When the Colorado Avalanche finished the 2016-17 season, it was hard to see any way that this team could become a competitor in the near future. A historically bad 22-56-4 season had fans looking at a long and painful rebuild. Now, a season later, it’s not hard to see an open window for contention - and it might be closer than many had anticipated.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s worth noting that it’s not here yet. Despite the drastic improvement this season and the ten-game winning streak we just saw, this is not a team that is ready to contend for anything more than the second Wildcard spot. They’re young, fun to watch and playing better than anyone predicted when the season started - that is a recipe for hope, not for a contender.
So when will the window be open?
If you look a the moves Joe Sakic has made over the past year, it looks as though his thoughts follow the timeline of Nathan MacKinnon’s contract. The Colorado Avalanche are looking to win a Stanley Cup by 2023.
That’s a five-year window starting next season.
In this era of the NHL, one of the biggest factors that go into building a contending team is salary cap management. Good teams are able to take advantage of value contracts. Thanks to shrewd cap management, the Avalanche have more financial flexibility than just about anyone in the league.
With an average annual value of $6.3 million, Nathan MacKinnon is the Avs’ highest paid player. His contract is also one of the best values in the league. When a team has their best player locked up long term for such a low cap hit, it gives the ability to be creative elsewhere.
The Avalanche have more than $25 million in cap space next season without a single impact player needing a new contract. Then, a year later when Mikko Rantanen will get his big raise, the team will be looking at more than $50m in cap space - and that’s without the projected inflation of the cap ceiling.
Rantanen will get a big contract - say $7m AAV - while J.T. Compher and Alex Kerfoot will get a nice raise, but that’s it, no other significant extensions are necessary. The Avs are going to have a ton of cap space to work with. They’ll have the ability to sign a player or two that will have a significant impact on the lineup during the team’s competitive window.
Dream big. John Carlson, John Tavares; with the free cap space the Avs have, the sky is the limit.
The perfect example of this is the work Steve Yzerman has done in Tampa Bay. The Lightning are currently the best team in the NHL, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that some of their best players are some of their cheapest.
They’re paying Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman a little over $16m between the two of them. This is pretty close to fair market value for the superstars - it’s actually a little less than you’d expect to pay for the Norris favorite and a 27-year old center that is on pace for 95 points. The Lightning are not saving a ton of money there, but they have a lot of cap flexibility thanks to the drastic underpayment of the team’s other top players.
Brayden Points and Mikhail Sergachev are both on entry-level contracts, Anton Stralman is on a very team friendly deal, but most importantly, the Tampa Bay Lightning have two of the most valuable players in the game being drastically underpaid.
Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the best goalies in the NHL - he is only making $3.5m for the next three season. Add to that that they’re paying one of the best players in the game $4.767m this year and you’ve got a team that can afford the type of depth it takes to win a Cup.
If Nathan MacKinnon isn’t the favorite to win the Hart Trophy this season, Nikita Kucherov is. His contract is less than half his market value and it gives a very distinct timeline for Tampa’s cup window. The Lighting have to be all-in for the next two seasons in order to take advantage of this cap flexibility.
The Depth Chart
Right now the Avalanche are not close to being deep enough to be considered a contender. The Mackinnon/Landeskog/Rantanen line is one of the best in the league, but after that, there is a drastic drop-off.
It’s understandable. The Avalanche are in the bottom-3 in the league in terms of both average age and salary commitment. They are an incredibly young team that is filled with rookies on a nightly basis. Jost, Kerfoot, Girard, Compher - these are guys that are learning on the fly and guys that are going to be hitting their peak right in the middle of the contention window. Add highly talented players like Vladislav Kamenev, Cale Makar, Connor Timmins and Nicholas Meloche that aren’t even here yet and this is a team that will have a very high-end, young complement to the top line in the not too distant future.
The best part about all these guys? They’re almost all going to be very cheap just as the Avalanche are getting really good. Young players on entry-level contracts that can play well above their contracts are exactly how great teams build depth in their lineup.
The one big problem in relation to this window of contention is between the pipes. As the franchise sits right now, it’s hard to say the team has a goaltender of the future. Semyon Varlamov has been a league average goalie for the Avalanche when he is healthy. That is a problem for two reasons; you don’t usually win a Stanley Cup with league average goaltending and he is almost never healthy. It’s doubtful that the Avalanche feel comfortable being a contender with Varlamov as their goalie.
The problem is that after Varlamov there isn’t anything else. Jonathan Bernier and Andrew Hammond are both free agents at the end of the season. Even if they weren’t, they’re not exactly the kind of guys you want to stake your future on.
In the minors, there’s Spencer Martin. I have been watching Martin play since his time in Mississauga. He wasn’t even a particularly good OHL goalie and shouldn’t be considered a legitimate NHL prospect.
Sakic should be trying to find a young goalie that is buried behind a high-end starter and try to make him the Avs’ goalie of the future. Guys like Eric Comrie in Winnipeg or Tristan Jarry in Pittsburgh would be perfect for this. They might cost a bit to acquire, but at the end of the day, this team isn’t going to contend until they have a starting goalie that they can count on to be consistent and stay healthy.
Can they get there?
I don’t see why not.
With Patrick Roy’s influence out of the organization, the Avalanche are doing things the right way. Joe Sakic has shown a willingness to be patient, and trust the process.
By collecting extra draft picks, avoiding bad contracts and relying on youth, the Avs are building towards a future that has a ton of potential. They are a good young team that has the potential to make some noise as early as next season. With a couple of good moves this summer, there's no reason to think they can’t make the kind of leap the New Jersey Devils have this year.
This is a young, fun team that has most of the foundation in place to become a contender soon. They have a lot of young talent surrounding a bonafide superstar who happens to be on one of the best contracts in the NHL. It expires in 2023. That’s the window. That is the timeframe this team has to win a Stanley Cup. And we shouldn’t be surprised if/when they do.