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.

NHL top prospect Connor Bedard draws comparisons to Connor McDavid as draft approaches

connor bedard
Anne-Marie Sorvin/USA TODAY Sports

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The NHL is going to have another Connor to contend with very shortly.

For everything two-time NHL MVP Connor McDavid has accomplished in Edmonton since being selected No. 1 in the 2015 draft, Connor Bedard is on the same trajectory in being pegged as this year’s top eligible draft prospect, Central Scouting director Dan Marr said Friday.

“He’s right up there with Connor McDavid, it’s just the next generation,” Marr said in touting Bedard’s quickness, shot and ability to read and adapt. “So Connor McDavid started that trend, and Connor Bedard is going to lead it into the next trend.”

The annual NHL pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York, is resembling more of a coronation for the 17-year-old Bedard, who has spent the past two years putting up generational numbers with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League while also shining against his peers on the international stage.

“I think you can use a lot of adjectives to describe it,” Regina coach John Paddock told The Associated Press recently in comparing Bedard’s production at the same age level to McDavid and Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

“That’s quite a high ceiling,” said Paddock, a former NHL coach and player. “But there’s no indication he’s not going to do that based on what he’s done to date.”

The Chicago Blackhawks own the No. 1 pick, and are highly anticipated to use it on Bedard when the draft opens in Nashville, Tennessee, on June 28.

Bedard held his latest meeting with the Blackhawks at the combine in a relationship that began at a top-prospects camp in Toronto last summer.

Bedard’s arrival would coincide with the franchise in transition, with Chicago moving on from its aging core after trading 2007 No. 1 pick, Patrick Kane, and with captain Jonathan Toews’ future uncertain.

“Yeah, it’d be awesome,” Bedard said of the possibility of being selected by the Blackhawks. “The history of that organization, that city with sports would be unbelievable. We’ll see what happens, but to be selected, that would be a huge honor.”

Bedard said he’s following McDavid’s advice to stay in the moment and not peak too far ahead. He added, his dream to play in the NHL began no different than those of his colleagues: the moment he picked up a hockey stick growing up in North Vancouver, British Columbia.

What separates Bedard, however, is his exceptional skating ability and a hard shot, which is even more lethal given his quick release.

With Bedard the likely top pick, the intrigue at the draft is likely to revolve around who rounds out the remainder of the top five selections.

University of Michigan’s Adam Fantilli is second among North American skaters on Central Scouting’s final list, followed by top American prospect, William Smith, who played for USA Hockey’s developmental program. The top two European skaters are also considered in the mix with Sweden’s Leo Carlsson and Russia’s Matvei Michkov.

Anaheim is scheduled to pick second followed by Columbus, San Jose and Montreal.

Marr gives the edge to Bedard while also being impressed with Fantilli – just the third freshman to win the Hobey Baker Trophy awarded to college hockey’s top players – in a draft class considered very deep with offensive-minded forwards.

“You’re going to win with both,” Marr said. “And whoever gets these two players they’re going to help define a franchise.”

What distinguishes Bedard, who doesn’t turn 18 until next month, has been his consistency.

Last season, his 71 goals in just 57 games were the most in the WHL since Pavel Brendl scored 73 in 1998-99. Bedard’s 143 points were the most in the CHL since three players topped that mark in 1995-96. And it was a season in which he enjoyed 10 games with five or more points, and just five games in which he failed to register a point.

In 2020-21, Bedard became just the third WHL 16-year-old to reach 100 points, and was the youngest to score 50 goals in finishing with 51.

He’s also made a splash on the international stage. Bedard led Canada with nine goals and 23 points at the world juniors last winter, and his combined production of 17 goals and 36 points in just 16 games ranks fourth on the career tournament list.

Bedard has honed his talent by spending countless hours practicing shots in his backyard, which he referred to as his “Happy Place.” He was so dedicated to work on his shot that he preferred practicing than joining his family for a vacation to Disneyland, and eventually vacationed in Hawaii but only after he was allowed to bring his inline skates and sticks to practice.

Noted for being soft-spoken, Bedard said he’s not yet allowed himself to envision being drafted or making his NHL debut yet.

“It’s hard kind of think of that. But of course, I’ll work as hard as I can to try to achieve that goal,” he said. “And hopefully I do.”

Blue Jackets acquire D Damon Severson from Devils after he signs 8-year deal

blue jackets
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The Columbus Blue Jackets acquired Damon Severson from the New Jersey Devils on Friday after the veteran defenseman and soon-to-be free agent signed an eight-year $50 million contract.

Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen sent a third-round pick, 80th overall, in this month’s draft to the Devils for Severson, who will be under contract through the 2030-31 NHL season.

Severson had 58 goals and 205 assists in 647 career appearances with the Devils since making his NHL debut in 2014-15. He scored seven game-winning goals and averaged more than 21 minutes of playing time during his nine seasons. The 28-year-old had seven goals and 26 assists this season, including two game-winning goals, in 81 games.

“Damon is a versatile defenseman who has great vision, moves the puck extremely well, has good size and can play heavy minutes at both ends of the ice,” Kekalainen said.

The Canadian was selected in the second round in the 2012 draft. He has collected 30 or more points five times in his career and twice notched 11 or more goals. He played in every game in three straight seasons from 2018-21 and has played 80 or more contests four times in his career.

With the addition of the third-round pick, New Jersey now has six selections in the draft, including its own picks in rounds two, four, five, six and seven.

Matthew Tkachuk returns from big hit in Stanley Cup Final, adds more playoff heroics

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Matthew Tkachuk was down, out briefly and then back with plenty of time to make a difference.

The Florida Panthers star left early in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final after a big hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar, and he missed most of the first period and didn’t return immediately following intermission while being evaluated for a concussion. After looking as if he might be lost for the night, Tkachuk returned in the second and then came through with more of his now trademark playoff heroics.

Tkachuk scored the tying goal with 2:13 left in regulation, forcing overtime and giving the Panthers new life. He then provided the screen on Carter Verhaeghe‘s OT goal for a 3-2 victory that cut Florida’s series deficit to 2-1.

The 25-year-old said he knew he was coming back when he left the game, pulled by concussion spotters. That absence felt like a long time ago in the aftermath of another big win he was largely responsible for.

“I felt great – I feel great,” Tkachuk said. “I’m ready to go. Everybody’s excited that we’re in this position right now.”

Florida is in this position rather than facing elimination in Game 4 on Saturday thanks in large part to Tkachuk, who also set up Brandon Montour‘s goal that opened the scoring less than five minutes in.

Not long after, Tkachuk stumbled getting up after the hit from Kolesar and skated to the bench. He took a shift on Florida’s power play before going down the tunnel at the demand of concussion spotters mandated by NHL protocol.

At that point, there was zero clarity, even on the Florida bench.

“You’re not informed at all: It’s a complete shutdown,” coach Paul Maurice said. “You are completely in the dark on those. You don’t know when the player’s coming back. There’s not an update.”

Players insist they were not worried. Montour called it a no-brainer.

“He’s going to come back no matter what,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He’s really tough guy, and he’s going to battle through everything.”

Tkachuk rejoined his teammates on the bench a few minutes into the second. When he stepped back onto the ice for his first shift since leaving, fans cheered and chanted, “Chucky! Chucky!”

The crowd was even louder and threw rats when Tkachuk scored his biggest goal of many during this run to tie it. He didn’t get an assist on Verhaeghe’s goal but made it happen with a tape-to-tape pass in the neutral zone and was in front of Adin Hill when it happened.

Asked if he was happy Tkachuk returned, Maurice joked that it was after midnight.

“It was fine,” he quipped.

Panthers rally, top Golden Knights 3-2 in OT of Game 3 of Stanley Cup final

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SUNRISE, Fla. — Carter Verhaeghe scored 4:27 into overtime and the Florida Panthers pulled off some more postseason dramatics to beat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.

Matthew Tkachuk tied it with 2:13 left in the third period for the Panthers, who got the franchise’s first title-series game win in seven tries. Florida had to fend off a power play to start overtime, and Verhaeghe got the winner from the slot to get the Panthers within 2-1 in the series.

Game 4 is Saturday night.

Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 shots for Florida. Adin Hill made 20 saves for Vegas, but got beat on the only shot that came his way in overtime.

Brandon Montour also scored for Florida, which pulled Bobrovsky down 2-1 late in the third for the extra attacker and Tkachuk — who left for parts of the first and second periods after taking a big hit — made that move pay off when he tied the game.

His goal breathed life into a very nervous building. But the Panthers were furious — and replays showed they had a case — when Gustav Forsling was sent to the box with 11.2 seconds remaining for tripping. Florida survived that scare, and a few minutes later, had life in the series again.

The odds are still long, but the Panthers at least have a bit more statistical hope now. Of the previous 55 teams to trail 2-1 at this point of the Stanley Cup Final, 11 have actually rallied to hoist the trophy.

It’s improbable, sure. So are the Panthers, who were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, were down 3-1 to Boston in Round 1, were 133 seconds away from trailing this series 3-0 — and now have tons of reasons for optimism.

Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone each had power-play goals for Vegas.

Marchessault’s goal was his 13th in his last 13 playoff games, his fourth of this series and his third with the man advantage.

As if all that wasn’t enough, there was a little history in there as well. Vegas joined the 1980 New York Islanders as the only team with at least two power-play goals in three consecutive games in the Cup final. And Marchessault became the third player in the last 35 years to score in each of the first three games of a title series — joining Steve Yzerman in 1997 with Detroit and Jake Guentzel with Pittsburgh in 2017.

But it wasn’t enough to give Vegas a 3-0 lead in the series.


Before Thursday, Florida’s last home game in the title series was June 10, 1996, when Uwe Krupp scored in the third overtime for a 1-0 win as Colorado finished off a four-game sweep of the Panthers for the Cup. … Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was in the crowd, as was NBA great Charles Barkley, and former Dolphins star Dan Marino was the celebrity drummer to welcome the Panthers onto the ice.