Bowen Byram

NHL Power Rankings: Fun ways the free agent frenzy could go

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With at least some of the NHL future getting less muddy, it sure looks like the next “Free Agent Frenzy” will take place on or around Nov. 1. Unfortunately, an expected flat $81.5M salary cap could make the NHL “Free Agent Frenzy” more of a flurry.

But managing a flat salary cap — likely by shedding players they didn’t want to expel — is a job for overwhelmed GMs, particularly of big-market teams. For the rest of us, we can fill some time by daydreaming about different NHL free agent scenarios. (Some more realistic than others.)

Back in April, Adam Gretz ranked the top 20 (possible) NHL Free Agents. Being that Sean Leahy recently looked at the best destinations for assumed top 2020 NHL Draft pick Alexis Lafreniere, how about we combine those ideas?

In other words, what are the best destinations for some of the NHL’s top free agents? Actually, scratch that. Let’s go with the most fun NHL free agent situations. They occasionally might even make sense!

1. Avalanche go on one-year NHL Free Agent Frenzy with Alex Pietrangelo and Taylor Hall

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

NHL fans have watched too many “super teams” form in the NBA. In some of those cases, said NBA stars flexed their leverage by agreeing to shorter deals. LeBron James left Cleveland after getting a hometown ring. Kawhi Leonard can eat apples elsewhere if the whole Clippers thing doesn’t work out.

In the case of this hypothetical scenario with the Avalanche, it would be more of an “everybody wins” scenario — except maybe Colorado’s competition. Consider these factors:

  • Pietrangelo would just block promising young defensemen like Bowen Byram working into the mix with Cale Makar if Pietrangelo signed a long-term deal. But if it was short? He buys Colorado time and can maybe hand down some life lessons to those kiddos.
  • Taylor Hall has suffered enough. Let’s get him on a good team, which Colorado … at least has a good chance of being for the foreseeable future. Right? Possibly?
  • Let’s be honest, with all of the financial turmoil going on, Pietrangelo and Hall might not enjoy much of a market. Truly, Pietrangelo might be better off taking a one-year deal to stay in St. Louis. But that’s not as fun (unless you’re a Blues fan).
  • The Avalanche figure to have a lot of money to burn, but I’m not sure that it would be wise to risk Hall and Pietrangelo hitting the aging curve. This scenario basically buys everyone some time for longer-term solutions, while taking a big swing at a 2020-21 Stanley Cup.

Now, some will point to that time the Avalanche brought in Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, and that was kind of a disaster.

To which I retort: we’d get to talk about that time the Avalanche brought in Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. Was it as much of a disaster as we thought? (Sounds like quality content either way.)

2. Buffy to Buffalo

Just imagine the bad puns and headlines that could come from Dustin Byfuglien reviving his career with the Buffalo Sabres.

As much as anything else, the Sabres and their fans need some joy. Adding a much-needed defenseman who’s as flat-out as unusual as Byfuglien would be pretty fun, if you ask me.

Could it be another disaster? Sure, but in that scenario, at least cruel people would have fun? I think it’s worth the risk. (<— Person not signing any of these checks.)

3. Hurricanes and Robin Lehner, an NHL Free Agency story of “Finally”

Despite putting up fantastic numbers for two seasons, Robin Lehner can’t seem to get the sort of stability he wants. Despite putting together deep and talented teams, the Hurricanes are always a few netminding meltdowns from throwing all of that shrewd team-building away.

Frankly, I was a little surprised the Hurricanes shrugged their shoulders at Lehner last summer. Sure, they’re analytics-leaning with Eric Tulsky calling a lot of shots (although I wonder if Don Waddell “went camping” by acquiring Brady Skjei and his not-particularly-fancy-stats?). But Lehner seemed like a buy-low candidate, particularly in signing a low-risk, one-year deal with the Blackhawks during the 2020 offseason.

Maybe it’s finally time for Carolina to take the plunge?

OK, so the smarter move might be to continue going shorter term. Perhaps Corey Crawford would take a shorter deal than what Lehner is clearly seeking. Jacob Markstrom might be the craftier addition, if the Canucks let him walk.

Lehner and the Hurricanes would rank as the more interesting story, though.

4. Can Braden Holtby halt the sinking of the Sharks?

(Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images)

Speaking of interesting narratives that might not be as wise as they look on paper, Holtby to the Sharks would be fascinating.

Martin Jones and Aaron Dell have been disastrous for the Sharks lately. Of course, there’s a chicken-and-the-egg argument, though, as the Sharks defense often hangs its goalies out to dry.

In Holtby, you have a Stanley Cup winner whose overall body of work is highly impressive. For a Sharks team tormented by playoff letdowns, Holtby’s postseason resume shines especially bright (Stanley Cup win, .928 save percentage over 89 career playoff games).

Yet, on the other hand, things have been bumpy for Holtby for some time. His game had already been slipping, but it really dipped badly in 2019-20 with a disturbing .897 save percentage. Holtby probably will demand a hefty contract thanks to his prior work, too.

So … there are a lot of red flags here. That said, the Sharks are pretty desperate. At minimum, it would be interesting to see if that gamble would pay off for San Jose.

Assorted fun NHL free agent scenarios of varying realism

  • As interesting as it would be for Joe Thornton to ship back up to Boston, I keep going back to Thornton with the Winnipeg Jets for some reason. The Jets would actually be a sensible landing spot for someone like Torey Krug, but Thornton chasing a Stanley Cup with the Jets just feels right.
  • The Maple Leafs are going to experience an agonizing cap squeeze. If Kevin Shattenkirk took another one-year, low-dollar deal, maybe Toronto would come calling? He’s the sort of double-edged sword defenseman who could help the Maple Leafs more than hurt them. But oh, how that hockey-crazed media and fan base will overreact to those mistakes …
  • The Blackhawks seem pretty deep in a “just try to outscore their problems” phase. Is there a better defenseman for that pursuit than Tyson Barrie? I mean, probably, but that could make for a white-knuckle ride.
  • Let’s get Evgenii Dadonov to a California team. With any luck, Dad would attend a Padres game.

MORE POWER RANKINGS:

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.

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.

Colorado Avalanche: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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 surprises and disappointments for the Colorado Avalanche.

Pavel Francouz the surprising star in net

If you were to look at the Avalanche roster at the start of the season and had to pick out an area of concern, goaltending might have been the easy choice.

Philipp Grubauer is a solid starter, but is he a championship-caliber goalie? After him, their top backup was the relatively unproven Francouz who entered the season with just two appearances in the NHL and only one season of professional hockey in North American. Given his age (29) and lack of an NHL resume, there had to be at least a little bit of a question mark regarding their goaltending depth.

Francouz has, instead, turned out to be one of the single biggest surprises on this year’s roster.

In 34 appearances he owns a 21-7-4 record with a .923 save percentage and was outstanding as the starter when Grubauer was sidelined due to injury. His overall play has been so good that the Avalanche already signed him to a two-year contract extension. He and Grubauer have turned out to be an outstanding duo and the underrated star of this year’s team.

Injuries have been a major disappointment

When it comes to performance it is really difficult to find a disappointment on this year’s team. The stars have been great, the scoring depth was addressed in a meaningful way over the summer with some great additions, the goaltending has been better than expected, and the young defensemen have excelled and are already blossoming into stars.

Instead of anything relating to performance, the biggest disappointment this season has been the bad injury luck.

Obviously that is not anyone’s fault, but it has kept us from really getting a sense of just how good this team can be when it is at full strength.

The injury list this season includes…

That is not only a lot of games, it is a lot of games for significant players.

Even with all of that the Avalanche have still been one of the league’s best teams and certainly builds some excitement for what their ceiling is when everyone is in the lineup.

Tyson Jost has not really taken a big step forward

If you did want to reach for a performance related disappointment Jost might be the player to look at. It is tough to say that because on one hand he is still only 21 years old and has a ton of talent. So the potential is absolutely there. On the other hand, he has also already played 200 NHL games and has not really shown significant improvement. After that many games it might be time to start wondering if this is the player that he is — a 10-goal, 20-point depth forward. Not saying he can not be more than that, and players do develop at different paces, but we are no longer talking about a small sampling of games here.

He was mentioned in trade rumors leading up to the deadline and it definitely seems reasonable to conclude that he could be moved at some point in the future.

Ryan Graves has been a great complement for Makar

The Avalanche have the potential for an outstanding long-term defense with Makar (the current Calder Trophy front-runner as the league’s Rookie of the Year), Samuel Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram. That trio, their talent, upside, and contract situations help make them one of the most important parts of the team’s core moving forward and will be the foundation of a potential championship team in the very near future.

There is another player that has emerged as part of that defense this season, and that is the 24-year-old Graves.

He has spent a significant portion of his season playing alongside Makar to help form an outstanding pair.

In close to 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season the Avalanche have completely dominated the shot attempt and scoring-chance metrics and have outscored teams by a 31-17 margin with them on the ice. While it is easy to conclude that a lot of that is due to Makar carrying the duo, Graves has also excelled when playing next to Ian Cole.

Basically, no matter who he plays next to, it works.

For the season, Graves has nine goals and 26 total points and is a league-leading plus-40 while playing close to 19 minutes per game.

He may not be the impact player or star that Makar is, but his play has been an outstanding development this season.

MORE:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche
What is the Avalanche’s long-term outlook?

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 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.

Return on Duchene trade will help shape Avalanche’s defense for years

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Two years ago the perception of the Colorado Avalanche was very, very, very different than it is today.

At the start of the 2017-18 season they had missed the playoffs three years in a row and six of the past seven, while one of their best returning players, Matt Duchene, wanted out.

It was a wish that the Avalanche management eventually granted him early in the season.

It has turned out to be one of the franchise-altering moments over the past two years that has seen the Avalanche become one of the best young teams in the league, one that looks to be on the verge of becoming a fearsome Stanley Cup contender.

Nothing has played a bigger role in that rapid improvement Nathan MacKinnon turning into a top-5 player in the league and Mikko Rantanen becoming a star right alongside him. But do not overlook the importance of the Duchene trade given how much value they were able to squeeze out of that deal.

Just for a refresher on how it looked at the time, it was a three-team trade that saw Duchene to go to the Ottawa Senators, Kyle Turris go to the Nashville Predators from the Senators, and a collection of young players and draft picks from both teams going to the Avalanche.

That return for the Avalanche included.

  • Samuel Girard, at the time a 19-year-old defender and a top prospect in the Predators’ organization
  • Shane Bowers, the Ottawa Senators’ first-round pick (No. 28 overall) in the 2017 NHL draft
  • Vladislav Kamenev, at the time a 20-year-old forward and No. 42 overall pick from 2014
  • Goalie Andrew Hammond
  • Two draft picks that turned out to be Ottawa’s first-round pick (No. 4 overall) in 2019 and Ottawa’s third-round pick in 2019

With the 2019 NHL draft having taken place this weekend, the return on that trade continued to grow as the Avalanche used both selections on Friday and Saturday.

They used the first-round pick to select defender Bowen Byram from the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League, and the third-round pick (the first pick in that round) to select center Matthew Stienburg.

The number of young, premium assets alone makes it an incredible haul for an excellent, but not quite great, player that clearly wanted out of Colorado.

It is also a return that should have a substantial impact on the future of the Avalanche blue line for the next decade.

First you have Girard, who just turned 21 back in May, that took a pretty big leap forward this past season for the Avalanche, playing close to 20 minutes per night and demonstrating some of the offensive flare that made him such a key piece of the trade. When the playoffs rolled around the Avalanche had no reservations about throwing him on the ice with Cale Makar, another of their top prospects and the Avalanche’s own No. 4 overall pick in 2018. When that duo was on the ice together they looked like they had the potential to take over games.

Because the Senators immediately went in the tank after acquiring Duchene and eventually began a two-year fire sale, the Avalanche were in a position to pick Byram at the top of the 2019 draft and add yet another dynamic, offensive blue-liner to their roster.

Between him, Makar, and Girard the Avalanche will have three potential (potential being the key word) top-pairing defenders in their organization that are all age 21 or younger.

This also plays a role in allowing the Avalanche to have more salary cap flexibility than almost any other team in the league, and especially among potential Stanley Cup contenders. When combined with the fact that MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog are playing on long-term contracts that are laughably below market value, getting three talented defenders on entry-level contracts is a huge advantage for them.

This is an admittedly rosy outlook that assumes everything works out exactly as planned. It does not always work out the way when talking about 18 or 19 year old players. But based on what we have seen from Girard and Makar in their brief samplings, and the potential that Byram brings to the organization, there is every reason to believe the Avalanche have the chance to build a dangerous blue line over the next decade. They have the Duchene trade to thank for two of those three key pieces.

It is, at this point, abundantly clear that the Avalanche worked this situation as perfectly as they could have and no doubt came out ahead among the three teams in that trade.

The Senators did not even get two full seasons out of Duchene before trading him for less than they gave up to get him.

Turris has been a massive disappointment so far in Nashville and carries a substantial contract over the next few seasons.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, have several young, talented assets that could be the foundation of a powerhouse team in the NHL, especially with the salary cap space they still have to use this summer and in future seasons.

It is usually difficult to get fair value in a trade of that magnitude, and often times when you give up what is, at the time, the best player in the trade you often times come out on the losing end of it. The theory in these situations is that the trading team can get a kings ransom of players and picks that will one day re-shape the look of the franchise. It almost never works out that way.

The Avalanche made it work.

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.