Ian Cole

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Avs forward Mikko Rantanen in Finland with no deal imminent

DENVER — Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon have a spot open on their top line.

For the moment, anyway, until things are resolved with their third dimension, Mikko Rantanen.

The Colorado Avalanche are about to open training camp and Rantanen remains in Finland as the restricted free agent tries to work out a new deal.

”It’s going to get sorted out,” Landeskog said Thursday as the team reported to the Pepsi Center for pre-camp physicals. ”Obviously, you miss him. But we’re not too worried about it.”

As far as headway toward a deal, Rantanen’s agent, Michael Liut, said in an email: ”Optimistic, but nothing imminent.” Liut added that there is ”always progress in a negotiation, sometimes slower than both sides would prefer.”

The 22-year-old Rantanen formed a potent combination with MacKinnon and Landeskog last season to help the Avalanche make the playoffs for a second straight year. The All-Star trio accounted for 41% of Colorado’s goals in the regular season. What’s more, the team was 24-6-5 when they each collected a point in a game – and 6-0 when they all scored a goal in the same contest.

Rantanen is coming off a season in which he finished with 31 goals and 56 assists. His 87 points were a career high.

”Certainly he’s a great player for us and we’d love to have him in camp,” coach Jared Bednar said. ”He’s obviously not here, so the focus for me and our team shifts to the guys who are here and in our locker room.”

That means Bednar will tinker with Rantanen’s spot on the top line.

First up, the new guys – Andre Burakovsky, who was acquired in a June trade with Washington, and Joonas Donskoi, a forward the Avalanche picked up in free agency after he spent the last few seasons with San Jose.

After that, maybe some in-house candidates – J.T. Compher and Tyson Jost.

”We have a job to do to get ready for the season, and that’s the way I look at it,” said Bednar, whose team was eliminated last season by the Sharks in Game 7 of the second round. ”Hopefully we can get Mikko in and bring him up to speed quickly and get him joining us for the regular season. That’d be a nice goal for us.”

The Avalanche are a trendy pick to make some noise this season after general manager Joe Sakic gave the team an offseason makeover. Colorado brought in free agents such as Donskoi and center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. They also drafted defenseman Bowen Byram with the No. 4 overall pick.

Colorado also made several trades, including one with Arizona to land defenseman Kevin Connauton. The Avs sent defenseman Tyson Barrie and forward Alex Kerfoot to Toronto in exchange for defenseman Calle Rosen and forward Nazem Kadri.

So far, MacKinnon likes what he’s seen in Kadri, who joined the speedy forward for pre-camp workouts in the higher elevation of Vail, Colorado.

”He’s a lot better than I thought he was. I knew he was a really good player. But up in Vail, there was a lot to be seen,” MacKinnon said. ”I think in Toronto, he was held back a little bit. He’s a great shutdown player. He’s got a lot of offensive upside that I don’t think the league has seen yet. We’re definitely going to see it this year.”

MacKinnon has been in talks with Rantanen – not about contracts, though, just as a friend.

”I know Mikko wants to be here,” MacKinnon said. ”We’re excited to have him here soon.”

NOTES: D Ian Cole remains on schedule after hip surgery, but he won’t be skating with the group to start training camp. ”He’s still not there yet,” Bednar said. … F Colin Wilson and D Erik Johnson are both recovering from shoulder surgeries. ”They’ve both been progressing really well,” Bednar said.

How good can Avs be next season?

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The future is looking bright in Colorado. Not only have the Avs made several additions to their roster this summer, but they haven’t even reached the salary cap floor of $60 million yet. So how good are they and what’s left for them to accomplish this off-season?

For starters, they won’t be below the cap floor for much longer. They have to sign prized restricted free agent Mikko Rantanen to a new deal that will likely exceed $8 million per season and they also have to give newly acquired forward Andre Burakovsky a new contract, too. Add defenseman Nikita Zadorov to the mix, and you’re looking at adding a total of roughly $16 million in salaries between the three of them.

Even once those players sign, the Avalanche will still have a significant amount of cap space to go out and make even more additions to their roster. As of right now, they have $27.15 million worth of room under the cap, so general manager Joe Sakic should be feeling good about the way things are shaping up.

Sakic will continue to be busy in the next few days and weeks, but he’s already made some key additions via the draft, trades and free agency. They selected defenseman Bowen Byram fourth overall in the NHL Entry Draft, they added Burakovsky and Nazem Kadri by trade, and they signed Joonas Donskoi and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in free agency.

They lost Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot in the deal for Kadri, but upgrading down the middle isn’t easy to do in the NHL. Those guys rarely become available, so when they do you need to pounce on them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So, how good are the Avalanche right now?

Well, if we assume Rantanen is coming back, that means that one of the best lines in hockey will remain intact. Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog are a force when they’re together, and the Avs should be confident rolling them out there against anybody in the league.

Kadri will add some scoring touch to the second line and to their power play, and Burakovasky and/or Donskoi could be intriguing fits on that line. They could probably use some of their left over cap space to add one more top six forward via free agency or trade, but the top two lines look solid.

Also, we haven’t seen the best of Tyson Jost just yet either. The 21-year-old 11 goals and 26 points in 70 games last season. Expect him to get more and more comfortable in the NHL as he gains experience. He’s one of the “boom” candidates on Colorado’s roster going into 2019-20.

As for their defense, the Avs have some of the best young defenders in the league on their blue line. We all saw what Cale Makar was able to do in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He looks like he’ll be a number one defenseman in the near future. Sam Girard is a smaller player that’s perfectly suited for today’s NHL, and they drafted Byram. Now, you can understand why they were so open to trading Barrie to Toronto. They also have veterans like Erik Johnson and Ian Cole that can show these youngsters what it takes to be regular NHLers.

That brings us to their goaltending situation. The Avs went into last season with Semyon Varlamov and Philipp Grubauer as their one-two punch between the pipes. They quickly realized that Grubauer was the superior option, and he didn’t disappoint them. The 27-year-old played well in the playoffs, and it looks like he’ll be the one to lead this team next season. There are plenty of question marks surrounding Grubauer though. Most notably, he hasn’t suited up in more than 37 games during the regular season at any point in his career. Of course, he played 37 last year and 12 more in the playoffs, but how will he respond to potentially playing 50 regular-season games plus the postseason? We simply don’t know.

Overall, the Avs look like a solid team on paper with a good blend of veterans and young players. There’s still some question marks on this roster, but they’ve done a great job of locking in players like MacKinnon and Landeskog to very fair contracts, which has led to them having plenty of cap space to address other needs.

They finished in the final Wild Card spot in the West last year, and it wouldn’t surprise anybody if they managed to leap over any of the three other teams (Nashville, Winnipeg and St. Louis) as soon as next season. Whether or not they’re ready to make an appearance in the Western Conference Final remains to be seen, but they’re not that far off.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Trading Tyson Barrie sounds like a bad idea for Avalanche

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This already-fascinating offseason serves as a warning to NHL teams: be proactive with key players’ next contracts, because if you leave it until the last minute, you could get burned.

Look at what almost feels like city-wide anxiety in Toronto over the RFA future of young star Mitch Marner. Soak in the agonizingly paltry return the Jets received for Jacob Trouba, which was maybe bound to be bad.

Yet, sometimes when a trend forms, there’s also a risk of overcorrection. The Colorado Avalanche face a risk if they get too hasty and trade underrated defenseman Tyson Barrie.

The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun passes along word (sub required for full post) from at least one anonymous Eastern Conference executive that the Avalanche are at least listening to offers about Barrie, a 27-year-old defenseman whose bargain $5.5 million cap hit expires after the 2019-20 season. LeBrun didn’t indicate that a trade is necessarily imminent, but added, “it certainly sounds possible.”

Now, let me say this before I dive deeper: there are scenarios where it could make sense to trade Tyson Barrie.

Someone like Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers might make sense, as he’s young, and not only similarly priced, but locked up at $6M AAV through 2024-25. Ehlers would be a wonderful fit for a Colorado offense that could use some support beyond their mega top line, and his wonderful transition skills would be absolutely terrifying in high-elevation home games in Colorado.

(Seriously, if that happens, pray for any defensemen without the cardio of an elite cyclist.)

But, occasional examples aside … I can’t say I love the logic of moving Barrie, especially if it’s about the Avalanche’s blueline being too crowded with right-handed defensemen, as LeBrun indicates because of Cale Makar (he’s very good!) and Erik Johnson (eh).

First, consider that Barrie is really good, and then realize that the Avalanche are in a situation where they can almost certainly afford to extend him.

Barrie good

The Avalanche have been crawling back up to relevance in recent years, which means that people have probably been sleeping on just how strong a player Barrie is, particularly at that affordable $5.5M clip.

Last season, Barrie generated an outstanding 14 goals and 59 points in 78 games, hitting 14 goals and 50+ points for the second season in a row (he managed 57 points in 2017-18, which is actually pretty astounding because he only played in 68 games). Barrie hit 53 points in 2014-15, so while his numbers are undoubtedly juiced a bit by being the guy often on the ice when Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are ruling the world, it’s not as though Barrie is a mere bystander.

Since 2013-14, Barrie’s 294 points ranks eighth among NHL defensemen, tying him with P.K. Subban (in one fewer game played), and leaving Barrie ahead of the likes of Torey Krug, Kris Letang, Drew Doughty, and Alex Pietrangelo. If you look at the past two seasons, Barrie’s 116 points ranks him sixth among blueliners, and just one behind Victor Hedman.

Chances are, a lot of hockey fans didn’t know that Barrie has been that prolific, and he isn’t just scoring points. Barrie passes just about every test, often with flying colors.

You can see that he’s an important all-around defenseman when you ponder routinely strong possession stats, particularly compared to Avalanche teammates. If you prefer a visual aid, consider how he compares on this GAR chart (visualization by Sean Tierney, data by Evolving Hockey), which also speaks kindly to Samuel Girard‘s impact:

Barrie outclasses Erik Johnson in the transition game, already, and that should only become more pronounced as the two age (Barrie, again, is 27, while Johnson is 31).

Maybe you can get really granular and claim that Barrie isn’t as strong defensively as (insert high-profile defenseman), but you’d really have to start stretching to find ways to badmouth a player who’s just … really good.

And, here’s a rule of thumb: teams probably shouldn’t trip over their feet trying to find ways to get rid of their really good players. That might sound painfully obvious, but NHL teams sometimes make moves that defy logic, so it has to be said.

Because, frankly, the Avalanche are in a great position to just keep Barrie around, and bask in the competitive advantage.

Plenty of space, and plenty more opening up

One thing that’s really exciting about the Avalanche is that, thanks to MacKinnon’s outrageous bargain contract, Gabriel Landeskog still being affordable for a bit, Philipp Grubauer being primed to provide very nice value for two more seasons, and one year of Barrie, they really have a lot of values on their books.

While Rantanen’s second contract will certainly be a steep upgrade, the Avalanche are still in a pretty comfortable place, as Cap Friendly estimates their pre-Rantanen cap space at a bit more than $36 million, assuming it lands at $82M.

Even with Rantanen primed to possibly bump that space closer to $26M, the Avalanche are in an enviable cap situation both now, and really in the next few years.

Along with best-in-class bargains for the likes of MacKinnon, the Avalanche also: get two more entry-level years out of Makar, one more out of Girard, and also stand to get below-market value from the fourth overall pick of 2019, whether that prospect makes the immediate jump or Colorado has them marinate at a lower level for a year or two.

If that isn’t enough to impress upon the Avalanche that they should be adding, not subtracting a player like Barrie, consider some of the less-ideal money that will go away. Carl Soderberg‘s $4.75M is gone after 2019-20, while Ian Cole ($4.25M) and Matt Calvert ($2.85M) see deals expire after 2020-21.

Carl Soderberg at $4.75M is simply too much, but that deal goes away after next season. Ian Cole is also an issue at $4.25M, but only through 2020-21. Even Matt Calvert’s $2.85M through 2020-21 will be better used elsewhere. That’s almost $12M that can go toward new deals for Barrie, Makar, and other younger players.

So … if the Avalanche can trade Barrie for a comparable player, shouldn’t they just keep Barrie around? Really, shouldn’t they be eager to do so? Defensemen like Barrie don’t exactly grow on trees.

Really, if anything, the Avalanche should be exploring avenues to move Johnson, instead. At 31, his value is only likely to decline, so the already-shaky prospect of paying him $6M gets pretty scary as it goes along, being that Johnson’s deal runs through 2022-23. Traditional-thinking NHL teams love big tough defensemen with pedigree, so it wouldn’t be that shocking if the Avs were able to get the first pick of the 2006 NHL Draft off of their books in hopes of keeping younger, faster, better players.

***

Barrie isn’t a household name, even in many hockey households, but he’s an excellent defenseman. For a young, speedy team like the Avalanche, he’s honestly an incredible fit.

Sometimes there are fair deals out there, and Barrie would likely draw interest. It’s just uncomfortably easy to imagine the Avalanche on the wrong end of such a trade.

Then again, the Avalanche have taken lemons and made lemonade, such as with the staggeringly brilliant return for Matt Duchene, so maybe they’d win an Ehlers trade, too? Colorado is on the short list of teams that might actually pull that off … but generally speaking, I’d just try to keep Barrie around.

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.

Pavelski makes quick Game 7 impact, MacKinnon shakes off injury

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Joe Pavelski‘s return for Game 7 has already proven to be huge for the San Jose Sharks. Meanwhile, the Avalanche lost Nathan MacKinnon for a chunk of the first, but the news for them isn’t as dreary as it initially seemed.

Pavelski’s fingerprints were all over the first period. He set the tone, scoring the opening goal on a deflection just 5:57 minutes into the game.

He also got the primary assist on Tomas Hertl‘s goal to make the game 2-0 and drew a penalty from Ian Cole. So it’s fair to say that Game 7 could have gotten off to a very different start if Pavelski wasn’t able to make his series debut.

The Avalanche weren’t nearly as fortunate early on. Less than two minutes into the game, MacKinnon ran into the boards during a power play and immediately left with what looked like a shoulder or arm injury.

Amazingly, he was able to return late into the first. We can’t know if he’s playing hurt or not, but for what it’s worth, he still managed to come close to scoring. To make matters better for the Avalanche, Mikko Rantanen scored in the dying seconds of the period, so at least they went into the intermission down by just a goal.

This is shaping up to be a wild Game 7.

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.

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.