Erik Johnson

Avalanche offseason presents big opportunities — and challenges

The Colorado Avalanche don’t want to hear this – not after falling painfully short against the Sharks in Game 7 – but to many observers, that agonizing ending feels like just the beginning.

Just consider the players who spearheaded their surprising five-game steamrolling of the Calgary Flames in Round 1, and the players who pushed San Jose to the limit in Round 2.

  • Nathan MacKinnon‘s the headliner, and at 23 with a ridiculous bargain $6.3 million cap hit through 2022-23, he might be the best value in all of the NHL.
  • After a bumpy start to his Colorado stay, Philipp Grubauer sure looks like a legitimate No. 1 goalie. He’s 27 and cheap ($3.33M) though 2020-21, too.
  • Mikko Rantanen‘s not that far behind MacKinnon, and just 22.
  • It feels like Gabriel Landeskog has been around forever, but he’s just 26. His $5.571M cap hit doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season.
  • Cale Makar looked right at home in the pressure cooker of the playoffs, and he’s 20. Samuel Girard is another nice piece, and could improve since he’s just 20, too.
  • Tyson Barrie‘s like Landeskog in that he’s still young (27), and affordable ($5.5M through 2019-20).

Of course, it’s not just all that precocious youth that makes the Avalanche seem like a Team of Tomorrow.

Thanks to that brilliant Kyle TurrisMatt Duchene trade by GM Joe Sakic, the Avalanche didn’t just add Girard and other more immediate pieces; they also snagged what would become the Ottawa Senators’ first-rounder in 2019 (along with Ottawa’s third-rounder).

While Colorado didn’t enjoy the sexiest option of getting a shot at Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, you won’t see a ton of teams make two consecutive playoff appearances and land the fourth pick of the draft. That happened thanks to the Turris trade, and the Avalanche are also slated to pick 16th with their own selection, as confirmed by NHL.com.

[Sharks hold off Avs in Game 7]

Having two picks in the top half of the 2019 NHL Draft gives Sakic & Co. some fascinating options.

Most directly, they can stick with both picks. They could also move one or both of those selections for more immediate upgrades via trades.

Both options are tantalizing, but the latter scenario is fascinating because of the road ahead for the Avalanche. Let’s take a look at the decisions Sakic must make, both in the near and longer-term future. As always, Cap Friendly is a crucial resource for contract information and other details, and served as a great resource for this post.

Tons of cap space, but some big names to re-sign

Via Cap Friendly, the Avalanche have about $46.9 million in cap space devoted to 13 players, with few problem contracts (aside from, I’d argue, Erik Johnson‘s deal).

There’s some significant money coming off the books as this season ends, and it remains to be seen if Colorado wants to bring back any of veterans Semyon Varlamov (31, $5.9M in 2018-19), Derick Brassard (31, $3M after retention), and Colin Wilson (29, just under $4M). Honestly, the Avs would probably be wise to let both Varlamov and Brassard walk, and maybe see if Wilson would take a little less cash for some term.

Either way, a ton of money will be allotted to RFAs. Rantanen figures to come in at a big clip, and it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if he landed in double digits. Honestly, even if he did, his trio with MacKinnon and Landeskog could probably still be underpaid as a group.

Rantanen isn’t the only noteworthy RFA. Alex Kerfoot, 24, and J.T. Compher, 24, both need new deals, and each player is somewhat tough to gauge value-wise. (Kerfoot is sneaky-effective from a two-way perspective.) Nikita Zadorov is another interesting situation as a 24-year-old RFA.

A window opens

Considering how young this Avalanche core is, the instinct might be to take a zen-like, slow approach.

Yet, if the Avalanche look at cap-crunched teams like the Maple Leafs, they should realize they have an unusual advantage to know that a window is opening, and that they should seize opportunities when they come along.

MacKinnon’s contract represents the outer limits (2022-23) of that window, but Colorado should also consider more immediate “deadlines.”

  • Landeskog and Grubauer are eligible to become UFAs after 2020-21, and should expect hearty raises.
  • Tyson Barrie’s deal runs out after 2019-20, and could be pricey considering his offensive production.
  • Girard’s slated to be an RFA after 2019-20, while Cale Makar’s rookie deal ranks as another competitive advantage for Colorado.
  • Granted, there will also be moments of cap relief. Carl Soderberg‘s $4.75M cap hit ends after 2019-20, so that should come in handy. The Brooks Orpik buyout ends after 2019-20, too.

With all of that in mind, the Avalanche should strongly consider ramping up their aggressiveness by either landing a free agent (maybe recent opponent Erik Karlsson, if he springs free? How does Artemi Panarin feel about skiing?) or by trading for a big ticket player. It’s tough to imagine the Predators trading P.K. Subban in general, yet especially to a division rival where they’d face Subban multiple times per year, yet Subban might be the type of gamebreaker Colorado should try to land.

Again, this is where that fourth or 16th pick could make things that much more interesting. Colorado could sell a trade partner on receiving cap space and/or a high draft pick in exchange for taking a known quantity, and a player who’s already x number of years into their development.

Imagine the Avalanche team that battered the Flames and challenged the Sharks adding an All-Star-level player, or even two? It’s a scary thought for opponents, and the Avalanche shouldn’t wait forever to try to make big strides. MacKinnon’s contract gives them a lengthy advantage, yet other bargains will evaporate soon. Why not get a surplus of talent while you still can?

***

Whether you believe the Avalanche should go bold or take a more measured approach, it sure seems obvious that this team has a lot of potential.

If management makes the right decisions – and, honestly, gets a few lucky breaks – then the Avs might just reach that potential.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Youthful Girard-Makar pairing playing like experienced vets for Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche didn’t make a big splash at the 2019 NHL trade deadline (unless you wanted to count Derick Brassard as a big splash) but they did get some significant help for their postseason run during Round 1 when Cale Makar, the 2018 No. 4 overall pick and 2019 Hobey Bakey Award Winner, decided to turn pro and sign his entry-level deal.

It has not taken him long to start looking like the real deal and become a significant part of the Avs’ rapidly improving young core.

Entering Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the San Jose Sharks Wednesday night (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream), Makar has already recorded six points in his first nine NHL games and has been even more impressive with the eye test given his confidence, skating, and willingness to make plays with the puck. He just looks exciting, and so far he has the results to back it up. He has been sheltered a little with his overall ice-time and with a lot of offensive zone starts, but he is still only 20 years old and getting what is literally his first taste of NHL action on the biggest possible stage.

It is a huge jump and a big test, and so far he is passing it.

What stands out about the Avs’ usage of Makar against the Sharks is that even though they are sheltering him in terms of where they start him on faceoffs, they are not sheltering him with a veteran partner.

Instead, they have been using him over the past four games almost exclusively with their other young standout defender, fellow 20-year-old Samuel Girard.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It is not only the youngest defense pair any team has used this postseason, Makar and Girard are just two of the six defensemen who have appeared in a playoff game this season who are age 20 or younger. And they are not only playing together, they have been great together. In more than 56 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time together against the Sharks the Avalanche have scored four goals with the Makar-Girard duo on the ice and are dominating territorially, controlling more than 56 percent of the shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger chances.

Some of that, again, is due to the deployment as they are being put into situations where they are expected to create offense, and it is very clear how head coach Jared Bednar wants to utilize his three defense pairings. The Tyson BarrieNikita Zadorov and Erik JohnsonIan Cole duos are getting almost all of the defensive zone starts and being leaned on in any defensive situations, which is very understandable given the inexperience of the third pairing.

The Makar-Girard duo, on the other hand, is almost always being put into offensive situations. But there is still something to be said for taking advantage of those situations, especially when it is two of the youngest players in the playoffs playing alongside one other.

What has to be exciting about this for the Avalanche is that no matter what happens in Game 7, or in the rest of the playoffs should they advance, these two will be together for the foreseeable future as a key part of this core’s development and the foundation of their blue line.

The Avalanche are an extremely young team in terms of who is carrying the workload this season and are positioned to become one of the dominant teams in the Western Conference given their current star power at the top of the lineup, the salary cap space they have at their disposal, and the fact they have two first-round draft picks in 2019, including another No. 4 overall pick thanks to the Matt Duchene trade, which was the deal where they acquired Girard.

MORE: Avs in position to build on current success

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Grubauer shuts out Sharks to lead Avs in hard-fought Game 4 win

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The San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche feature two high-powered offenses and up until now the series has reflected it. Game 4 on Thursday was a far more defensive-minded contest though and in the end it was the Avalanche that edged out with a 3-0 final to even the series.

The first half of the game went by without a single goal. The Sharks and Avalanche were largely even in play as well on the scoresheet to that point, but Nathan MacKinnon finally gave Colorado an edge at 10:34 of the second period. Appropriately for this game, the goal was the result of persistence. MacKinnon tried to whack a rebound twice before it finally got by Sharks goaltender Martin Jones.

Special teams also worked in the Avalanche’s favor. They successfully killed two San Jose power plays, including one that trickled into the start of the third period. Meanwhile, Colin Wilson scored a power-play goal at 3:11 of the third to give Colorado some breathing room. At 18:51, Erik Johnson fired a shot from the other end of the ice that went into the empty net to push the game to 3-0.

Certainly Jones had a rough regular season and he’s struggled at times during the 2019 playoffs, but this loss wasn’t his fault. Neither of the Avalanche’s goals on him made him look bad and Jones also made some big saves. Philipp Grubauer really stepped up Thursday night though, stopping 32 shots.

Obviously, the Sharks couldn’t do enough offensively, but their penalty problems in the third certainly didn’t help. San Jose was assessed four minor penalties in the third period. At one point in the middle of the period, the Sharks were briefly down two men. It’s hard to turn a game around when you’re spending so much time shorthanded.

This is the second time San Jose has been shutout in the 2019 playoffs. The last time came in Game 4 against Vegas, which put the Golden Knights up 3-1 in that series. The Sharks aren’t in as much trouble in this series, but they can nevertheless take comfort in the fact that they bounced right back with a 5-2 win against Vegas in Game 5.

Avalanche-Sharks Game 5 from SAP Center will be Saturday night at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Avs’ Cale Makar scores in playoff debut days after Frozen Four

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Cale Makar is having himself a week.

After falling just short of an NCAA title with the University of Massachusetts on Saturday, Makar signed a rookie deal with the Colorado Avalanche, and it probably would have been impressive enough that he managed to suit up for Game 3 against the Calgary Flames.

Makar decided that wasn’t enough. The 20-year-old defenseman scored a goal to put Colorado up 3-0 in Game 3, with assists from Nathan MacKinnon and Alex Kerfoot. (MacKinnon, remarkably scored two goals and one assist during the first period alone, carrying over his momentum from producing a thrilling overtime-winner in Game 2.)

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

You can watch Makar’s first goal in his first game (playoffs or otherwise) in the video above this post’s headline. Game 3 is airing on CNBC (Stream here).

Makar was the fourth overall pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. He logged 5:24 TOI during the first period, not much less than veteran defenseman Erik Johnson (6:06). That time could be inflated by some power-play work, but it’s an interesting show of trust from Colorado. Considering the Avs’ so-so defense, Makar could be quite a boost – not just in the future, but also the present.

More: Avalanche add Makar, who also won the Hobey Baker this season, by the way.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Draft Lottery: What Blackhawks, Rangers gained; what Kings, Avalanche lost

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On Tuesday night 15 NHL teams had a significant part of their future come down to a couple of ping pong balls.

In the end, it was the New Jersey Devils getting the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft for the second time in three years, going from the third spot in the lottery up to the top spot. It is there that they will have the opportunity to select prized prospect Jack Hughes and add him to their core alongside Nico Hischier (the No. 1 overall pick two years ago) and, hopefully, Taylor Hall assuming they can work out a long-term contract extension.

It was a great night for the Devils and their fans, but they were not the only team to win big.

Others, however, lost big.

It’s not an earth-shattering revelation to point out that there is a significant difference between picking first versus picking fourth, or picking third instead of 12th. You can find good players at any pick in any round, and there are always good players available, it’s just that your odds drop dramatically with each spot.

Obviously the higher you pick in the draft, the better chance you have to land an impact player that can change the long-term outlook of your franchise.

You expect to get, at the bare minimum, a consistent All-Star with the No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick. You might get a good first-or second-liner with the 10th pick. You hope to just find someone that will make the NHL and have a nice career as you get toward the bottom half of the first round and beyond.

[Related: Devils win draft lottery, will get No. 1 overall pick]

But what exactly does that look like from a numbers and production perspective, and how does that impact the big winners and losers from Tuesday night?

The Colorado Avalanche were big losers

The Avalanche entered the night with the best odds of winning the No. 1 overall pick (18.3 percent) due to the fact they have the Ottawa Senators’ top pick as a result of the 2017-18 Matt Duchene trade. It could have been a PR disaster for the Senators, especially after they passed on the opportunity to send their 2018 pick to Colorado and hang on to this pick to complete the trade. Had the Avalanche won there would have been a ton of second guessing going on in Ottawa.

But the Avalanche not only did not win the top pick, they fell as far as they could have possibly fallen and ended up with the No. 4 overall pick. That is still a great position for a playoff to be in, but it is probably not going to be as franchise-changing as it could have been.

The table below shows the past 20 players to go No. 1 and No. 4 overall, their career totals, and the average games played and total production from each slot.

Obviously this is not the most scientific way to do this, but it does at least give us a little bit of a baseline of what to expect from each spot.

Look at how big the drop off is, not only in terms of the star power each side has, but also in the overall careers. There are some outstanding players on the right side (Andrew Ladd, Ryan Johansen, Evander Kane, Seth Jones, Mitch Marner, Alex Pietrangelo) and a likely Hall of Famer (Nicklas Backstrom). There are also quite a few busts, or players that did not quite fulfill expectations.

Then look at over the left side. You have two clear busts in Patrik Stefan and Nail Yakupov, a couple of really players in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Aaron Ekblad, and Erik Johnson, an injury ravaged career in Rick Dipietro … and then every other player is either a superstar or has the potential to be one day be one. There is a massive difference in value, and we are only talking about three spots in draft position, while they are both considered prime draft picks.

This is a tough break for the Avalanche.

The Los Angeles Kings were even bigger losers, while the New York Rangers were huge winners

At least if you are an Avalanche fan you have a playoff team to watch this season, while you still have your own first-round draft pick to go with a top-four pick. That is a huge bonus and can still land you a really good young player to add to your core. Not getting the No. 1 overall pick might stink, but your team is still in a great position.

The Kings, however, had some rotten luck because this is not the way they wanted their rebuild to start.

Entering the night with the second-best odds to win the top pick, the Kings fell all the way back to the No. 5 overall pick. And if you thought the gap from No. 1 to No. 4 was big, the gap from No. 2 to No. 5 might be even bigger.

The No. 5 spot has produced some legitimately great players (Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler, Carey Price, Thomas VanekElias Pettersson is certainly trending in that direction) and some really good ones, but other than Ryan Murray, whose career has been sabotaged by injuries, and probably Kari Lehtonen, just about every player at the No. 2 spot has had an impact career as either a top-liner or franchise player.

At No. 2 the Kings probably would have been guaranteed to get a star in either Hughes or Kaapo Kakko. They could still get a star, or at least a really good player, at No. 5, but history suggests their odds of doing so dramatically drop.

Their fall down the draft board coincided with the Rangers going from the sixth spot to the No. 2 spot, where their rebuild now gets accelerated as they will be the ones getting the opportunity to select Hughes or Kakko.

It is a huge win for them, and it all happened because of Ryan Strome‘s overtime goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the regular season finale. If the Rangers do not win that game, it is the Edmonton Oilers in the lottery spot that would have moved to the second pick. The Oilers, of course, traded Strome to the Rangers mid-season for Ryan Spooner.

Luck is a funny thing sometimes.

The Blackhawks were HUGE winners

The Devils were the biggest winner of the night simply because they received the No. 1 overall pick. But the Chicago Blackhawks were not far behind them, and if you wanted you could probably build a convincing argument the Blackhawks were the biggest winners just because of how much they stand to gain by going from the No. 12 pick all the way up to the No. 3 overall pick.

That is a massive jump in games, goals, points, production … everything. It should — should — help the Blackhawks land another young building block, and maybe even a potential star, to go with Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, and their core of veterans that are still around. The ping pong balls falling the way they did may have helped keep the Blackhawks’ championship window open a little bit longer in the near future.

The 2019 NHL Draft will take place at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. The first round will be held Friday, June 21. Rounds 2-7 will take place Saturday, June 22.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.