Philipp Grubauer

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Avs continue strong summer by extending coach Bednar

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If you want an example of how quickly things can change in sports, consider the Colorado Avalanche and head coach Jared Bednar, who was signed to a two-year contract extension on Tuesday.

In a bizarre turn of events, Patrick Roy left the Avalanche in August of 2016, not that far from training camp. Bednar was thrown into a tough situation as head coach – some would say, in part because of a lack of options considering a hectic hiring process – and suffered through a disastrous 22-56-4 debut season in 2016-17. That was good for just 48 points in 82 games.

Things were so glum to begin 2017-18 that a miserable-looking Matt Duchene was inspiring a bunch of Simon & Garfunkel memes, and it seemed like the Avalanche might suffer through a lengthy period of … well, darkness.

Instead of merely signaling relief, the Duchene trade instead propelled the Avalanche faster toward the light at the end of the tunnel. The Avalanche stunned the hockey world by making the playoffs in 2017-18 (Bednar’s second season as head coach), and managed a repeat appearance this past season.

[PHT’s Bednar interview from August 2018]

Once the Avalanche punched their ticket to 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they made serious waves.

Colorado didn’t just upset the top-seeded Calgary Flames in Round 1. They clearly and undeniably outplayed the Flames. This Natural Stat Trick chart captures much of the spirit of the Flames falling in five games, as instead of Mike Smith being the one thing that derailed Calgary’s run, he instead held them in some of those contests:

The Avalanche also pushed an excellent San Jose Sharks team to Game 7 of Round 2, with San Jose narrowly escaping, controversial calls and all.

Considering that “mile high” elevation, any reasonable coach would want the Avalanche playing at the sort of pace that will leave opponents huffing and puffing. Bednar embraced that, but others have not, including Patrick Roy. It can be tough to separate smart coaching from sheer happenstance, yet it sure feels like Colorado is moving in the right direction, and Bednar seems to have them pointed forward.

The still-fairly-new coach also deftly handled Nathan MacKinnon‘s kind of adorable tantrum merely by not letting it become a thing.

So, aside from that first-year meltdown, Bednar’s passed most (if not) all of his tests as a head coach, making that extension easy to understand.

Bednar getting top-heavy but somewhat limited Avalanche teams to the playoffs these past two seasons is a testament to his coaching, yet the most intriguing challenges await.

Colorado’s enjoyed a smashing success of a summer, adding legitimate pieces such as Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, and Andre Burakovsky to supplement that mighty top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s up to Bednar to integrate those additions – and maybe manage Kadri’s temper? – along with making the right calls about how to work prospects Cale Makar, Conor Timmins, and Bowen Byram into the mix over the years. Bednar also must manage the goaltending position. While Philipp Grubauer looked like a genuine starting goalie toward the end of 2018-19 and into a strong playoff run, there were also shaky moments, and now the Avalanche don’t have a veteran to fall back on as Semyon Varlamov got that surprising contract from the New York Islanders.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

As much as the Avalanche seem set to take off, it’s easy to see situations where they might stumble in trying to make a greater leap forward. It could be up to Bednar to keep those frustrations from boiling over, and to manage growing pains as the Makars of the world take on greater responsibility.

In the grand scheme of things, the Avalanche appear to be on an exhilarating upward trajectory, and it seems like Bednar is a strong choice to pilot them on that journey.

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.

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.

Which teams need to add a goalie this summer?

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Free agency is just days away and teams have already begun talking to potential unrestricted free agents about joining their club. Franchise players don’t often hit the open market, but it looks like a superstar netminder could make it to July 1st.

Sergei Bobrovsky will likely test free agency and unless something unexpected happens, it appears as though he’ll be leaving the Columbus Blue Jackets. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, you’ve probably heard that the Florida Panthers are the front-runners for his services.

Whether Bobrovsky goes to Florida or not, there will only be one franchise goaltender available in free agency but there are several teams that need to add a goaltender before the start of next season. Some teams need to upgrade their starting netminder, but most simply need to add a backup that can help win them games.

Let’s take a look at which teams could stand to add a body between the pipes this summer.

Buffalo Sabres: Carter Hutton got off to a great start last year, but he fall apart in a hurry. The Sabres have to find a proven starting netminder if they’re going to turn this thing around. Will they be able to attract a quality free agent or will they need to pull the trigger on a trade?

Calgary Flames: Veteran Mike Smith will be a free agent on July 1st and David Rittich needs a new contract too (he’s a restricted free agent). Rittich will probably be back, but they could use another proven commodity between the pipes if they’re going to be serious about winning the Western Conference.

•  Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final with Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, which was very surprising. But both goalies are set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1st and the ‘Canes need a capable starter to replace them should they go elsewhere. Carolina acquired Anton Forsberg from Chicago on Monday, but he’s nothing more than a backup goalie at this point.

• Colorado Avalanche: Getting Philipp Grubauer from Washington last year proved to be a great move by general manager Joe Sakic. Now, he has to make sure he gets a capable backup goalie to add to this group assuming Semyon Varlamov doesn’t come back.

Columbus Blue Jackets: If Bobrovsky walks, they need to make sure they land a goalie that can help get them back into the playoff picture. Losing him isn’t going to be an easy pill to swallow.

Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers gave Miro Koskinen a three-year extension during the last season so whether Oilers fans like him or not, he’s probably going to be the starter heading into 2019-20. If that’s in fact the case, they need a capable backup goalie to play roughly 30 contests.

Florida Panthers: We already mentioned the Panthers earlier on in this post, so it’s obvious that they have a need. Roberto Luongo can’t stay healthy and James Reimer isn’t a starting goaltender. They need to do everything they can to make sure they can close a deal with Bobrovsky as soon as possible. This is a huge need for them.

Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price is the clear-cut starter in Montreal. Will they roll with Charlie Lindgren as his backup or will they opt for a more experienced netminder. It wouldn’t be shocking to see them bring in a free agent, especially given Price’s injury history.

New York Islanders: Robin Lehner was arguably the biggest surprise of the 2018-19 season. The Isles netminder was a Vezina Trophy finalist, but his contract expires on July 1st. Thomas Greiss has one year remaining on his deal. Greiss can be a 1B goalie, so the Isles would need to add 40 to 50 starts if Lehner decides to go elsewhere next week.

Philadelphia Flyers: Carter Hart was impressive during a 31-game stint during his rookie season, but Brian Elliott, Cam Talbot and Michal Neuvirth are all scheduled to become free agents on July 1st. The Flyers need to make sure they find a veteran to play behind Hart.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs didn’t trust Garret Sparks to get the job done as Frederik Andersen‘s backup down the stretch last season, so what makes them think he could give them 20-25 good starts next year? They probably won’t have the cap space to add a quality backup goalie though.

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.

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.