No matter how far the Colorado Avalanche go in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, they have all the makings of a long-term powerhouse in the Western Conference.
Assuming, of course, they don’t screw it up.
After dominating the No. 1 seed Calgary Flames and easily dismissing them in five games, the Avalanche head into Tuesday’s Game 3 against the San Jose Sharks tied in their Round 2 series, in a position to grab the upper hand thanks to a fast, skilled roster and an aggressive style of play.
Put it all together and they have been one of the most impressive teams in the playoffs so far.
It is even more impressive when you consider how much they are leaning on youth to get them to where they are.
When you look at the top-10 skaters in ice-time for the Avalanche this postseason, they have an average age of just 24 years old. That is nearly two years younger than the top-10 players on any other team still going in the playoffs (the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders’ top-10 average is 25.8 years of age; the other seven playoff teams together average 27.2 among their top-10 most used skaters).
Of the eight teams still playing in the playoffs, none of them are relying on youth as much as the Avalanche are.
That core includes 23 year-old Nathan MacKinnon, who might be the most valuable asset in the NHL when everything is taken into account, 22-year-old Mikko Rantanen, and a pair of 20-year-old defenders in Samuel Girard and Cale Makar.
As good as all of them are right now, it is possible, if not likely, that they still have not hit their peak level of performance in the NHL. Better days should be ahead for almost all of them.
Now, you might be looking at an Avalanche team that barely snuck in the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in a watered down Western Conference and think that it is insane to look them as a long-term powerhouse. Especially with teams like Calgary, San Jose, Vegas, Winnipeg, and Nashville still lurking and not looking like they will be going away anytime soon.
It is not an unfair point to make.
But keep in mind something about this Avalanche team.
MacKinnon and Landeskog both missed at least eight games during the regular season due to injury. J.T. Compher, one of their promising young players, only played in 66 and they still have a player like Tyson Jost that has a ton of untapped potential. Girard was in his first full-year of NHL action and Makar did not play a second of regular season ice-time. The latter two players have the look of a potentially dominant defense duo if they develop as the Avalanche hope they will. They have already seen some time together in these playoffs and have yet to show their age and inexperience. If anything, they have shined and been a big part of the team’s success.
They also have the most important and most difficult pieces to acquire when it comes to building a consistent contender — top-tier, high-end, franchise players at the top of the lineup (MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog).
But it is not just what the Avalanche have on their roster right now that makes their future so bright.
It is the potential for what they can potentially add around what they have on their roster right now that makes their future so bright.
First, the Avalanche have two first-round draft picks in 2019. Their own pick, as well as the No. 4 overall pick in the draft they acquired as part of the Matt Duchene trade (which also landed them Girard).
That No. 4 pick should, if all goes according to plan, result in another high-end talent entering the organization.
Perhaps even more important than that, they also have a ton of salary cap space at their disposal this summer.
Assuming an $83 million ceiling (as it seems that it will be, or at least in that general area) the Avalanche couild have around $36 million in salary cap space this summer with only 10 roster spots to fill.
Now, a healthy portion of that space will have to go to Rantanen who will be due a new contract as a restricted free agent. But even if he ends up getting upwards of $9-10 million, that is still going to leave the Avalanche with at least $25 million in cap space. That should — should! — make them a player for just about any unrestricted free agent that is available in the NHL this summer. That is the advantage they have given themselves by getting MacKinnon and Landeskog on contracts that are, for lack of a better word, steals.
That cap space, combined with their draft assets (two first-round picks, their own second-round pick, and two third-round picks, one of which will be the first pick in the third round, again the result of the Duchene trade with Ottawa) could make them a player for any veteran that enters the trade market.
With the money they have to burn under the cap, they could realistically go after any player they wanted as long as they wanted to spend it.
The Avalanche still have a ton to play for this season and have put themselves in a position where they could really do something special if they can take care of business at home these next two games. So no one on the ice or in their front office is probably looking too far ahead. The eyes are still on the prize in front of them.
That doesn’t mean we can’t look ahead. No matter where this season ends up going, the Avalanche have put themselves in a position where they could become the team in the Western Conference as long as they make the right moves starting this summer. Obviously a lot of this depends on the development of players like Makar, Girard, Compher, Jost, and the yet-to-be-chosen No. 4 overall pick, but everything is there for them to build a championship level team. Now they just have to do it.