Considering the number of pending unrestricted free agents (UFA) on the Colorado Avalanche roster in 2021-22, the fact that the team experienced massive turnover this summer comes as no surprise. A majority of their most significant moves came on the trade front, highlighted by bringing in Alexandar Georgiev to replace the outgoing Darcy Kuemper. Even so, the organization inked several consequential contracts of their own, opting to re-sign their own pending free agents over pursuing unfamiliar options elsewhere.
For the purposes of this article, the cutoff begins on July 13, when unsigned players were eligible to explore the open market. As a result, the deals awarded to Georgiev and Valeri Nichushkin will not be explored in this piece. With that, let’s take a look at the Avalanche’s offseason activity and the free agent signings most likely to play a significant role at the NHL level in 2022-23.
Josh Manson, Defenseman
After tallying seven points (two goals and five assists) in 22 games after the trade deadline, Josh Manson added another eight in the playoffs. In particular, his overtime game-winning goal in Round Two against the St. Louis Blues helped set the tone of the series, kickstarting the Avalanche’s eventual triumph in six games. After helping the franchise win its third Stanley Cup, the 30-year-old rearguard was rewarded with a four-year, $18 million contract (worth $4.5 million annually).
Prior to joining the Avalanche at the 2022 Trade Deadline, it appeared as though Manson’s play had stalled in recent years which led to questions about the acquisition cost. Instead, he integrated seamlessly into the Avalanche lineup, becoming more adventurous with his puck carrying and effectively contributing to Colorado’s breakneck transition game.
Manson’s new contract means that the Avalanche are now carrying five defenders who could stake a claim to a top-four spot on any NHL blue line. Among other things, his return could spell the end of Samuel Girard’s tenure in Colorado given his price tag and the future extensions for Nathan MacKinnon and Bowen Byram.
Manson – standing at 6-foot-3 – offers a physical presence which diversifies an uber-skilled, but sometimes one-dimensional Avalanche blue line. His play in the playoffs helped overcome Girard’s untimely injury and maintained the team’s positional dominance at defence. Overall, the trade and signing proved to be a success (so far), although Manson’s age profile could be troublesome in the latter half of the deal.
Darren Helm, Forward
Despite entering the 2022-23 campaign as a 35-year-old veteran, the grizzled Darren Helm returns for another season in the burgundy and blue, signing a one-year, $1.25 million contract this summer. Not renowned for his offensive exploits, he finished the 2021-22 season with 15 points in 68 games and added another five in 20 postseason appearances.
Helm’s primary mode of contribution at even strength came on the back of his forechecking efforts. According to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, the former Detroit Red Wings center led the Avalanche in forecheck pressures per-60 minutes, with his 9.12 pressures per-60 nearly two more than the next highest forward. In addition, he ranked first among all regular forwards in that department, deftly utilizing his speed and tenacity to great effect.
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After his last-second goal simultaneously eliminated the St. Louis Blues and broke the team’s cumbersome second-round curse, Helm forever endeared himself to the Avalanche faithful. His positional versatility, utility as a penalty-killer, and enriching veteran presence earned him another contract and is primed to be a force in the team’s bottom-six again next season. For just over $1 million, teams could do a lot worse in the bottom half of their lineups.
Artturi Lehkonen, Forward
Sifting through former general manager (GM) Joe Sakic’s resume, it’s debatable that acquiring and re-signing Artturi Lehkonen to a five-year deal worth $4.5 million per year was one of his best moves.
Not only did the Finnish winger score 23 points in 36 combined regular-season and playoff games after joining the Avalanche, but his tireless work with and without the puck set the tempo for much of their Stanley Cup run. Lehkonen ranked second only to Helm on the Avalanche roster in forecheck pressures per-60 and third in shots per-60 behind MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri. Simply put, almost no one was as active at both ends of the ice as the former Montreal Canadiens forward.
Lehkonen’s tireless efforts were rewarded with two of the most important goals of the Avalanche’s Stanley Cup journey. First was his net-front tally against the Edmonton Oilers in overtime, sending the franchise to their first Stanley Cup Final in over 20 years. The second was his third-period marker against the Tampa Bay Lightning, eventually holding up as the Cup-winning goal of record. Functioning as the defacto Energizer Bunny alongside Nichushkin, his fit on the current roster presents the ideal complement to his strengths and weaknesses.
Lehkonen’s restricted free agent (RFA) status made him an unlikely target for potential suitors, allowing the Avalanche to keep him in the fold at a reasonable price. Inking him through the rest of his prime (to his age 31 season) is a big win for the organization given his playstyle, lineup fit, and tendency to perform in the biggest moments.
Avalanche Have Quiet But Productive Free Agency
Kadri remains unsigned more than a month into the start of free agency, although rumours have linked the 31-year-old center to the New York Islanders and a reunion with former Toronto Maple Leafs executive Lou Lamoriello. If the Avalanche wave goodbye to the veteran pivot, several affordable center options are still available on the open market.
Even if newly promoted GM Chris MacFarland looks internally to replace Kadri with players such as Alex Newhook or J.T. Compher, the Avalanche’s free-agent dealings should be considered a success. While other clubs spent huge sums of cash in free agency, Colorado stuck to the players they know and only time will tell if that was the correct decision.
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science.
When not covering the Colorado Avalanche and Pittsburgh Penguins for The Hockey Writers, he can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood.