July 1s ushered in the start of a new hockey season as well as unleashed the NHL free agent frenzy. However, for the Colorado Avalanche, the new season brought an avalanche of changes to the roster.
The new Avalanche are not the old Avalanche. Even though they fought to a gritty seventh game, second-round playoff exit, general manager (GM) Joe Sakic seized on their expansive cap space to equip the team for a deeper playoff run.
Saying Goodbye to Old Friends
Sakic’s proactive approach to acquiring new assets came with a cost. Some long-time players ended up making their exit in the past week along with other pieces. Eight players who hit the ice in 20 or more games this past season are gone. That’s 36.4% of the team.
Sometimes teams look like they made a lot of roster moves merely by moving periphery pieces. But that wasn’t the case for the Avalanche. They made wholesale changes.
Semyon Varlamov was a key piece of making the Avalanche watchable through some difficult seasons. For eight years he backstopped a sketchily inconsistent blue line. Despite putting up some impressive numbers, he only played in one postseason series, a seven-game first round exit in 2013-14. Injuries haunted him in his last three seasons with the club, and he finally lost his starting position to Philipp Grubauer heading into their most recent playoff push.
His $5.9 million a year contract expired at the end of the season, making him an unrestricted free agent (UFA). While the Avalanche could have used him in a back-up or tandem role with Grubauer, it was unlikely the 31-year-old Varlamov would relish that role. Instead, signed a four-year, $5 million contract with the New York Islanders.
The soon-to-be 28-year-old scoring defenseman grew up in the Avalanche system. He spent most of his first season with the club’s AHL affiliate, split his time in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season where he earned his way onto the big club. Over his eight years with the organization, his smiling face and genial personality won him a large contingent of fans. His scoring prowess and his occasional defensive lapses made him a mixed bag for others.
In his press call, Sakic expressed concern Barrie would want a significant raise on his upcoming contract, an amount too pricey for an Avalanche team with a plethora of good, young, scoring defensemen. With one year remaining, and little chance of re-signing him, the team traded Barrie to the Toronto Maple Leafs for center Nazem Kadri (more on that later). The Avalanche retain half of Barrie’s salary for this upcoming season.
Big Ol’ Carl Soderberg joined the Avalanche four years ago. The 6-foot-3 Swede brought a veteran presence to a team in flux. While he struggled during the 48-point season (who didn’t), he carried a lot of the tough minutes on the ice. Winning faceoffs, effective on the penalty kill, he brought a stabilizing influence to a young team figuring out their identity.
With only one year remaining and facing his 34th birthday in October, the Avalanche took the opportunity to trade him to the Arizona Coyotes for defenseman Kevin Connauton (more on that later, as well).
Feisty Harvard graduate Alexander Kerfoot earned his way onto the Avalanche forward corps when he signed as a free agent. The soon-to-be 25-year-old proved a sweet passer, not as much of a shooter, and was flexible enough to move up and down the lineup. He became a restricted free agent (RFA) whom the Avalanche extended a qualifying offer (QO). He was added to the Barrie-Kadri deal and will need a new contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Steady, reliable defensive defenseman Patrik Nemeth proved the Avalanche COULD acquire talent from waivers. Picked up at the start of the 2017-18 season, he played on their opening night roster and became a stalwart force as a third-pairing blueliner. The 27-year-old entered the UFA market and signed a two-year, $6 million contract with the Detroit Red Wings.
Some players made valuable contributions to the Avalanche but played a smaller role.
The Avalanche acquired Sven Andrighetto at the 2017 trade deadline, in exchange for Andreas Martinsen. After a hot start, the Swiss wing cooled off a bit.
Injuries hampered his progression and with the younger players heating up, he became expendable. Colorado allowed his contract to expire without making a qualifying offer. The 26-year-old is now a free agent.
It would be hard to find a more polarizing figure than role player Gabriel Bourque. The 28-year-old reliably filled a fourth-line forward role with extended penalty kill responsibilities. He spent the bulk of his last two years (he had three years with the organization) with the NHL club. His presence became controversial because his use prevented young prospects from making the team. He is now a UFA.
Acquired at the trade deadline, veteran Derick Brassard did very little to distinguish himself in his short tenure with the team. In 20 regular season games, the soon to be 32-year-old scored four goals in the remaining portion of the season and added one assist in the playoffs. He is now UFA looking for a contract.
Obviously, some of the departures are harder than the others. Varlamov and Barrie had the longest tenure with the team and have been fan favorites for years. Barrie had arguably his best season in an Avalanche uniform this past year, scoring key goals to help win a playoff spot as well as – gasp – playing some of the best defense of his career. Varlamov was beloved, but his injury issues raised concerns about his future.
Soderberg brought balance and Nemeth provided an upgrade on previous Avalanche third liners. Kerfoot brought a fresh wind of skill to the forward corps and became one of the faces of the youth movement. They will leave a hole.
Fortunately, it’s not all about goodbyes. The Avalanche also opened the door to a bunch of new players to address a few roster issues.
Hello, and Welcome to the New Guys
Time to wipe your eyes and move onto the new. Sakic went shopping to fill holes in the roster and bolster the team for a deep playoff run this season. Let’s see what’s in the goody bag.
The Avalanche made their biggest splash with trades.
The Nazem Kadri trade is the biggest deal the Avalanche made. In order to pry the big center out of the Maple Leafs hands, Colorado sent Barrie, Kerfoot and a sixth-round pick to Toronto. In return, they received Kadri, Calle Rosen (more on him later) and a third-round pick.
Kadri is a 28-year-old center who spent the last decade playing for the Toronto organization. He has three years remaining on a very reasonable $4.5 million a year contract. He plays a physical game, was a 30-goal scorer for two seasons in a row before being knocked down to the third line after the John Tavares signing. He still racked up 44 points last season off of 16 goals and 28 assists. He also tallied two points in his two playoff games last season. His resume includes five separate postseason appearances, albeit without a Stanley Cup – yet.
Kadri’s biggest issue is his suspension history. He has been suspended five times over his NHL career, twice in the playoffs, and the minimum suspension was for three games. His two most recent suspensions came in the postseason, in 2019 and 2018, for hits on Boston Bruins players. When I asked Sakic about how Kadri’s issues might impact the team, he was quick to defend the player, saying he was a fierce competitor, well-liked by teammates and sometimes gets carried away.
Sakic expects Kadri to be the second-line center the team has been missing. He plays with grit and skill, he’s cost-controlled over the next three years, and he’s younger than Soderberg.
The Avalanche traded AHLer Scott Kosmachuk, and both a second and third round pick in 2020 to acquire Andre Burakovsky from the Washington Capitals. The 24-year-old Austrian played in 76 games, racking up 25 points last season.
“We are excited to be adding a big, fast skilled winger like Andre…At just 24, he is entering the prime years of his career and we feel with an added role, he will be a great addition to our team,” Sakic said.
The Avalanche are expecting him to step up into a more prominent role on the team who can help on the power play. The Avalanche believe he can do more given a bigger role and his numbers suffered being on a stacked Washington team. He won a Stanley Cup with the Capitals and has already racked up 56 postseason matchups.
Burakovsky will need a new contract.
The Avalanche traded Soderberg to the Coyotes and in exchange, they got 29-year-old defenseman Kevin Connauton and a 2020 third-round pick. He seems an odd addition for a team sold out on the younger/faster track. But then the news came out that Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole had two hip surgeries and may not return until December. Erik Johnson also had surgery, but it’s hoped he’ll be back in time to start the season.
Consider Connauton an insurance policy. He has over 300 NHL games under his belt and has played for three other clubs. If the young Avalanche defenders pan out or the injured return early, he could always play for the Colorado Eagles and provide veteran leadership. If not, the Avalanche have a less expensive Nemeth. He’s signed for one year at $1.375 million. It’s tough to argue with being prepared, especially at this price point.
In addition to Kadri, the Avalanche also collected Calle Rosen, another young defenseman. The 25-year-old Swede helped the AHL Toronto Marlies win the 2018 Calder cup in his first season playing for a North American club.
Despite only playing a handful of NHL games so far, he is a prospect who has promise, ranking seventh in scoring among AHL defensemen while playing a shortened 2018-19 season. He broke his foot and missed a portion of the campaign. Even so, he racked up 46 points in 54 AHL games in his second season. He could be the sleeper addition in the Kadri-Barrie deal.
Free Agent Signings
The Avalanche dipped their toe into the free agent market. After going to great lengths to pursue Artemi Panarin – unsuccessfully (not for lack of trying or money), they proceeded to make smaller, but substantial moves.
The Avalanche picked up 27-year-old right wing Joonas Donskoi July 1, signing the UFA to a four-year contract with a $3.9 million AAV. Formerly of the San Jose Sharks, the Finnish player appears to be a 35-point player who can contribute on the power play. The Avalanche have now acquired a right wing who can play a 200-foot game, something they desperately needed this past season.
“Joonas is a dependable player who plays 200 feet and uses his speed well in transition,” stated Sakic during his press call.
He also has 50 postseason games under his belt and actually scored the Sharks’ winning goal in game seven of the second round to knock the Avalanche out of the most recent playoffs.
Apparently, the postseason can be an audition for a new contract with a new team. Who knew?
The Avalanche added 34-year-old center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare the first day of free agency. He seems an odd addition to a club focusing on the youth movement. Bellemare spent the last two seasons playing for the Vegas Golden Knights. He’s a good defensive forward who can handle the penalty kill and take faceoffs. Consider him an upgrade on Bourque.
Bellemare will likely center the fourth line. The Avalanche signed him to a two-year contract worth $1.8 million per year.
The Avalanche re-signed free agent forward Colin Wilson on the first day of free agency. The 29-year-old signed a one-year team-friendly contract of $2.6 million. Apparently, he wants to stay with a cup contender.
For those who wonder why the Avalanche would retain the gritty bottom-six role player, they need only re-watch any of the playoff games. Wilson was average during the regular season, but he brought a big, physical style to the postseason that helped open up room on the ice, refusing to be knocked out of position. Wilson racked up eight points (four goals, four assists) in the playoffs and did a fair amount of damage. His signing signals the Avalanche recognize the difference between a solid regular season player and a postseason difference maker.
In fact, one can say that about all of the NHL acquisitions. The Avalanche are stockpiling depth, preparing not only for the regular season, but the physicality and injury risk of the postseason. The front office appears to be anchoring the young guns with some veteran players who can take abuse.
Qualifying Offers for NHL Roster
One area without any real surprises – the Qs) for Avalanche starters. RFAs with expiring contracts receive a QO from the clubs who wish to retain their services prior to the start of free agency. The offers indicate the team is interested in continued negotiation with players with the aim of signing a new contract.
The Avalanche tendered qualifying offers to the following members of their NHL club:
- Mikko Rantanen – forward
- J.T. Compher – forward
- Vladislav Kamenev – forward
- Nikita Zadorov – defenseman
- Ryan Graves – defenseman
- *Andre Burakovsky (added by trade but needs a contract) -forward
None of these are really a surprise but keep in mind Sven Andrighetto was not issued a qualifying offer and that’s how he became a UFA.
While the NHL QOs were relatively unsurprising, the same cannot be said for the AHL changes. The substantial organizational shift carried over to the Colorado Eagles.
Colorado Eagles’ Moves
The Eagles made changes of their own, moving away from players who may have been promising prospects but were no longer considered a good fit for the future and working to retain and add ones who fit the new vision.
The Eagles extended QOs to the following players still in the organization:
- A.J. Greer – forward
- Sheldon Dries – forward
- Logan O’Connor – forward
- Anton Lindholm – defenseman
Thank You, and Goodbye
The Avalanche did NOT offer QOs to the following players:
- Spencer Martin – goaltender*
- Sergei Boikov – defenseman
- Mason Geertsen – defenseman
- Julian Nantel – forward
*Martin subsequently signed on with the Tampa Bay Lightning and is headed for their AHL team.
But those aren’t the only players who were not re-signed. For the players who signed elsewhere, the NHL organization will be referenced.
- Dominic Toninato was traded for Jacob MacDonald and is now with the Florida Panthers.
- Andrew Agozzino signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
- David Warsofsky signed with the Penguins.
- Joe Cannata – UFA
- Max McCormick – UFA
Welcome to the Eagles
As with the Avalanche’s main roster, the organization started adding some key pieces to the Eagles.
T.J. Tynan – a 27-year-old center formerly of the Chicago Wolves (the Vegas Golden Knights affiliate) who signed a one-year deal for $700,000.
Jayson Megna – a 29-year-old forward from the Hershey Bears (the Washington Capitals affiliate), signed for one year at $700,000.
Dan Renouf – a 24-year-old defenseman from the 2019 Calder Cup champion Charlotte Checkers (affiliated with the Carolina Hurricanes), signed for two years at $700,000 per year.
Jacob MacDonald – a 26-year old defenseman acquired from the Panthers’ organization in the Toninato trade, has one year left at $750,000.
Hunter Miska – a 23-year-old goaltender from the Arizona Coyotes. Contract details have yet to be released.
Some of the older players will be providing the veteran presence on the Eagles roster but there are a couple of additions who could turn into hidden gems down the road.
But wait, there’s more.
Avalanche 2019 Draft
The Avalanche added some interesting prospect depth at the draft. Some of their choices seemed well-reasoned. Others seemed to be more of a risk but showed well at development camp. In case you missed it, here’s a brief rundown on who they acquired.
Fourth-overall pick – Bowen Byram, the promising scoring defenseman who could make a case for an early addition to the Avalanche roster.
16th pick – Alex Newhook, a skilled forward with good skating ability. He’s heading to Boston College, so he won’t be an immediate roster addition.
47th pick – Drew Helleson, a defenseman from the highly successful United States development program. He will be playing with Newhook at Boston College.
63rd pick – Matthew Stienburg, a forward who showed better in development camp than his ranking, is headed to Cornell College.
78th pick – Alex Beaucage, a forward who is likely to return to play for his QMJHL team.
140th pick – Sasha Mutala, a right wing who played in the WHL.
171st pick – Luka Burzan, an overage WHL center.
202nd pick – Trent Miner, a goaltender from the WHL who was considered the sixth best goalie available according to NHL Central Scouting.
It will take time to see how these selections pan out. However, many analysts gave the Avalanche an ‘A’ rating on their draft. The acquisition of Byram and Newhook alone were considered great. Maybe this will be the year the Avalanche get some additional value from more of their depth picks. It may be a while before the Avalanche get such quality first-round selections again. If they make it to the Stanley Cup Final this season, they will be at the bottom of the draft list.
Even with the players who have moved on and the new ones acquired showing a substantial shift, there are more changes coming. Goaltender Pavel Francouz signed a one-year contract to be the backup goaltender for the Avalanche, which Sakic reiterated as the club’s intent.
Within the Eagles, some other players will be vying for spots on the Avalanche roster. Defenseman Conor Timmins finally returned to participate in development camp, which is a good sign for his concussion recovery. Byram may also compete for a roster spot on the Avalanche.
Forwards Martin Kaut, Shane Bowers, Greer, Dries and Logan O’Connor will definitely be eyeing an NHL role. The competition should be encouraging each player to focus on preparing for rookie camp and coming ready to play. Training camp is just two months away.
All of the Avalanche’s moves, from NHL roster changes to AHL additions to draft picks, indicate Colorado understands they need solid, quality depth, not only to pursue the playoffs but to compete for the Stanley Cup. It’s also clear they are serious about competing for the Cup for years to come.
It’s the moment to say thank you to the players who helped the Avalanche re-build a winning culture. Now, turn the page. It’s time to see if Colorado can go to the next level.
The new season has begun and the Avalanche are a new team.
J.D. has followed the Colorado Avalanche since the days of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. Blessed to cover the team for nearly 5 seasons, 3 of those at other venues, J.D. enjoys working with the Hockey Writers. Proud parent of three humans and two dogs, you can follow all the escapades @JDKpirate.