Philipp Grubauer

Bargain star MacKinnon says he’d take less money again to help Avalanche win

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If you could choose one active NHL player to build a team around, who would it be?

In a vacuum, the answer should be obvious: Connor McDavid. Yet, when you consider salary cap realities, the choice gets fuzzier thanks to the absolutely ludicrous bargain the Colorado Avalanche are enjoying with Nathan MacKinnon.

With all due respect to the steals teams like the Bruins enjoy with David Pastrnak, you can’t really beat the bang for the buck the Avalanche get for MacKinnon (unless you try to cheat with rookie contracts, which: tsk, tsk).

MacKinnon, 24, is currently in the fourth season of a contract that carries an outrageously team-friendly AAV of just $6.3M, and delightfully for Colorado, that deal won’t expire until after the 2022-23 season. That cap hit is barely more than half of the $12.5M AAV McDavid carries, and frankly, McDavid is worth every penny of the league maximum. (And MacKinnon likely deserves something in that range, too.)

You have to wonder if MacKinnon must want to fire his agent after seeing players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner cashing in on their second deals, but the speedy Avalanche center mostly shrugged it off — though with some humor — telling Forbes’ Jordan Horrobin that, in the grand scheme of things, MacKinnon has “no regrets” about signing his contract.

After all, MacKinnon is doing just fine, with Cap Friendly estimating his career earnings at $27.025M so far. Yes, MacKinnon deserves more, but unless Elon Musk or Bill Gates is reading this post, you’d agree that it’s a good problem to have.

Even so, fans of teams with stars on less team-friendly contracts likely feel jealous when they see MacKinnon ripping through defenses at a cut rate. Those fans may grit their teeth, then, while Avs fans may want to throw up confetti when they realize that MacKinnon indicated to Horrobin that he’d sacrifice some dollars on his next contract if it helped the Avalanche win big.

“We have guys that we wouldn’t (otherwise) be able to bring in,” MacKinnon said. “On my next deal, I’ll take less again. Because I want to win with this group.”

Now, sure, “less” is likely to be a relative term. Maybe it would mean that MacKinnon would “settle” for a bit less than whatever the maximum salary would be. The league’s salary structure and revenues could really blossom by 2022 (the first summer where MacKinnon could sign an extension) or after 2022-23, when his deal expires. Or maybe MacKinnon would follow his buddy Sidney Crosby and give the Avalanche another extreme sweetheart deal.

And, obviously, things can change fast. The Avalanche could fall off the rails compared to their current seemingly skyrocketing upward trajectory, or MacKinnon could clash with management, making the prospect of leaving even more money on the table far less palatable down the line.

But the concept of getting another value contract with MacKinnon is ultimately extremely promising for the Avs.

After all, this bursting group of young talent figures to become pretty costly down the line. Cale Makar is already flirting with superstar status, and he’ll need a second contract after 2020-21. Philipp Grubauer only has two more years on his active contract, too, and could prove he’s worth far more than his current $3.33M AAV. Gabriel Landeskog‘s contract expires during that same offseason.

You can see how the belt could really tighten for the Avalanche down the line, and while MacKinnon should command a huge raise whenever he inks his next contract, it sounds like he might be willing to compromise to try to win a Stanley Cup (or, perhaps if he parallels Crosby in more than just taking less money for the team, winning multiple Stanley Cups).

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 stumble upon new hero after another startling injury

The Colorado Avalanche’s list of injuries was already pretty ridiculous, particularly for mid-November, and things got worse on Tuesday. Even so, they found a way to beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-0.

Less than a minute into the game, Jets star Mark Scheifele fell into Avs goalie Pavel Francouz, who was already taking over for an injured Philipp Grubauer. It was a hard collision, as you can see from the video above. Scheifele received a justifiable interference penalty for the exchange, and was seen apologizing.

Francouz would not return to the contest, and it’s unknown if he’ll miss additional time. If you want an indication of how much injuries are piling up even just in Colorado’s net, realize that the Avs had to call upon a fabled emergency goalie. In this case, it was Byron Spriggs.

The Avalanche would never need Byron Spriggs.

Nope, instead, Adam Werner came in cold for his first NHL start — and managed an outstanding shutout in everything but its name.

(Technically, Werner didn’t play the full contest, so he’ll have to accept that it’s a shutout only in our hearts and minds, not to mention between the Jets’ expletives.)

Werner didn’t just get propped up in a 4-0 win; he made a resounding 40 saves for that basically-it’s-a-shutout.

The Avalanche did an OK job protecting Werner from the toughest of opportunities — via Natural Stat Trick, Winnipeg’s expected goals was 2.41, with nine high-danger chances — but 40 shots on goal are 40 shots on goal. Patrik Laine fired eight SOG alone.

Now, it’s not fair to call Werner an unbeatable unknown.

The 22-year-old Swede was at least drafted, as the Avalanche selected Werner in the fifth round (131st overall) in 2016. While his AHL stats haven’t been anything to write home about, there are indications here and there that he might be more than a guy who stumbled upon a lucky night.

But … he also might be a guy who stumbled upon a lucky night. Either way, it was one great out-of-nowhere performance, and it’s easy to see why he looked so stunned after the win.

(Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Remarkable stuff, and beyond this coming out party for Adam Werner and Adam Werner Google searches, it was another reminder that Nathan MacKinnon is ridiculously explosive. Despite the Avs missing Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog (among others), the speedy center was involved in all four of Colorado’s tallies, scoring two goals and two assists.

Maybe that’s the formula for the 10-5-2 Avalanche, at least while they’re riddled with injuries: “MacKinnon being MacKinnon plus some random hero popping up out of the blue/fifth round of 2016.”

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• 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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Injury roundup: Updates on Letang, Grubauer, and Little

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The Dallas Stars are not the only team dealing with some significant injuries at the moment.

Let’s take a quick look around the league at some other notable injury situations on Thursday.

Penguins won’t have Kris Letang on Thursday. The Penguins were finally starting to get healthy and play up to their potential with a fully stocked roster, and then another injury situation developed. Letang, their No. 1 defenseman, exited their game against Boston on Monday night after two periods and will not be available on Thursday as they try to snap the New York Islanders’ 10-game winning streak.

Letang has been off to a great start this season and his absence will be a significant one. He will be replaced on the top defense pairing by rookie John Marino. Marino has been impressive so far this season and just scored his first NHL goal on Monday.

More injury problems for Avalanche. Already without two of their top-three forwards (Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog) the Avalanche announced on Thursday that starting goalie Philipp Grubauer will miss the next couple of games due to a lower-body injury. In 11 starts this season Grubauer has a .915 save percentage. The goaltending duties will now fall on Pavel Francouz in Grubauer’s absence.

When the Avalanche have been healthy this season they have looked every bit the Stanley Cup contender they were supposed to be but have cooled off in recent games as the injuries have piled up. They have dropped five in a row and six of their past seven, and things will not get any easier with their starting goalie out of the lineup.

The Avalanche are home on Thursday against the Nashville Predators.

An update on Bryan Little. Scary situation for the Jets when forward Bryan Little was hit in the head with a puck earlier this week, requiring 25 stitches.

On Thursday, coach Paul Maurice offered an update on Little and revealed that the forward is dealing with a perforated ear drum and is currently experiencing vertigo. That update comes via Jets analyst Mitchell Clinton. Little is expected to make a complete recovery but there is no timeline on when he will be able to return to the ice.

In seven games this season Little has two goals and three assists for the Jets.

Blues will be without Steen for several weeks. Here’s another big one for the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues.

The team announced on Thursday that Steen has been placed on injured serve with a high-ankle sprain and will be re-evaluated in four weeks. He was injured in the Stars’ win over the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday night.

He is off to a slow start this season with zero goals and five assists in 17 games, but the Blues are already without their top player, Vladimir Tarasenko, and just traded Robby Fabbri on Wednesday night.

Related: Injuries mounting for surging Stars

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.

Examining Avs’ salary cap, Stanley cup window after signing Rantanen

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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.

Strike soon

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.

MORE:
• 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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Avs’ rising expectations put Bednar under pressure

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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.

If you look at lists of the best offseasons in the NHL, chances are, the Colorado Avalanche will be on most of them.

That’s with good reason, as this team seems ahead of the curve when it comes to making savvy improvements to their team, and they’re in an incredible position to be a force in the West, in large part thanks to bargain contracts for superstar Nathan MacKinnon, value in other parts of their roster, and young up-and-coming players who’ve maybe only shown a taste of what they can do in the NHL. Sometimes fans of teams make the error of merely seeing young players and assuming they’ll reach some imaginary potential that’s actually not there, yet with the Avs, such daydreaming doesn’t seem so far from reality.

All of that is great, but a significant chunk of the excitement around the Avalanche focuses on the future. What about the present, though? Are we sure that a team that squeaked into the playoffs the past two seasons can make it again, especially with a very different-looking roster?

Ultimately, head coach Jared Bednar is under a lot of pressure to make it all work.

[MORE: 3 Questions2018-19 review I X-factor: Makar]

Let’s consider some potential bumps in the road for Bednar and the Avs this season.

  • The team might not be dramatically improved, at least short-term: Some metrics put the 2019-20 Avalanche closer to a “push” with last year’s version. After all, this team lost Tyson Barrie, Alexander Kerfoot, Semyon Varlamov, and Carl Soderberg. In most if not all of those cases, Colorado made the right calls, yet it means players like Burakovsky, Cale Makar, and Joonas Donskoi can’t be seen as pure additions; instead, one might look at them as replacements. That could mean incremental improvements or downgrades for Colorado for next season.
  • A lot rides on Philipp Grubauer‘s play: After a tough first half of 2018-19, Grubauer justified the Avalanche’s gamble that he had starter potential. With Varlamov gone, there’s less of a safety net, so Bednar might be challenged to change strategies if Grubauer struggles and/or gets injured.
  • Integrating the new guys: Bednar and his staff must find the right minutes, roles, and tone to take with Nazem Kadri, Burakovsky, Donskoi, and other new faces. Also, Cale Makar is almost brand-new himself, and his development is crucial for Colorado. (More on Makar, and how he’ll hope to replace some of what’s lost in trading Barrie, in this post.)
  • Keep the top line together, or diversify? For the most part, Bednar’s been comfortable with keeping Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog together on a top line that’s deadly, but sometimes leaves Colorado a bit one-dimensional. Will the above new additions inspire Bednar to experiment a bit? For all we know, finding the right balance could be the difference between another playoff appearance versus a letdown.
  • Challenging Central Division: The Avs may not be able to rise above the wild-card level thanks to a Central Division that – while altered – still figures to be a beast in 2019-20.

The Avalanche have been one of the surprise successes of the league, particularly after the grim debacle that was Bednar’s first season as an NHL head coach in 2016-17.

For NHL head coaches, such success can be a double-edged sword, as expectations rise in the eyes of fans and owners alike. Fair or not, Bednar is under significant pressure to make sure that the Avalanche don’t stumble during what looks like a swift climb up the NHL ladder.

MORE:
• 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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.