It’s never easy watching a team get eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs - especially the way the Colorado Avalanche went down last night. Regardless of what you think of the offside review goal that was called back, there’s no going back. The season is over and we now head into a summer that has the potential to be the most exciting in a long time.
This is a team that looked dead in the water for the first two months of 2019. They were able to turn things around without any major additions - until Cale Makar in the playoffs - and turned into a team that fell one game short of making the Western Conference Final. Maybe they overachieved in the playoffs, but Colorado is a team that has the potential to turn into a juggernaut really quickly.
Joe Sakic has a number of options going into the offseason and it really feels like this is the year he makes a big splash in order to set his team up to be a true contender for the Stanley Cup next season.
This playoff run feels like the start of something special for the Avalanche franchise. They’re young, have a lot cap flexibility and now have a leadership core that knows what it takes to win in the playoffs.
The Young Roster
With an average age of 25.8, the Avalanche have the youngest lineup in the NHL. Carl Soderberg, Ian Cole and Erik Johnson are the only players with contracts next season that are over the age of 30. This is a young team, but more importantly, they’re a team built around an incredibly young core.
Nathan MacKinnon drives everything and he’s only 23-year-old. If you were to start a franchise scratch, it would be hard to argue against MacKinnon being the second choice behind Connor McDavid.
His partner in crime Mikko Rantanen is two years younger than that - and still trying to figure out how to play in the NHL without his ‘baby giraffe’ skating style. The two all stars are in the opening years of their prime and are already among the best offensive players in the league.
Every NHL team hopes they can have one blue-chip 20-year-old defender, the Avalanche have two in Makar and Samuel Girard.
Up and down the roster you see young players. Guys who are either not near their prime yet or just starting it. That leads to a lot of year-over-year improvement from internal sources alone.
The Avalanche have a chance to significantly strengthen their depth chart next month at the NHL entry draft. Not only do they currently hold picks 4 and 16, in the first round, but thanks to the extra picks from the Matt Duchene trade, the Avs own four of the first 63 picks in the draft.
There is a very good chance that the Avalanche shop one or both of their first round picks in order to bring in more immediate help. It would take a big return to move the fourth pick, but as of today, 16 is definitely in play.
If the Avs choose to stay where they are, Kirby Dach is a strong candidate to be selected fourth overall. If that’s the case, there is a possibility Dach could step into the lineup and make an impact as early as next season.
For a team that hasn’t had the best track record on draft day in recent history, this year is one that could provide a huge influx of talent to the prospect pool.
The Cap Space
This season, the Avalanche had one of the lowest cap hits in the league. Only the Carolina Hurricanes and the New Jersey Devils spent less on their lineup than Colorado. Unlike those two teams, the Avalanche have an ownership group that has proven a willingness to spend to the cap ceiling.
Mikko Rantanen will get an extension in the $9 million range but even with that, the Avs have a ton of cap space to work with. Nikita Zadorov and Alex Kerfoot will eat a little of it but Sakic is going to have the ability to throw a lot of money around if he wants to.
Top-6 forwards are going to be the target. Artemi Panarin would be ideal. Giving him a contract north of $10m would definitely be doable - it’s just not likely. All reports have the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers as the frontrunner to land Panarin and while there’s going to be interest from the Avalanche, it’s very likely things end up like John Tavares last summer - the team wants to pitch but the player doesn’t reciprocate.
If Sakic can’t land Panarin, there is a very decent crop of secondary options he could pursue. It would be surprising if the Avalanche didn’t come away from free agency without one of Jeff Skinner, Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, Kevin Hayes, Gustav Nyquist or Micheal Ferland.
Don’t say Matt Duchene, Don’t say Matt Duchene, Don’t say Matt Duchene
They could also use a guy who plays like Matt Duchene.
The Avalanche don’t really need to add a defender, but if Sakic is looking to bring one in, Jake Gardiner is a guy who would fit onto the left side and plays a style of game that would be very well suited to Colorado’s style of play.
All that said, free agency isn’t the only way the Avalanche could use their cap space. There are going to be a number of teams looking to shed salary commitments this offseason. Toronto and Tampa Bay need to find space for Mitchell Marner and Brayden Point respectively. Steve Yzerman is going to look to create cap flexibility in Detroit (opposed to his old job of creating cap flexibility in Tampa Bay). There are going to be a lot of teams looking to move out a lot of money. That’s where Sakic could pounce. There is the possibility that he can find a restricted free agent that a team simply can’t afford anymore - maybe a guy like Kasperi Kapanen - or like he did with Brooks Orpik last year, he could look to take on a bad contract in exchange for a more valuable asset.
MacKinnon, Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog will be back to lead the way. With internal growth and an impact free agent pickup behind them, there’s no reason to think the Avalanche can’ be a contender at the top of the Western Conference next season.
The team has the best line in hockey, a defense core that might very well be one of the most underrated in the NHL and it appears as though they have found their established 1A goalie of the future in Philipp Grubauer. Now it’s just a matter of filling in the gaps.
Wednesday night sucked, the next few weeks are going to be for wondering ‘what if’ but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Colorado is a really good team and they have the potential to get a hole lot better over the next few seasons. Listening to fans around the league, you can tell they’re getting worried. The contenders are looking over their shoulder as the Avalanche close the gap quickly.