The NHL salary cap is expected to remain flat at $81.5 million in 2020-2021. Several teams could have used a higher cap limit to re-sign their free agents. Eight teams have 20 or more standard player contracts, or SPC, to fill (teams are allowed 50 max per season) and 12 teams have under 14 players on their active roster signed for 2020-21 (23 max). This creates the right environment for the Colorado Avalanche to sign a few gems in free agency.
Colorado’s Free Agents
Adding external talent to the stable of young and affordable skaters is a luxury for the Avalanche. The farm system and players returning from injury should replace most of the Avalanche’s 2020-21 free agents if they let those players walk. But since NHL cap space doesn’t roll over year to year, they will lose the 2020-21 surplus if they don’t spend it.
Table 1. Projected 2020-21 Avalanche RFA Contract Offers
|Player||2019-20 Salary||2020-21 Offer||2020-21 Salary|
|Andre Burakovsky||$3,250,000||4 year, $18.4 million||$4,600,000|
|Ryan Graves||$735,000||3 years, $10 million||$3,333,333|
|Tyson Jost||$827,500||Qualifying Offer||$930,125|
|Subtotal: Tendered Contracts||$5,662,500||$10,563,458|
Table 2. Projected 2020-21 Avalanche Non-tenders
|Player||2019-20 Salary||2020-21 Offer||2020-21 Salary|
|Vlad Kamenev||$750,000||No offer||$-|
|Vlad Namestnikov||$3,250,000||No offer||$-|
|Matt Nieto||$1,975,000||No offer||$-|
|Colin Wilson||$2,600,000||No offer||$-|
|Nikita Zadorov||$3,200,000||No offer||$-|
Table 3. Projected Prospect Promotions
|Shane Bowers||$925,000||Matt Nieto|
|Bowen Byram||$925,000||Nikita Zadorov|
|Martin Kaut||$894,167||Vlad Kamenev|
|Connor Timmins||$925,000||Mark Barberio|
The team’s three most important unrestricted free agents (UFA) are Vlad Namestnikov, Colin Wilson, and Nikita Zadorov. If the Avalanche keeps Wilson, then they can use him to replace Namestnikovon on the 3rd line, promote Bowers to Wilson’s spot as the 4th line center, and then swap Zadorov with Bowen Byram. Wilson’s a UFA coming off a 9-game season that was wrecked by injury in October, and he didn’t return before the coronavirus shutdown.
If Wilson stays healthy (a big if), he can be a valuable grinder and good for 40-45 points a season. I suspect that general manager Joe Sakic will leverage the team’s depth and Wilson’s injury history to re-sign him for under $2 million. The 2020-21 UFA market is a little shallow, and there’s a scarcity of players cheaper and better than Wilson at that price point.
Namestnikov will likely garner $4.5-$5.0 million per season, and I think there are several players available who are better and that the Avalanche should pursue instead. He was good for them in limited action, but I’d much prefer Evgenii Dadonov or Craig Smith. Namestnikov hasn’t posted a 50% Fenwick For (FF%) since 2017-18, so the risk of overpaying is high. Values over 50% mean that his team controlled the puck more than the opponent with him on the ice.
Table 4. Cap Space Calculations with and without Colin Wilson
|Projected 2020-21 Cap Space||$22,364,405|
|Subtotal – Tendered Contracts||$(10,563,458)|
|Subtotal – No Offers||$-|
|Subtotal – Promotions||$(3,669,167)|
|Space if Colin Wilson walks||$8,131,780|
|Projected 2020-21 Colin Wilson Salary||$(2,000,000)|
|Space if Colin Wilson re-signs||$6,131,780|
If Wilson leaves via free agency, the Avs will need to decide whether they want to go with an in-house player to replace him, or whether the solution is in the free agency pool. It boils down to how ready the front office believes Bowers to be; he’s a key piece in their offseason plans.
The Power of Bowers
If the Avalanche let Namestnikov and Wilson walk, and Sakic is comfortable with Bowers centering the 4th line, then they can go for bedlam and pursue a high priced UFA like Tyler Toffoli. I wanted the Avs to trade for Toffoli at the deadline this season, even before he put the dagger through fans’ hearts with a hat trick at the Air Force Academy in February at the Stadium Series.
In 68 games with the LA Kings and Vancouver Canucks this season, Toffoli scored 44 points and had a quality 53.5% FF%. The Canucks need to prioritize Jacob Markstrom, so the club could lose Toffoli to the market. He’d be an excellent addition to the 2nd line on the right wing, moving Nichushkin to the 3rd line to replace Namestnikov.
For his efforts, Toffoli will cost roughly $5.5-$6.0 million a season with the low-quality UFA pool, but he could flourish in Denver. He’s only 28 but has been in the NHL for eight seasons, never posting an FF% under 50%. It’s a reasonable expectation for Toffoli to score 20-25 goals per season over the next five.
If the front office doesn’t feel like their ready to hand the 4th line job over to Bowers, then they’ll need to replace both Wilson and Namestnikov from the UFA pool. Bowers would be the team’s 13th forward as he adjusts to the NHL game and its speed, replacing RFA Valeri Kamenev, who the Avs should non-tender. This will likely pull the team out of the running for Toffoli. I think signing Joe Thornton or Jesper Fast and then one of Dadonov or Smith makes a lot of sense here.
The Right Free Agent Targets
I looked at the RFA market and didn’t like what I saw. For the most part, the quality RFAs are young guns to whom their teams will extend offers. None of the following players will get to market: Matt Barzal, Tyler Bertuzzi, Connor Brown, Max Domi, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Anthony Duclair, and Ryan Strome, among others.
The one exception is Anthony Cirelli. The Tampa Bay Lightning have a little more than $5 million to sign eight impending free agents, and it’s unclear whether the club will have the resources to keep Cirelli. He made $728,333 in 2019-20 and is set for a hefty raise after posting 44 points in 68 games in his second full NHL season.
He’s also one of the premiere two-way forwards in the game. Acquiring him will not only require early draft pick compensation, but it’ll also take winning a bidding war. He’ll likely command $6-$7 million per season which could price him out of the Avalanche’s plans.
Another team with major choices to make is the Florida Panthers. They will have a ton of cap space at the beginning of the 2020-21 season (over $20 million) but will need to use a chunk of that on its ten free agents. They also have 18 SPC slots free. To their credit, they didn’t trade any of their top three impending UFAs at the deadline (Mike Hoffman, Dadonov, Erik Haula) during their playoff push. However, it’s unlikely that they’ll retain all three, and may elect to get younger by letting Dadonov go.
Dadonov should command at least $5 million per season and he’s worth it. Coming off his third straight 25-goal season, he’s never had an FF% under 50% in his career. He’s a left-handed right-winger who will keep Burakovsky on his natural left-wing side and would add a lot of fire power to an already strong line. Also, he had a career high 17 power-play points in 69 games in 2019-20, ranked 16th in NHL power-play goals (11). He’s three years older than Toffoli which should make him cost less.
If the Avalanche fail to land a proven commodity like Dadonov or Toffoli, then signing Craig Smith away from their division rival Nashville Predators would be promising. Like Dadonov and Toffoli, Smith has posted an FF% above 50% for several consecutive seasons. In 2019-20, he posted his sixth era adjusted 20-goal campaign.
Nashville will likely be unable to match an offer worth four years at $18 million from Colorado since they only have $9.3 million available to sign five free agents. To that end, the Predators are expected to focus their free-agent pursuits on defensemen. The Avs would give Smith a slight raise with security and the chance to win, with the ability to sign another contract to close out his career.
An aging veteran who I think can help the Avalanche next year is Joe Thornton. The future Hall of Famer can center the 4th line and be a valuable mentor to a young team. He’d also rejoin former teammate Joonas Donskoi and get another crack at the Cup. Thornton made $2 million this season and may need to take a pay cut. Dadonov would play on the 2nd line just like Toffoli would have, pushing Nichushkin down to his more familiar checking-line 3rd line spot.
There are two more inexpensive options that the Avs could pursue if they don’t want to bring in an end-of-the-line Thornton. Jimmy Vesey from the Buffalo Sabres and Jesper Fast from the New York Rangers would cost around $1.5-$2.0 million per season. Both had so-so years and neither has posted FF% over 50% recently, but they play on teams who likely won’t have the funds to retain them.
I prefer Fast over Vesey. He’s a more complete two-way player and was on a career-high scoring pace before the coronavirus shutdown. Fast also logged triple the time on the penalty kill this season (163 min. vs Vesey’s 61 min.). Unlike his former New York Rangers teammate, Vesey posted a career-low in scoring in 2019-20.
Granted some of that is related to problems in Buffalo, but I’d rather the team acquire the player who’s rising. Signing two-way wingers Smith and Fast would fortify the grinding lines, give the Avalanche better depth in case of injury, provide offensive upside, and leave them with a buffer of around $2 million in cap space.
Colorado’s Strategic Planning
The Avalanche’s front office has put out a product that’s in strong financial shape and poised to compete for the Stanley Cup for several seasons. From both a financial and player-development point of view, Sakic understands the importance of building from within and supplementing homegrown talent with free agents. It’s cheaper to stock a team through the draft, which has a huge impact on the Avs’ free agency direction each season.
This strategy is why the Avalanche can treat free agency as a luxury. Acquiring Dadonov or one of the two-way wingers like Fast or Smith would make them a better team, but the club is already at the top of the league. As long as Sakic continues his shrewd approach toward roster construction, it’s a place where the organization should comfortably remain for a long time.