It took almost the entire offseason, but the Colorado Avalanche did it. They locked down the last big-name RFA remaining by signing Mikko Rantanen to a six-year deal that carries a $9.2 million AAV.
Initially, it brings to mind favorable comparisons to the Maple Leafs, as Mitch Marner received the same term at an expensive $10.893M cap hit.
But consider another comparison: Matthew Tkachuk and the Flames. In that case, a three-year deal with a $7M AAV opened a three-year window for Calgary to compete for a Stanley Cup, or at least on paper. (As we saw with the Washington Capitals, sometimes the breakthrough comes after you think you had your best chance.)
In the case of the Avalanche, you can look at a few different windows thanks to a few different factors.
The Mac Factor (through 2022-23)
The biggest window comes from getting Nathan MacKinnon, easily one of the most dynamic stars in the NHL, for what feels like close to a 50-percent discount at an absurdly low $6.3M cap hit. To the envy of basically the entire league, that almost larcenous deal runs through 2022-23.
The Avalanche getting four years of Rantanen and MacKinnon for a combined AAV of $15.5M provides an enormous competitive advantage. You could argue that “the rest is gravy,” but in a team sport like hockey, that gravy would be needed to complete a championship meal.
Other noteworthy contracts that last at least four more years include:
The Avalanche added some term with a few of these deals, and also made a key decision to move on from Tyson Barrie, exchanging him in a deal that brought in Nazem Kadri (28, $4.5M through 2021-22).
Decisions coming after 2020-21
Eventually, the Avs will need to decide who will remain a core player over the longer haul, who might be “the guy” in net, and how much they’ll pay key prospects.
While Ian Cole (30, $4.25M) strikes as less of an agonizing choice one way or another, not every decision will be easy. Captain Gabriel Landeskog often combines with MacKinnon and Rantanen to form one of the best bang-for-your-puck, top-heavy top lines in the league, and he’s dirt-cheap at $5.57M, but only for two more seasons. Despite it feeling like Landeskog’s been around forever, he’s only 26, yet the Avs will need to decide if he’d be worth handing what you’d assume would be a much bigger contract, even if he likely would fall behind Rantanen’s big deal.
Two years also covers the contract of Philipp Grubauer, 27, and his $3.33M AAV. Grubauer shook off early struggles to look promising, but will he be a franchise goalie? We’ll see.
With two years remaining on his rookie deal, Cale Makar could earn an astronomical raise from his $880K, considering the promise he’s shown already.
Colorado will also need to make choices regarding Andre Burakovsky and others entering contract years.
The Avalanche were fairly aggressive this offseason, although they didn’t land a big fish on the scale of a, say, Artemi Panarin.
With savings only lasting two years for Makar and four for MacKinnon, Colorado should be proactive in trying to take their best shots, and soon. Whether they try to do so by trade or free agency, the best time for blockbuster moves might be the 2020 offseason. They’ll no longer have $4.25M in dead money from retaining salary for Tyson Barrie and buying out Brooks Orpik, and so it’s not surprising there’s big space coming soon. Cap Friendly estimates their cap spendings for 2020-21 at about $57.136M with 13 roster spots covered, which would provide $24.37M to work with if the ceiling remained at $81.5M.
That’s a lot of money to work with, and now that they have cost certainty for a while with their biggest names, they can try to take a big shot. Maybe that would mean targeting the next Mark Stone like Vegas did: by identifying someone via trade, rather than free agency, and thus buying another playoff run from that player. They should have room to work with in 2019-20, although you never know if there’s a lower internal budget for spending …
There’s a lot to be excited about with the Avalanche, especially with Rantanen being 22, MacKinnon being 24, Makar being 20, and so on.
The instinct might be to sit back and relax, but the Avalanche should instead leap at this opportunity to make big leaps rather than more modest steps. As impressive as these bargains are, those coupons will eventually expire.
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.