Samuel Girard

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.

Avs in position to build on current success

Getty

No matter how far the Colorado Avalanche go in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, they have all the makings of a long-term powerhouse in the Western Conference.

Assuming, of course, they don’t screw it up.

After dominating the No. 1 seed Calgary Flames and easily dismissing them in five games, the Avalanche head into Tuesday’s Game 3 against the San Jose Sharks tied in their Round 2 series, in a position to grab the upper hand thanks to a fast, skilled roster and an aggressive style of play.

Put it all together and they have been one of the most impressive teams in the playoffs so far.

It is even more impressive when you consider how much they are leaning on youth to get them to where they are.

When you look at the top-10 skaters in ice-time for the Avalanche this postseason, they have an average age of just 24 years old.  That is nearly two years younger than the top-10 players on any other team still going in the playoffs (the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders’ top-10 average is 25.8 years of age; the other seven playoff teams together average 27.2 among their top-10 most used skaters).

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Of the eight teams still playing in the playoffs, none of them are relying on youth as much as the Avalanche are.

That core includes 23 year-old Nathan MacKinnon, who might be the most valuable asset in the NHL when everything is taken into account, 22-year-old Mikko Rantanen, and a pair of 20-year-old defenders in Samuel Girard and Cale Makar.

As good as all of them are right now, it is possible, if not likely, that they still have not hit their peak level of performance in the NHL. Better days should be ahead for almost all of them.

Now, you might be looking at an Avalanche team that barely snuck in the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in a watered down Western Conference and think that it is insane to look them as a long-term powerhouse. Especially with teams like Calgary, San Jose, Vegas, Winnipeg, and Nashville still lurking and not looking like they will be going away anytime soon.

It is not an unfair point to make.

But keep in mind something about this Avalanche team.

MacKinnon and Landeskog both missed at least eight games during the regular season due to injury. J.T. Compher, one of their promising young players, only played in 66 and they still have a player like Tyson Jost that has a ton of untapped potential. Girard was in his first full-year of NHL action and Makar did not play a second of regular season ice-time. The latter two players have the look of a potentially dominant defense duo if they develop as the Avalanche hope they will. They have already seen some time together in these playoffs and have yet to show their age and inexperience. If anything, they have shined and been a big part of the team’s success.

They also have the most important and most difficult pieces to acquire when it comes to building a consistent contender — top-tier, high-end, franchise players at the top of the lineup (MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog).

But it is not just what the Avalanche have on their roster right now that makes their future so bright.

It is the potential for what they can potentially add around what they have on their roster right now that makes their future so bright.

First, the Avalanche have two first-round draft picks in 2019. Their own pick, as well as the No. 4 overall pick in the draft they acquired as part of the Matt Duchene trade (which also landed them Girard).

That No. 4 pick should, if all goes according to plan, result in another high-end talent entering the organization.

Perhaps even more important than that, they also have a ton of salary cap space at their disposal this summer.

Assuming an $83 million ceiling (as it seems that it will be, or at least in that general area) the Avalanche couild have around $36 million in salary cap space this summer with only 10 roster spots to fill.

Now, a healthy portion of that space will have to go to Rantanen who will be due a new contract as a restricted free agent. But even if he ends up getting upwards of $9-10 million, that is still going to leave the Avalanche with at least $25 million in cap space. That should — should! — make them a player for just about any unrestricted free agent that is available in the NHL this summer. That is the advantage they have given themselves by getting MacKinnon and Landeskog on contracts that are, for lack of a better word, steals.

That cap space, combined with their draft assets (two first-round picks, their own second-round pick, and two third-round picks, one of which will be the first pick in the third round, again the result of the Duchene trade with Ottawa) could make them a player for any veteran that enters the trade market.

With the money they have to burn under the cap, they could realistically go after any player they wanted as long as they wanted to spend it.

The Avalanche still have a ton to play for this season and have put themselves in a position where they could really do something special if they can take care of business at home these next two games. So no one on the ice or in their front office is probably looking too far ahead. The eyes are still on the prize in front of them.

That doesn’t mean we can’t look ahead. No matter where this season ends up going, the Avalanche have put themselves in a position where they could become the team in the Western Conference as long as they make the right moves starting this summer. Obviously a lot of this depends on the development of players like Makar, Girard, Compher, Jost, and the yet-to-be-chosen No. 4 overall pick, but everything is there for them to build a championship level team. Now they just have to do it.

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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Working overtime; Kadri over the line

  • The Scrappy Hurricanes forced overtime, but the defending champs persisted (with a Brooks Orpik OT game-winner[!]), as the Capitals came up clutch.
  • In a grinding affair where every goal mattered, the Predators tied things up with the Avalanche via Craig Smith‘s OT heroics.
  • The only Saturday game that didn’t go to OT, and wasn’t really competitive, involved the Bruins dominated the Maple Leafs. The violence was as much the story as anything else.
  • Calgary couldn’t steal one from the Avalanche, thanks to Nathan MacKinnon and Philipp Grubauer.

Capitals 4, Hurricanes 3 [OT] (Washington leads 2-0)

The Capitals are up two games, and in each case raced off to leads, but the Hurricanes have shown that they aren’t going down without a fight. Actually, without fights. They pushed this one to OT, but a broken stick and a broken play opened the door for Brooks Orpik to be an unlikely hero. Can the Hurricanes “storm surge” back into this series? Maybe, but Washington held serve … at worst.

Predators 2, Stars 1 [OT] (Series tied 1-1)

Nashville is a defensive-minded team, but compared to the Stars, they’re basically pushing the pedal to the metal. The Predators dominated the game from a shots on goal standpoint, yet it seemed like Ben Bishop might just steal a 2-0 series lead for Dallas. The Preds found a way to beat Bishop twice, and that was enough in a tight-checking, testy Game 2.

Bruins 4, Maple Leafs 1 (Series tied 1-1)

The final score was accurate, if not generous to a Toronto team that wasn’t often overmatched in Game 2. The Bruins stormed off to an early lead, and rarely looked back. It’s possible that both teams won’t be the same for a while after this one. Nazem Kadri could receive a significant suspension for his misdeeds. Other players might be injured thanks to the assorted violence, particularly Torey Krug and Connor Clifton. It was just a nasty, nasty affair.

Avalanche 3, Flames 2 [OT] (Series tied 1-1)

Mike Smith was brilliant once again, but so was Grubauer. It seemed like Calgary would gain a 2-0 lead, as the Flames went up 2-1 with less than eight minutes remaining in regulation. J.T. Compher‘s tying goal came in the closing minutes of the third, and then MacKinnon turned on the jets to win it for Colorado in Game 2. An impressive outing by the Avs, although there’s concern on defense if Samuel Girard is injured. MacKinnon’s up there when it comes to Avs stars producing early in their playoff careers.

Three Stars

1. Evgeny Kuznetsov/top Caps

It’s difficult to put together a consensus top three because a) no one scored more than two points and b) the best goalie performances probably came from Mike Smith and Ben Bishop, who were in net for losing teams. So let’s go with players who made the biggest difference in winning games, particularly the three of four Saturday Game 2 matchups that went to overtime.

You could make arguments for multiple Capitals; both Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie managed a goal and an assist apiece, while Alex Ovechkin and Kuznetsov managed two-point games. I’m giving Kuznetsov the nod because he set the table for Brooks Orpik’s overtime game-winner by recognizing that the Hurricanes were borderline-shorthanded with a broken stick, and making a great pass to land the primary assist.

I mean, just look at Orpik’s face.

2. Mikko Rantanen/MacKinnon

MacKinnon nabbed the highlight reel OT-winner, and that shot really was a work of art. Like Predators OT hero Craig Smith, MacKinnon also felt “due,” as he generated seven SOG. if it weren’t for Smith’s strong performance, MacKinnon likely would have finished with more points than that one goal.

Rantanen got an extra point, though. He had two assists in Game 2, helping to set up MacKinnon’s breakaway tally, and was also involved in the late third-period goal that sent the contest to overtime in the first place.

If Rantanen is close to 100 percent along with Gabriel Landeskog (who were both hurt and missed key games late in the regular season), then he can help open things up for MacKinnon, which means Colorado’s elite top line could be “back.” Not a ton of lines are better than Johnny Gaudreau‘s top line, but at times, that Mac-Rant trio can be just tat. And that could really swing things if Philipp Grubauer keeps up his outstanding play.

3. Brad Marchand

OK, Marchand’s assist – the second of his two points – basically came during the playoff equivalent of “garbage time.” And the Bruins didn’t quite need Marchand’s points like the players above were needed. You could probably argue that Calle Jarnkrok deserves this, or maybe Marchand’s goalie pal Tuukka Rask (30 out of 31 stops).

But Marchand had a goal and an assist with six SOG, and he didn’t do something reckless when a lot of reckless things were happening. He didn’t even get a penalty. Maybe Marchand truly has this whole reformed thing … licked.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Highlight of the Night

MacKinnon’s OT goal is just a delight to watch, and Sam Bennett‘s first of two assists was a no-look looker. So let’s just enjoy the highlights from the Avs’ 3-2 OT win, in general.

Lowlight of the Night

There were some questionable hits on Saturday, but Nazem Kadri’s was the most blatant, and might draw a significant suspension from the Department of Player Safety.

Fact of the Night

At 38 years and 199 days old, Brooks Orpik became the oldest defenseman in NHL history to score an overtime goal in the playoffs.

Sunday’s schedule

Game 3: Islanders at Penguins, 12 p.m. ET (Islanders lead 2-0) [NBC; Live stream]
Game 3: Jets at Blues, 7:30 p.m. ET (Blues lead 2-0) [CNBC; Live stream]
Game 3: Sharks at Golden Knights, 10 p.m. ET (Series tied 1-1): [NBCSN; Live stream]

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, MacKinnon keep Flames from stealing Game 2

Despite being the team that barely made it into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it felt like the Avalanche were close to having a game stolen from them.

Colorado was carrying much of the play, yet the Calgary Flames forced Game 2 to overtime thanks mostly to Mike Smith‘s fantastic work (again) in net. Ultimately, two Avs made sure that Colorado got the win they worked so hard for. First, Philipp Grubauer made a fantastic save, then Nathan MacKinnon used his blazing speed and dangerous shot to score an OT goal that even a boiling-hot netminder couldn’t stop.

With the Avalanche’s 3-2 OT win, they head home to Colorado with the series tied 1-1. Not bad against the Flames, aka the West’s top seed.

That MacKinnon goal was a true beauty:

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The tension really escalated in Game 2, with Ian Cole taking a bad penalty on a hit on James Neal, while Samuel Girard‘s health is in question after he left the contest in apparent pain. Defense isn’t the greatest area of strength for Colorado, so that’s a concern.

As fantastic as this breakthrough season has been for the Flames, the Avalanche have basically been battling for their survival for months now. Maybe those stakes explain why they’re so focused right now, but either way, it seems like Colorado could make this an interesting Round 1 series.

Avalanche – Flames Game 3 takes place at the Pepsi Center at 10 p.m. ET on Monday (CNBC; livestream)

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.