The Colorado Avalanche have several choices to make across the next two seasons as general manager (GM) Joe Sakic constructs the team. For our purposes in this article, “the team” consists of 18 players: four lines of three forwards plus three lines of two defensemen. Table 1 is the Avalanche team depth chart. Injuries wreaked havoc on the Avalanche roster this season so some readers may have different opinions about the list, but every line was a mashup at some point during 2019-20.
Table 1. 2019-20 Avalanche Depth Chart
|1||Gabriel Landeskog||Nate MacKinnon||Mikko Rantanen|
|2||Andre Burakovsky||Nazem Kadri||Valeri Nichushkin|
|3||Matt Calvert||Pierre-Ed. Bellemare||JT Compher|
|4||Vlad Kamenev||Tyson Jost||Joonas Donskoi|
Seven of the 18 players in Table 1 are headed for either restricted or unrestricted free agency this offseason, with an additional five headed that way after the 2020-21 season. All of the salary cap information is from The Hockey Writers’ Salary Cap Information page.
Table 2. Avalanche 2020 Free Agents
|Line||FA Type, Name, Position||2019-20 Salary|
|1||RFA Ryan Graves, D||$735,000|
|2||RFA Andre Burakovsky, LW/RW||$3,250,000|
|2||RFA Valeri Nichushkin, LW/RW||$850,000|
|3||UFA Vlad Namestnikov, C||$3,250,000|
|3||RFA Nikita Zadorov, D||$3,200,000|
|4||RFA Tyson Jost, C/LW/RW||$885,833|
|4||RFA Valeri Kamenev, RW||$750,000|
Table 3. Avalanche 2021 Free Agents
|Line||FA Type, Name, Position||2020-21 Salary|
|1||UFA Gabriel Landeskog, LW||$5,571,429|
|1||RFA Cale Makar, D||$880,833|
|3||UFA Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, C/LW||$1,800,000|
|3||UFA Matt Calvert, LW/RW||$2,850,000|
|3||UFA Ian Cole, D||$4,250,000|
Due to the strength of the top Avalanche prospects (Table 4), the team’s front office has a good chance of filling empty line spots with in-house players rather than dipping into the free-agent pool. This is good because Sakic needs to extend long-term contracts to top-flight players like MacKinnon, Landeskog, and Makar, among others, within the next couple of years.
Table 4. Avalanche prospects likely to make team in either 2020-21 or 2021-22
|Player, Position||2019-20 League||Season Expected|
|Alex Beaucage, LW/RW||OHL||2021-22|
|Shane Bowers, C||AHL||2020-21|
|Bowen Byram, D||WHL||2020-21|
|Martin Kaut, RW||AHL/NHL||2020-21|
|Alex Newhook, C||NCAA||2021-22|
|Connor Timmins, D||AHL||2020-21|
This article discusses how the team’s four lines may come together by the 2021-22 season based on player development expectations and contract extensions.
Top Scoring Line
Landeskog is a UFA after 2020-21 but the team will extend its long-time captain, so the top line should remain constant over the next several seasons. Expect the Avalanche to prevent MacKinnon from reaching free agency as well. If Graves continues his development, I think there’s a good chance that he remains paired with Makar, relegating Bowen Byram to the second line with Sami Girard.
Graves has a career head start on Byram, giving him the better chance to patrol on the top line over the next two seasons. Eventually, Byram should play with Makar to form the NHL’s most dangerous defensive pairing, but it may not happen for a few years.
Second Scoring Line
Alex Newhook is returning to Boston College for his sophomore season in 2020-21 and is fully expected to join the Avalanche in 2021-22. He’s the organization’s next great homegrown goal-scoring center. Technically Kadri is in his way on this line, but he played several games this season at right wing. The learning curve for the veteran Kadri to play full-time on the right side may be less steep than if Newhook started at a new position, especially as a top-six forward. Burakovsky will stay on the left side given his left-handed shot.
Top prospect Byram should make his NHL debut this upcoming season. Letting Nikita Zadorov walk this summer provides a spot for him and gives him the fortune of learning the league from two-time Stanley Cup champion Ian Cole. It’s hard to have a definite prediction of when Byram will work on the second line because he’d have to replace Erik Johnson to do so.
Byram may not start 2021-22 here, but he should end the season playing next to Girard, and getting himself on the second power-play unit, too. Johnson is also such a good mentor to young defensemen that he may end up tutoring his own job over to Byram.
With his play this season, Nichushkin earned himself at least a one-year deal at the conclusion of this season. He filled in admirably on various lines, helping plug holes when the team seemed to suffer weekly injuries in February and March. He’s more of a third/checking line power forward than a top-six winger, so Newhook should still take his spot in two seasons. He’s more than capable of manning the third line in case the younger players do not develop in a timely fashion.
The make-up of these next two lines relies heavily on the development of Tyson Jost and Martin Kaut. The Avalanche were trying to move Jost at this season’s trade deadline, and he paid back the team for not trading him by scoring seven points in nine games over the next two weeks before the season was suspended. The talent has always been there from the former 10th-overall pick; the consistency has not, so I think Sakic offers him a one-year, prove-it deal this summer.
Kaut is developing well for a player his age. He’s only 20 years old and yet he’s averaging 0.45 points/game in the AHL. He played on the fourth line this season, so he wasn’t called upon to do much more than give others a rest. He’s another former first-round pick (#16, 2018) who’s expected to challenge for a full-time role in the NHL in 2020-21. If he and Jost can continue developing, then I think Compher will center them on the third line. That will kick Jost out to the left wing, where his left-handed shot will make him more useful.
If either or both of Jost and Kaut don’t meet the bar for the third line, it’s very possible that Nichushkin mans the left wing here, letting Jost and Kaut battle for the center position. Joonas Donskoi had a poor first season with the Avalanche in 2019-20 after signing a four-year, $15.6 million contract last summer, but I hope he turns his play around and becomes the middle-six forward Sakic is expecting him to be.
Defensively, the team should move on from Cole and his bloated salary ($4.25 million in 2020-21). Conor Timmins may split 2020-21 between the AHL/NHL as he continues his way back from a major injury suffered two months after the Avalanche signed him as the 32nd-overall selection in the 2017 Entry Draft. He tied for 2nd in scoring (27 points in 40 games) among Colorado Eagles (AHL) defensemen this season with Kevin Connauton (30 years old). The top-scoring defender on the Eagles was Jacob McDonald, 27, who’s six years older than Timmins.
I think Johnson plays the bulk of 2021-22 with Timmins on the third line. He also knows what it feels like to return after an extended injury rehab, and it’ll give him the opportunity to mentor Timmins both on and off the ice.
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This was most likely Zadorov’s final season with the Avalanche. Zadorov ranked 670th in the league in the xGF-xGA (-2.6). This stat measures a player’s defensive performance versus the league-average player. It’s not so much the value of this stat that’s so telling but rather that it is negative. This means that Zadorov was a liability on the ice instead of an asset, which is detrimental to a stay-at-home defenseman’s value.
But maybe Zadorov and his paired defenseman (Ian Cole) were charged with covering an opponent’s top line or were affected by the revolving door of linemates caused by injury? If those were true, then we would expect similar stats from Cole, but they are the exact opposite.
Cole ranked in the top 150 in the NHL in xGF-xGA (+4.0). Zadorov’s Defensive Point Share – the amount of team standing points contributed by a player’s defensive play – was last on the Avalanche (2.4), and Cole’s was nearly 50% better (3.5). There’s no reason to allow an underwhelming player like Zadorov to block the ascension of a top prospect like Byram.
Donskoi was banished to the fourth line this season after the All-Star break. During those 21 games, he scored 4 points. He scored a total of 33 points with 22 of them occurring before Dec. 1. I have no confidence in him as he seems to be reliant on teammates to generate offense. If Jost and Kaut do not develop, then he should retain his bottom-six forward role with the team. I believe in the power of one-year, prove-it deals and in the Avalanche player development plan, so I could see Shane Bowers and Alex Beaucage leapfrogging Donskoi by 2021-22 and forcing his trade out of Denver.
Beaucage is a young sniper currently in the QMJHL and the Avalanche are expecting him to remain there for at least one more season through 2020-21. He was the leading Avalanche prospect scorer in 2019-20, amassing 70 points in 63 games for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the QMJHL. While this reflected a scoring drop from the previous season for Beaucage, the Huskies lost several top players from 2018-19 to other minor league teams. He only turns 19 this July, but should at least be splitting time between the AHL and NHL by 2021-22.
The Avalanche acquired Bowers from the Nashville Predators in the 2017 Duchene-Girard trade. He had two decent seasons at Boston University; his sophomore season at BU was marred in coaching upheaval so his drop in production was understandable. This season he was with the Eagles full time and scored 27 points in 40 games as a 20-year-old. His left-handed shot gives him a good chance to break onto the Avalanche team during the 2020-21 camp.
Vlad Kamenev disappointed this season despite all the injuries to our forwards. He scored 8 points in 38 games and just missed 9 full minutes of ice time per game (8:59). I expect Sakic to let him walk as an RFA this summer.
The future is very bright for the Colorado Avalanche. The organization has drafted well during Sakic’s tenure and they’ve shrewdly spent their money. Exciting prospects like Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook are making their NHL debuts within the next two seasons, and the organization is locking up its core players to long-term contracts. Fans can expect the team to lead the Western Conference for years to come, with hopefully multiple appearances in the Stanley Cup finals.