Avalanche offseason questions: Injuries, free agents, salary cap future

Avalanche offseason questions: Injuries, free agents, salary cap future
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During the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning drew a lot of attention for the injuries they fought through. The Avalanche weren’t exactly skipping trips to the trainers’ room, either, though.

That wear-and-sometimes-literal-tear can be used to glorify taking health risks that are maybe ill-advised.

Beyond that discussion, the Avalanche face a more practical question. How might lingering injuries affect offseason plans as the Avalanche already need to weigh big questions regarding free agents, possible franchise-altering contract extensions, and the salary cap in general?

After witnessing their dominant run to a Stanley Cup win, a thought lingered: the Avalanche have the pieces in place to win more. Even so, you need a lot of skill, luck, and foresight to go from having the potential to do something, to actually pulling it off.

Avalanche faced painful playoff injuries on way to Stanley Cup win

Altitude’s Vic Lombardi tweeted out a daunting Avalanche playoff injury list, covering Darcy Kuemper‘s process recovering from an eye injury, plus issues for Valeri Nichushkin, Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, Samuel Girard, and Darren Helm:

Kuemper celebrated his journey from that scary injury to Stanley Cup win:

This photo of Valeri Nichuskin’s possibly broken foot is especially gnarly.

These situations also bleed (figuratively, hopefully) into the free agent/salary questions for the Avalanche this offseason.

Darcy Kuemper, or a different goalie?

Before the playoffs, pending unrestricted free agent goalie Darcy Kuemper already loomed as an interesting Avalanche free-agent question.

At 32, Darcy Kuemper isn’t exactly a baby. We’ve also already seen an example of the Avalanche balking on risky term with a goalie.

After all, Philipp Grubauer left town after ending up being a 2021 Vezina Trophy finalist. As shocking as that was, it’s the Kraken who likely carry regrets from that exchange.

So, the Avalanche were already likely aware of the inherent risks of signing Darcy Kuemper instead of allowing him to become a free agent. Now stack on his eye injury as an other risk factor. What if Kuemper struggles to read plays and track the puck going forward?

(While Kuemper’s at a higher level than where Carter Hutton was, I can’t help but think of Hutton’s eye/tracking issues.)

[Avalanche pulled off a rare feat by overcoming bumpy playoff netminding]

Considering Kuemper’s challenges, it’s all the more surprising that the Avalanche didn’t turn to Pavel Francouz more often. The Avs re-upped Francouz, 32, for two years at a $2M cap hit back in March.

Do the Avs view Francouz as a pure backup, or a 1B goalie in a “platoon?”

To an extent, the Avalanche showed that you can win a Stanley Cup even with iffy playoff goaltending. It’s not necessarily a magic trick you want to attempt year after year, though.

Avalanche must balance salary cap with threat of free agent departures of Kadri, Burakovsky, Nichushkin

According to Cap Friendly, the Avalanche enter an important offseason with an impressive $25.685 million in salary cap space. That’s unusual wiggle room for a team coming off such a dominant run.

Of course, the goalie situation alone tells you how quickly that money can start to evaporate. Cap Friendly’s salary structure projection only covers 14 Avalanche roster spots.

Josh Manson, Andrew Cogliano, Darren Helm, and Nico Sturm rank among veteran free agents. Artturi Lehkonen‘s the most interesting pending RFA.

But, if you’re looking at the toughest non-Darcy-Kuemper conundrums regarding Avalanche free agents, the trio of Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, and Valeri Nichushkin all present riddles.

Evolving Hockey’s contract projections spit out some possibilities for those four prominent Avalanche free agents:

  • Kadri, 31: seven years, $8.469M (average term: about five years (4.9), average cap hit: $7.74M).
  • Burakovsky, 27: seven years, $6.903M (average term: 5.3 years, average AAV: $6.415M).
  • Nichushkin, 27: seven years, $6.357M (average term: 5.6 years, average AAV: $6.05M).
  • Kuemper, 32: six years, $3.15M (average term: 4.4 years, average AAV: $5.998M).

Frankly, Kadri might be in line for an even bigger raise than that.

That said, the Avalanche at least have a chance to bring back some of those free agents thanks to that relatively robust salary cap space. But should they?

Can they find “the next” Valeri Nichushkin, or is the ferocious forechecker too precious?

These decisions will really test this team and its pro scouts. Just look at this xGAR chart from the past three seasons to see how much Burakovsky, Kadri, and Nichushkin meant to the Avalanche (via Evolving Hockey):

Avalanche offseason questions: Injuries, free agents, salary cap future Evo
via Evolving Hockey

So, the Avalanche face the immediate questions of keeping or losing those free agents.

It goes deeper, too. They also must weigh keeping players like Nichushkin vs. the risk of losing others down the line.

Avalanche salary cap management: contract extensions for MacKinnon, Byram?

For years, the Avalanche have clearly set aside salary cap space to keep core players in place. As Elliotte Friedman mentioned in a recent “32 Thoughts Podcast,”  that may have meant offering less term to star free agents such as Artemi Panarin.

From Cale Makar to Gabriel Landeskog, there are players with big term. There’s also medium term to core pieces such as Mikko Rantanen and Devon Toews.

As early as this offseason, the Avalanche could settle one of their biggest questions: how much will Nathan MacKinnon‘s next contract cost? If they’re wise (and if the interest is there), they’d sign sign Bowen Byram to a contract extension, too.

Really, MacKinnon (26, in the last year with a bargain $6.3M cap hit) can essentially name his own price. Whatever the number is, at least Colorado would gain some cost certainty.

Buy low on Byram

Signing MacKinnon to a contract extension won’t be cheap, but it’s basically a no-brainer. To some, it might be less obvious to extend 21-year-old defenseman Bowen Byram.

But forward-thinking teams tend to sign (or at least try to sign) players before their value skyrockets. With Byram, you almost expect Houston to count down his lift off.

Quietly, Bowen Byram managed promising regular-season stats (17 points in 30 games, or 46-47 over a full season) despite dealing with frightening concussion issues. Yet, it was his playoff breakthrough that turned many heads.

Through eight games, Byram averaged a modest 15:49 TOI. Yet, the Avalanche unleashed Byram once Samuel Girard was injured. For the next 12 playoff games, Byram averaged 21:43, only trailing Cale Makar and Devon Toews as Avalanche ice time leaders. Rather than shrinking in the big time, Byram only become more prominent. He logged 28:25 TOI in Game 4 and 25:48 in a tight Stanley Cup-clinching Game 6. Remarkably, Byram topped all Avalanche players period with 24:52 TOI at even-strength in Game 6.

He wasn’t just killing time, either. Byram’s underlying stats jumped off the page.

Imagine if Bowen Byram hit the net instead of the crossbar or post on some key chances. Even with bad puck luck (zero goals) Byram generated nine useful assists in 20 playoff games.

In 2022-23, Byram could really put up the sort of numbers that gain him more mainstream attention. A smart team like the Avalanche will be proactive.

… At least, if they can. It’s up to Byram and/or his reps to actually want a contract extension instead of betting on himself.

Just look at the breakthrough for Valeri Nichushkin, and you’d think the Avalanche would kick themselves if they don’t at least ask Byram about a contract extension. If the Avs pulled that off, then look out.

Overall, a slew of questions for Avs, but they’re not in a bind

As you can see, there’s a long to-do list for the Avalanche offseason. Naturally, there’s room for swerves. Maybe the Avalanche could convince a key free agent or two to take less term. Priorities can shift — extensions for MacKinnon and/or Byram fall closer to “best practices” than absolutely mandatory.

Overall, there are a lot of tough decisions. That being said, the Avalanche are in an unusually flexible position to read and react.

It’s not all that different from the Avalanche’s brilliant breakout. Sure, there are risks — ones that other teams would flinch away from. Yet, the Avs might just find all the right angles to make their opponents sweat.