The Colorado Avalanche enter free agency discussions at an interesting crossroads. They have only 13 starting players under contract and only 27 contracts signed of the 50 allowed. The rest of the players, both with the Avalanche and the Eagles, are either unrestricted free agents (UFAs) or restricted free agents (RFAs). It’s a crossroads moment and how the team handles those decisions could determine the Avalanche’s long-term success.
With the NHL setting the salary cap limit at $81.5 million, a lot of teams are facing difficult decisions. The Avalanche have the most cap room of any NHL team. However, they also have the fewest starters signed.
While the team has room to shop for a quality UFA forwards on July 1, they have a host of other decisions to make before then.
The Avalanche have five starters who will become unrestricted free agents on July 1: Colin Wilson, Derick Brassard, Gabriel Bourque, Patrik Nemeth and Semyon Varlamov. Of those, only two players have an outside chance of staying on the roster: Wilson and Nemeth. Although it’ll be tough to say goodbye to Semyon Varlamov, both Philip Grubauer and Pavel Francouz earned their shot.
Nemeth has been a reliable blueliner but the impressive debut of Cale Makar in the postseason may have signed Nemeth’s ticket out of town. The Avalanche have a good challenge ahead with too many quality defensemen and Nemeth could get the short end of the stick.
Likewise, Wilson has been a steady presence on left wing and his physical style in the playoffs made an impression. But if the Avalanche are going to add a couple of snipers in free agency, he may be expendable. The Avalanche’s youth movement gained both confidence and experience, placing Wilson on the bubble.
Additionally, four other veterans may end up on the trade block as their contracts expire in a year: Tyson Barrie, Mark Barberio, Matt Nieto and Carl Soderberg. The most likely candidate for a trade is Barrie, as the rumors surrounding the draft proved. Barrie’s the most enticing trade bait of the four as his value has soared and he’s will want a big payoff on his next contract, pushing the Avalanche into some difficult cap decisions. Again, with young defensemen on the rise, he could bring a good return without too big a drop in talent.
A Host of RFAs
The restricted free agents present the biggest crossroads for the Avalanche.
Mikko Rantanen will be the most expensive RFA of the bunch but there’s little doubt that the Avalanche will find a way to sign him. From there, things get interesting. Six other starters will be facing the possibility of extensions. One, Sven Andrighetto, is not likely to return.
The remaining five include a good portion of the youth movement: Alexander Kerfoot, Vladislav Kamenev, J.T. Compher, Ryan Graves and Nikita Zadorov. The Avalanche will set the course of the next few years with those decisions.
Term and cost will answer the question as to whether Colorado sees Zadorov as a long-term answer on the blue line or not. With his size and physical play, he could be the perfect counterpoint to a smaller more offensively minded linemate.
Kerfoot demonstrated he could keep up with MacKinnon on the top line but still hesitated to shoot the puck. Compher proved he could play a gritty two-way game but it’s uncertain if he can become a second-line center or if he’s more at home on the fourth line. Do they offer similar contracts to Kerfoot and Compher?
Graves played his way onto the roster after being recalled from the AHL as an injury replacement, proving to be a reliable third-line defenseman with an occasional opportunistic streak. Was it enough to earn him a spot on the roster next season?
As for the twice-injured Kamenev, he showed flashes of his steady two-way play before being injured a second time. Do the Avalanche still see him as a center for the future or has the emergence of Shane Bowers created a redundancy?
Make no mistake, the contract negotiations with these six players will likely set the direction of the team for years.
The Avalanche have four UFAs and eight RFAs who played primarily with the Eagles this past season. UFAs Mike McCormick, David Warsofsky, Andrew Agozzino and Scott Kosmachuk are destined to be perennial AHL players if they stay with the organization.
The real action rests with the eight other players. Forwards Dominic Toninato and Sheldon Dries are both 25. Does the organization see them as future Avalanche members, anchors for the Eagles, or expendable?
Forwards A.J. Greer and Julien Nantel are both 22. Do they have the talent to make the NHL club? Greer has shown more potential, but he had very few quality opportunities when recalled to the big club.
Nantel has yet to develop to the same level as Greer but both raise a legitimate question: Did the organizational changes within the AHL affiliates over the past two seasons hamper their progression? How do the Avalanche see these players? One thing is certain, if the organization isn’t going to offer Greer a genuine shot at the NHL, he will want to go elsewhere.
The blue line has three RFAs who are at a crossroads. Anton Lindholm will likely never crack the Avalanche defensive scheme now that Makar has signed with the team and Conor Timmins seems healthy. Both Lindholm and Mason Geertsen are 24 years old and may be looking for greener pastures, unless they are willing to take on a supporting role with the Eagles. As for 23-year-old Sergei Boikov, his game still has some holes. Will any of them stay with the organization?
Finally, what’s the future for goaltender Spencer Martin? At 24, his inconsistent progression raises questions about his ability to become an NHL backup. But with Francouz likely slated to be Grubauer’s backup, the Eagles only have one other goaltender signed, 22-year-old Adam Werner. If the Avalanche like prospect Justus Annunen’s development, Martin may be gone.
What to Watch
Clubs have already started talking with the UFAs. If the Avalanche are opportunistic, they may be able to work a couple of trades before free agency starts to move players they aren’t interested in keeping.
The Avalanche are only likely to trade Barrie if they can get good value in return. Otherwise, he’s worth keeping as an expensive rental or the team could gamble on trading him before the trade deadline in February.
Saying goodbye to Varlamov will not be easy. Perhaps he can stay healthy and return to his imposing self, hopefully outside of the division. Nemeth, Wilson, Andrighetto, and Bourque all played important roles in helping the Avalanche rebuild and become playoff contenders. They will leave with the thanks from grateful fans.
It’s the time of year where nothing is set in stone and no player is safe from a great offer. With a combined 24 UFAs and RFAs in play, it’s likely to be a bumpy ride but the Avalanche have cap room to spare and the rare opportunity to capitalize on another team’s salary problems. The Avalanche sit at a crossroads. They could look like a very different team in a month. The next few weeks will set the team’s course for years. Gentlemen and ladies, start your engines!