity at the Avalanche’s training camp in September.
Ben Meyers (Left Wing, Center)
As Captain of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, Ben Meyers led his team to a Frozen Four appearance last season, losing in the semifinal round to Minnesota State. Meyers, who led all Gophers with 41 points in 34 games, was named the Big Ten Player of the Year and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award for best collegiate player.
The Delano, Minnesota native also turned heads at the Beijing Olympics, scoring four points (two goals, two assists) in four games for Team USA. He was tied for second on the team in both goals and points. The accomplished 23-year-old also represented the United States at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships in Finland, where he tallied eight points in 10 games.
The Avalanche signed Meyers on April 13 and promptly inserted him into the lineup, giving players on the regular roster a chance to get healthy for the postseason. (Meyers signed too late in the season to be eligible for the playoffs.) In his five games with Colorado, the 23-year-old scored one goal and averaged 9:57 time on ice.
Whether Meyers starts the year with the Eagles in the AHL or as a bottom-six forward on the Avalanche will depend on how he performs in training camp.
Justus Annunen (Goaltender)
Avalanche fans are already familiar with Justus Annunen. The Kempele, Finland native, appeared in two games for Colorado in the regular season—one in relief and one as the starter—and was on the bench as the backup goaltender in the playoffs when Pavel Francouz replaced an injured Darcy Kuemper. While Annunen’s seven goals allowed on 51 shots wasn’t stellar, it did allow him to notch one win.
Annunen had mixed results with the Eagles, being named the AHL’s goaltender of the month for November, but posting lackluster 3.01 goals-against average (GAA) and .893 save percentage (SV%) for the full season. He fared much better in the playoffs with the Eagles, earning a 2.46 GAA and .923 SV%.
With the acquisition of Alexandar Georgiev, and with Francouz under contract for two more years, Colorado’s goaltending situation seems to be settled. But a team can never have enough goaltending, and Annunen has shown enough promise to be in consideration as a future option between the pipes (likely as a backup) for the Avalanche.
Martin Kaut (Right Wing)
Colorado’s first-round pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft (16th overall), Martin Kaut, has already appeared in 20 games with the Avalanche, including six this past season. He’s a hard-working, 200-foot player with a big frame and average skills. While he had no goals and no assists with the Avalanche last season, he did tally 31 points in 46 games for the Eagles in the regular season, and five points in nine playoff contests.
Given his NHL experience, and given that the team likely has a good understanding of both his potential and his limitations, Kaut might have the best chance of making the big club out of training camp as a bottom-six forward.
Shane Bowers (Center)
Drafted in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft by the Ottawa Senators, Shane Bowers has not lived up to expectations. The six-foot-two forward has scored only 18 points in 65 contests over the past two seasons. But those seasons saw disruptions from both the pandemic and injury, so it’s possible Bowers simply hasn’t had enough time, consistency, and opportunity to mature and develop.
Ian Kennedy of Yahoo Sports notes that Bowers is “an excellent shooter who can step to a lane and flash his quick release.” A better-than-average skater, Bowers is probably looking at a make-or-break season for his NHL future. Still, there might be a significant upside if he can develop to the expectations scouts had when he was first drafted.
Several other players warrant attention. Jean-Luc Foudy (C), Alex Beaucage (RW), and University of Denver Pioneer Sean Behrens (D) could all be part of a future Avalanche squad. How they develop this season at the collegiate level and in the AHL will shed more light on their prospects with the Avalanche moving forward.
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.