Grading the Colorado Avalanche’s 2023 Free Agent Signings

The Colorado Avalanche executed a flurry of moves during the first few days of NHL free agency, recruiting a pair of newcomers while re-signing three pending free agents of their own.

Prior to July 1, the team traded for centers Ryan Johansen (from the Nashville Predators) and Ross Colton (from the Tampa Bay Lightning) while losing outgoing forwards in J.T. Compher (Detroit Red Wings), Evan Rodrigues (Florida Panthers), Alex Newhook (Montreal Canadiens), Darren Helm (unsigned), Lars Eller, and Matt Nieto (both Pittsburgh Penguins). Veteran defenseman Erik Johnson also opted to sign elsewhere (Buffalo Sabres).

Given that the Avalanche are somewhat strapped for cap space and already addressed their biggest weakness, their signings were restricted to inexpensive, low-risk bets who could provide surplus value in either depth or support roles. Their lack of bottom-six scoring cost them against the Seattle Kraken in the playoffs, so re-making the team’s depth contingent appears to have been priority number one.

Although Colton remains unsigned and the team is still in the market for at least one more NHL-level forward and defenseman, it’s an appropriate time to hand out letter grades for the Avalanche’s key free-agent signings to date.

Jonathan Drouin, Center/Left Wing

Contract: One year, $825,000 average annual value (AAV)

In an effort to rebuild the team’s forward group, the Avalanche signed winger Jonathan Drouin to a one-year contract worth $825,000. The 28-year-old scored two goals and 29 points in 58 games with the Canadiens last season.

At this stage of his career, Drouin’s strength clearly lies in his playmaking. According to Corey Sznajder’s micro-stat tracking data, he was one of the NHL’s top forwards in terms of generating shot assists at 5-on-5 (the last pass before a shot) and graded out as above-average in creating scoring chances for his teammates. He wasn’t relied upon to carry the puck too often with Montreal but when he did, he was very successful at entering the offensive zone with possession and creating chances for himself and his linemates.

Drouin is not a frequent shooter and is not particularly engaged on the forecheck but playing him in a situation where he doesn’t need to worry about that would be more optimal deployment. If the Avalanche can pair him with one of the team’s top forecheckers in Valeri Nichushkin or Artturi Lehkonen, the team could mask his defensive deficiencies and allow him to focus on creating offense.

Jonathan Drouin Montreal Canadiens
Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Beyond hoping to find value on a cheap short-term deal, the Avalanche are hoping that reuniting Drouin with his junior teammate in Nathan MacKinnon sparks a career renaissance. The pair spent two years together with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s (QMJHL) Halifax Mooseheads, with MacKinnon and Drouin going first and third overall in the 2013 NHL Draft respectively.

Drouin battled issues with confidence, playing time, and concerns about his mental health after being traded to the Canadiens from the Tampa Bay Lightning for Mikhail Sergachev. A fresh start in an offence-friendly environment may be what he needs to find his form and at slightly more than league minimum, the Avalanche can’t do much better.

Grade: B+

Miles Wood, Left Wing

Contract: Six years, $2.5 million AAV

For any team hoping to avoid signing a boat anchor contract in free agency, the golden rule to follow is to not give depth players an inflated AAV or significant term. The Avalanche may have done just that with winger Miles Wood, who turns 28 prior to the start of the 2023-24 season, and someone the New Jersey Devils were perhaps wise to avoid re-signing.

After missing all but three games in the 2021-22 campaign, Wood returned this past season and tallied 13 goals and 27 points in 76 games for the Devils while racking up 76 penalty minutes (PIMs) in the process.

Wood’s appeal to the Avalanche is clear; he’s a speedy forward with some snarl who is also an aggressive and effective forechecker with the ability to chip in with the occasional offensive contribution. He’s scored at a 16-goal rate over 82 games for his career, a total that would have placed him seventh on the Avalanche last season.

Miles Wood New Jersey Devils
Miles Wood, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Wood’s lack of discipline could be a significant problem. Among forwards to play at least 300 minutes in all situations last season, he ranked 17th in minor penalties taken per-60 minutes. It’s only fair to note that he draws his fair share of penalties (50th) and his differential (minus-3 last season) wasn’t notably poor, but it’s something that could cost him in high-pressure situations such as the postseason.

Although the cap hit may become more palatable as the salary cap ceiling grows in the next few seasons, the term is a bit risky for a depth forward with recent injury history.

Grade: C+

Andrew Cogliano, Left Wing

Contract: One year, $825,000 AAV

Even at the age of 36, veteran forward Andrew Cogliano still has something to contribute at the NHL level. The bottom-six staple produced 10 goals and 19 points in 79 games last season, though his postseason was ended early due to a neck injury suffered against the Kraken. If he stays healthy, Cogliano can once again offer penalty-killing prowess, rabid forechecking, and a modicum of offence created with his speed and persistence.

A byproduct of his quickness and willingness to get into the dirty areas, Cogliano drew penalties at the 33rd-highest rate among all qualified forwards (300 minutes in all situations) last season. His discipline also led him to post a plus-6 penalty differential, a top-100 mark among qualified forwards, and a bonus for an Avalanche team that loves to feast on the power play.

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Considering what Cogliano brings to the Avalanche in terms of leadership and special-teams play, keeping him in the fold for slightly above league minimum is a no-brainer for a team facing an exodus of long-term members of the organization.

Grade: B

Bowen Byram, Defenseman

Contract: Two years, $3.85 million AAV

Sorting out the contract situation with restricted free agent (RFA) defenseman Bowen Byram was one of the Avalanche’s biggest offseason priorities, depending on how you felt about the hole at second-line center. The two parties compromised on a two-year bridge deal which still maintains Byram’s RFA status upon its expiry.

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Byram scored 24 points in 42 games in 2022-23, navigating an injury-filled campaign after starring in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs as a rookie. His underlying numbers paint him as Cale Makar lite, relentlessly active in transition and capable of slicing open defences in the offensive zone with his passing and shooting.

For Byram, the incentive is clear. He receives a pay raise despite battling well-documented health concerns and should continue to play top-four minutes for the next two seasons. He is slated to come up for renewal at a time when the team could have more cap space to allocate due to jumps in the cap ceiling and potential salary clearing via departures of one or more of Devon Toews, Samuel Girard, or Josh Manson, depending on how contract negotiations go for Toews in particular next summer.

For the Avalanche, they retain one of the NHL’s budding stars at a manageable cap hit while looking to win another Stanley Cup or two while the current core is still intact. There is risk if Byram reaches another stratosphere before his current deal is up, but it’s a gamble dictated by the stagnant salary cap and he will still be under team control when he’s due an extension.

Grade: B-

Jack Johnson, Defenseman

Contract: One year, $775,000 AAV

36-year-old veteran defenseman Jack Johnson is extending his second tour-of-duty with the Avalanche, signing a one-year deal for the league minimum. He was acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks at the 2023 Trade Deadline and appeared in 28 regular-season and playoff games for the Avalanche after the trade.

Jack Johnson Chicago Blackhawks
Jack Johnson, during his stint with the Chicago Blackhawks (Amy Irvin/The Hockey Writers)

Johnson has long been skewered by public analytical metrics, which position him as one of the league’s worst defenseman in terms of generating offence and defending the rush. His appeal to the Avalanche at this point is his veteran presence and leadership and familiarity with the room.

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Johnson should be penciled in for spot duty on the bottom-pair and can be sheltered by the Avalanche in favourable usage. Head coach Jared Bednar clearly trusts him to provide stability in limited deployment and while that’s worth something, he’s not terribly effective.

Grade: C+

Avalanche Continue Strong 2023 Offseason

The aforementioned trades for Johansen and Colton shore up a weak spot in the lineup and the early returns on the Avalanche’s free-agent dealings are promising.

Importantly, receiving certainty on Gabriel Landeskog’s injury situation (he will miss the entire 2023-24 season) allowed Chris MacFarland and Joe Sakic to make moves without considering the ramifications of a potential in-season return.

Though the 2023 offseason can mostly be considered a success, decisions about a new contract for Devon Toews loom large ahead of the 2024 offseason. For now, the Avalanche can feel satisfied with assembling a team capable of returning to the NHL’s elite next season. Is another Stanley Cup in Colorado’s future? We will have to wait and see.

Data courtesy of the AllThreeZones, Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick and the NHL.

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