We're only two games into the season, so it's still way too early to formulate an opinion on what we're going to see on the ice this year. But one thing we do know: it's going to be a really interesting year off the ice. Of the 25 players currently on the roster, a grand total of 7 are signed beyond the end of this season (and just one of them - Paul Stastny - was with the team at this point last season). 9 players are eligible to be UFAs this summer, including Milan Hejduk, David Jones and Daniel Winnik. And 9 more are slated for RFA. And that's where the biggest names come in.
With apologies to Ryan O'Reilly, Peter Mueller and Kyle Quincey, the two names that matter here are, absolutely, Matt Duchene and Erik Johnson. Both cornerstone players have contracts expiring on July 1st, and it is a safe bet that their agents and the Avalanche brain trust will be getting together in a Holiday Inn conference room sometime this fall...if they haven't already.
On paper, neither negotiation should be difficult. In much the same way as Paul Stastny's contract was comparable to that of Anze Kopitar's, both Duchene and Johnson have had their contract bar set by recent deals. For Duchene, there's probably no NHL player more comparable in terms of service, talent and performance than his 2009 draft counterpart John Tavares. The two forwards were taken 1st and 3rd overall and both have 163 games of service through yesterday. Duchene has 51 goals and 123 points; Tavares has 51 and 121. You can't get much closer than that. Tavares recently signed a 6-year, $33 million deal - a $5.5 million cap hit. That would be the likely end target for a Duchene deal even if he and Tavares didn't share the same agent (Pat Brisson).
Johnson - another Brisson client - also has a barometer. To me, the young defenseman who matches up most with Johnson is Tyler Myers. Myers is a big defenseman taken 12th overall in 2008. To date, he has 85 points in 164 games. Johnson, of course, is also a big defenseman, taken 1st overall in his draft year (2006). To date, he has 101 points in 227 games. It's not a perfect match - Johnson is 3 years from unrestricted free agency, while Myers was 5 years away. But, I think it's close enough (certainly closer than, say, Drew Doughty). Myers recently signed a 7 year, $38.5 million deal - also a $5.5 million cap hit. Johnson will probably be looking for a shorter deal, though; he won't give away more than a couple of UFA years at that salary level. And there's no way the revenue-poor Avalanche will give Johnson (or Duchene) a $10 million "lockout protection bonus" like the Sabres did with Myers. My guess: 5 years, $27 million.
The Avalanche have been telling us for a couple of years that they were being cautious on the free agency market to make sure they had room to lock up their star players down the road. Well, here's the first opportunity to spend all those savings. The Avs need to lock up their young guns for the next few years, and should start with Duchene and Johnson. Let's hope these negotiations go well; we don't really have room for Brian Elliott any more.