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The Nathan MacKinnon window of winning

The Avalanche have 4 years to raise the Stanley Cup.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Colorado Avalanche at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the 2015-16 season, Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon was looking to put two of the worst seasons of his career behind him.

He had scored a combined 90 points in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns, wrapping up his entry-level contract on a disappointing note after a dominant rookie year. The 2013 first overall pick began to negotiate the terms of his re-signing with the Colorado Avalanche with two less-stellar follow-up seasons after his Calder year, allowing GM Joe Sakic to negotiate an incredibly cap friendly price for the forward’s services. He inked a seven-year, $44.1 million contract with a $6.3 million AAV in July of 2016.

A mere three years later, and elite RFAs are driving the price up to double digit AAVs —starting to double what MacKinnon makes. The handful of top-end RFAs like Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, and Jack Eichel all got their double-digit deals, and now the tier right below them (Mikko Rantanen, Sebastian Aho, Brayden Point) are looking for double-digit contracts of their own. To take it even further, Toronto Maple Leafs winger Mitchell Marner has been whispering to the media that he wants to make more than anyone else at his position ever has — and end up inking a deal akin to the Matthews and the McDavids of the league.

In 2016, though, things were a little different — especially for the Avalanche.

Head coach Patrick Roy famously wanted out after GM Joe Sakic passed on free agent winger Alexander Radulov. Matt Duchene wanted a change of scenery after feeling like the franchise was a long way from being a contender again. Defensively, the team was a mess and the opposite of consistent.

Despite all of this, though, MacKinnon opted for something relatively rare. He took a long-term deal at what was market value at the time, choosing to bet on the team and on “those who wanted to play for the Colorado Avalanche” instead of betting on himself and taking a bridge deal hoping for something bigger down the line.

Three years later — and with a lot of hairy moments in between — it seems to have paid off. The team has opened their window, and are ready to start winning a Stanley Cup.

Now that the team is in the final four years of MacKinnon’s contract, the Avs appear ready to load up on some high ticket free agents (both UFA and RFA) and make a push for the Cup. The Avalanche have upwards of $39 million in cap space this summer, and the ability to take on at least one major talent from the open market.

Combining his increase in value with the massive inflation of what stars make, the Colorado Avalanche have an extremely under-market value contract that they need to take advantage of right away.

To put it in perspective, consider what would have happened if MacKinnon had taken a bridge deal coming out of the 48-point season — something players like Nikita Kucherov and PK Subban have both done to great effect — and stepped into this season as an RFA. The Avalanche are in an incredibly fortuitous position, which is why they need to buy help and take advantage of an incredibly unique window.

The team traded veteran forward Carl Soderberg in a cap dump the week before free agency, giving them plenty of money to go after the big fish on July 1st and still be in a position healthy enough to re-sign MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog in the next four years.

It wasn’t completely clear before the trade how aggressive Sakic would be during such a crucial summer, but now it’s almost certain that he sees the window the Avalanche are in. Four seasons with a player making less than Kevin Hayes, less than David Pastrnak, and less than William Nylander — but with value that is close to double the dollar value. Sakic has what could be viewed as upwards of six million in free money to go spend on an RFA class that has been unmatched since 2015, and a UFA class that is full of primary and secondary scorers, which is exactly what the Avalanche need.