Kevin Connauton

What is the Colorado Avalanche’s long-term outlook?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Colorado Avalanche.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

It might be the best long-term outlook in the entire NHL. They are young, they are good, and they have a ton of salary cap space to work with. At the top of the lineup is the three-headed forward monster of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. Each player is a star on their own, and when they are put together on a line they form the most dominant offensive trio in the league. All three are signed through the end of next season at a combined salary cap hit of around $20 million. For the production they get out of those three it is an absolute steal against the cap.

MacKinnon is the foundation and still has three more full seasons remaining at $6.3 million per season. It makes him one of the most valuable players in the entire league because he not only gives them MVP, superstar level production to carry the offense, but his contract is so far below market value that it creates additional flexibility under the salary cap.

The same is true with Landeskog who has one year remaining at just a little more than $5.5 million.

Rantanen is the big-money player for now at over $9 million per season for the next five years.

The big question after them was their secondary scoring, but that was addressed over the summer with the additions of Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, and Valeri Nichushkin. Kadri and Donskoi are both signed long-term, while Nichushkin — very pleasant surprise this season — and Burakovsky will still be  restricted free agents after this season with plenty of salary cap space to work with to re-sign them.

Beyond that, the Avalanche are set on defense with the quartet of Cale Makar, Samuel Girad, Bowen Byram, and Ryan Graves.

Long-Term Needs

While the goaltending duo of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz has been outstanding this season, with both signed through at least next season at a very manageable salary cap number, it might still be the one position that gets a second-look from outsiders as a weakness.

Even that is probably a stretch because it is not really a true weakness right now, and if anything has been one of their biggest strengths this season. But given the contract situation beyond next season for Grubauer, and the fact Francouz is already 29 years old with less than 40 games of NHL action on his resume, it could be something that needs to be addressed over the next year.

A lot of it probably depends on how Grubauer plays when he returns this season and in the playoffs (we are still hoping for the remainder of this season and the playoffs) and through next season.

Long-Term Strengths

The obvious answer here is the top trio of forwards, and especially MacKinnon. Superstar talents are the toughest pieces of a championship team to acquire, and the Avalanche not only have those players, they are still in the prime of their careers — or just entering their prime — and signed long-term for team-friendly salary cap numbers.

What really starts to separate the Avalanche is the makeup of their defense.

Cale Makar looks like he is going to be a star and might have a Norris Trophy in his future. Samuel Girard is a fine No. 2 or 3 on a contending team. Bowen Byram, the No. 4 overall pick from this past year as a result of the Matt Duchene trade, is loaded with potential. Ryan Graves has been a huge development this season and only adds to the strength of that young blue line. Out of that quartet Graves is the only one over the age of 21, and even he is still only 24 years old.

The other big strength is simply the fact they are still swimming in salary cap space, even with the new long-term contracts for Rantanen and Girard (which begins next season). Having a team that is already among the best in the league and still having more salary cap space than almost every other contender is going to give them a significant advantage over their biggest competition, not only when it comes to keeping their secondary players, but also adding to their core.

No team is ever guaranteed a championship, but the Avalanche have everything in place to be a top Stanley Cup contender for the foreseeable future.

MORE:
Looking at the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche
Surprises and disappointments

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.

Avs a trendy pick for deep playoff run after busy offseason

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DENVER — New arrival Nazem Kadri wasn’t with his Colorado Avalanche teammates very long before making a quick observation.

Definitely contenders.

”I’ve been around some good teams and this is certainly one that I think could compete to go the distance,” Kadri said. ”We’ve got a good mix of veteran leadership and youth and I think that’s a lethal combination.”

That lineup should be even more potent once forward Mikko Rantanen returns. The restricted free agent is away from the team as he tries to work out a new deal.

”We’re excited to have him here soon,” linemate Nathan MacKinnon said.

Following a second straight playoff appearance, general manager Joe Sakic decided to reshape his roster. Kadri was acquired in the deal that sent defenseman Tyson Barrie and forward Alexander Kerfoot to Toronto. In other trades, Sakic acquired defenseman Kevin Connauton from Arizona and left wing Andre Burakovsky from Washington.

Sakic also added veteran center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare as a free agent and right wing Joonas Donskoi. They also selected defenseman Bowen Byram with the No. 4 overall pick in the draft.

”Joe said it fairly early on in the offseason process that we’re going to be smart but aggressive,” captain Gabriel Landeskog said. ”That’s what we were. We went out and got some really good pieces.”

That’s in addition to already having one of the top lines in hockey with Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen. Not only that, but a talented blue line buoyed by youngsters Cale Makar and Samuel Girard.

No wonder the Avalanche are on everyone’s radar as a team to watch.

”It’s nice to have some pressure,” MacKinnon said. ”We’re not just the bad Avs or whatever anymore. We’re a contender and that’s fun. We all want pressure. It’s no fun coming in as an underdog. The best teams have pressure on them.”

Here are things to know before the Avalanche open the season Oct. 3 against Calgary:

WHO’S HERE: Connauton, RW Valeri Nichushkin, Bellemare, Byram, D Calle Rosen, Kadri, Donskoi and Burakovsky.

WHO’S NOT: Barrie, Kerfoot, F Carl Soderberg, F Derick Brassard, G Semyon Varlamov, F Sven Andrighetto, F Gabriel Bourque.

KEY PLAYERS: Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen combined for 106 goals and 155 assists a season ago. The team was 24-6-5 when they each collected a point in a game. Philipp Grubauer enters the season as the primary goaltender after going 7-0-2 in his final nine starts of the regular season to get the Avalanche into the postseason. He was 7-5 in Colorado’s playoff run.

OUTLOOK: Colorado is a pick by some pundits to make it to the final of the Western Conference. Kadri already sees something building. ”I love the expectation and love the standard these guys hold themselves to,” he said. The Avalanche stunned the top-seeded Flames last season, winning the series 4-1, before falling in Game 7 to San Jose. ”It’s like every new season, you look back in the rearview mirror and learn from things, but you can’t dwell on them,” Landeskog said. ”You have to move forward. It’s a new year. It’s a new group. We’re super-excited what we have here.”

PREDICTION: The Avalanche stressed consistency as an important ingredient in taking the next step. Colorado was tied for the most points in the Western Conference after games on Dec. 7 and then went through a rough stretch that nearly cost the Avs a playoff spot before bouncing back. ”The guys that were here last year, we definitely learned from that,” Landeskog said. ”Because from Dec. 1 through whatever, we weren’t playing good enough. I don’t know how many games we managed to win, but it wasn’t enough. It nearly ended up costing us a playoff berth.”

Avs forward Mikko Rantanen in Finland with no deal imminent

Getty Images

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.

It’s Colorado Avalanche Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

2018-19
38-30-14, 90 pts. (5th in the Central Division, 8th in the Western Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in seven games to the San Jose Sharks in Round 2

IN
Nazem Kadri
Joonas Donskoi
Andre Burakovsky
Kevin Connauton
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

OUT
Tyson Barrie
Semyon Varlamov
Carl Soderberg
Sven Andrighetto
Alex Kerfoot
Patrick Nemeth
Gabriel Bourque

RE-SIGNED
Samuel Girard
J.T. Compher
Colin Wilson
A.J. Greer
Nikita Zadorov
Ryan Graves

2018-19 season review

It all started off so swimmingly for the Avs to begin the season.

They trotted out to a 15-6-5 record through the first two months, including a stretch of eight wins in nine games in November. They had nestled themselves into a good spot come Dec. 1 and past that magical date of U.S. Thanksgiving where teams above the playoff line generally stay there and teams below it do not.

The Avs put themselves into second place, just behind the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference. Their top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog was the best line in hockey, scoring at will. And despite the lack of scoring depth, it didn’t matter one iota. MacKinnon and Co. were carrying the team to great heights.

By New Year’s Day, however, they had suddenly dropped to sixth place in the conference. By Feb. 1, they were down to eighth, and with a month and a week to go in the season they were on the outside looking in.

December and January were particularly awful stretches for the Avs, who won just seven of 24 games across the two-month span.

You can only run as a one-trick pony for so long and when the top line’s offense dried up a bit, so did the team’s rich vein of form.

Enter Philipp Grubauer.

Grubauer was the prize for the Avs buying out Brooks Orpik’s contract from the Washington Capitals during the 2018 offseason. He didn’t set the world on first earlier in the year, but when Colorado needed him most, he pulled through.

The German posted a 9-2-2 record in 14 appearances in the run-in to the playoffs. His .956 save percentage and three shutouts secured a playoff spot on April 4, the final in the Western Conference.

[MORE: 3 QuestionsUnder Pressure I X-factor: Makar]

And his play was rewarded when head coach Jared Bednar gave him the crease for their opening-round matchup against the top-ranked Calgary Flames. And there he flourished, too, helping backstop the Avs to a five-game series win over the first-place Flames.

He’d lead the Avs to the brink of the Western Conference Final, only to lose out to the San Jose Sharks in Game 7.

He showed well enough. And Grubauer will be the team’s top man in net this season as he becomes a bona fide starter for the first time.

General manager Joe Sakic has gone out and looked for secondary scoring to complement that dangerous top line. The addition of Nazem Kadri via trade, Joonas Donskoi in free agency, and Andre Burakovsky, whose rights were acquired in a trade and later signed, will go a long way to helping that cause.

The Central Division is in the midst of an arms race and the Avs have certainly kept up appearances. They shouldn’t be struggling to get in into the postseason in early April this time around because of that.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

It’s Arizona Coyotes Day at PHT

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Arizona Coyotes. 

2018-19
39-35-8, 86 points (4th in Pacific Division, 9th in Western Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Phil Kessel
Carl Soderberg
Beau Bennett

OUT
Alex Galchenyuk
Kevin Connauton
Nick Cousins
Richard Panik
Josh Archibald

RE-SIGNED
Lawson Crouse
Hudson Fasching
Ilya Lyubushkin

2018-19 Season Summary

The Coyotes opened last season by dropping four of their first five games but they found a way to go on a five-game winning streak in late October/early November. The rest of 2018 was very much up and down for them, which is something you’d expect from a young team.

They managed to get really hot in late February/early March, as they won six games in a row and eight of nine contests. Just as they were building momentum in their fight for a playoff spot, the wheels fell off again in March when they dropped seven of their last 11 games that month.

In the end, they ended up missing the playoffs by just four points and they only had one fewer regulation/overtime win than Colorado, who finished in the final Wild Card spot.

It’s easy to look at the Coyotes’ season as a failure, but they’ve clearly built some positive momentum heading into the summer. Head coach Rick Tocchet found a way to get the most out of his group of players. They were so close to the postseason despite not having starting goalie Antti Raanta for most of the season (they used five different goalies last year) and they didn’t have any player hit the 20-goal or 50-point mark in 2018-19 (Yeah, you read that correctly).

Tocchet isn’t the only one that deserves credit. Goalie Darcy Kuemper turned in strong performance after strong performance throughout the campaign. This was Kuemper’s first real opportunity to be a starting goaltender in the NHL and he didn’t disappoint. The 29-year-old finished the year with a 27-20-8 record, a 2.33 goals-against-average and a .925 save percentage. He kept them in the race. Now that Raanta is healthy again, it’ll be interesting to see how the two netminders split starts next season.

[MORE COYOTES: Under Pressure: Kessel | X-factor | Three questions]

Heading into the season, Arizona probably expected a little more production from Clayton Keller. The 21-year-old had 23 goals and 65 points in 82 games during his rookie season, but he followed that up by scoring 14 goals and 47 points in the same amount of games in year two. It’s totally normal for a player to take a step back in the second year of his career, but the diminished production may have been the difference between playing in the playoffs and watching them from home.

And the other thing that hurt the Coyotes was the failed Alex Galchenyuk experiment. GM John Chayka traded Max Domi to Montreal to get Galchenyuk, but he only lasted one year in the desert. Yes, trading him away allowed the team to get Phil Kessel from Pittsburgh, but it must have been hard for the ‘Yotes to watch Domi score over 70 points for the Habs while Galchenyuk managed just 41 points in 72 games. Apparently Chayka saw all he needed to see from the 25-year-old in just one season.

The Coyotes were a nice little story in 2018-19, but they have to find a way to turn the corner this season. They have a new owner, some new players and a coaching staff that has another year under their belt. They have to find a way to get themselves in one of the top eight spots in the Western Conference. Signing Oliver Ekman-Larsson to a long-term deal will help keep them competitive and adding veterans like Kessel and Carl Soderberg should give them a nudge in the right direction, too.

MORE: ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker

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.