The Colorado Avalanche were one of the most powerful teams in the NHL during the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season. One could argue that they were one of the most powerful teams this past year, too.
During those two combined postseasons, though, they only won a total of two playoff rounds (their ‘third’ playoff round, the play-in tournament hosted in the bubble in the fall of 2020, was not a true elimination round for them but a round-robin seeding tournament). They were both the proud owners of some tremendous goaltending efforts and the victims of some truly unfortunate goaltending injury luck during both seasons — leaving them, in a two-goalie era, with a lopsided performance schedule that ultimately left their starters fatigued and unable to take them all the way.
The NHL’s 32 teams are now in a mad scramble to assemble their rosters for next season, with a number of factors complicating the matter. There’s the league’s newest team, the Seattle Kraken, hoping to wrap their tentacles around some quality pieces to fill up their inaugural lineup. There’s also the flat cap, which has left teams with some tough choices after their hopes for increased financial wiggle room were dashed.
So what does that mean for paying pending unrestricted free agent Philipp Grubauer?
The Avalanche starter’s current contract is up for renewal, meaning that he can hit the open market when free agency begins on July 28th if the team hasn’t signed him to an extension first.
His current deal was supposed to be the perfect bridge contract. He made $3.33 million per season on a three-year deal signed in the summer of 2018, which gave Colorado the chance to evaluate his durability and consistency over a multi-year span before giving him a nice, hefty pay raise.
Of course, neither he nor the Avalanche could have predicted that COVID-19 would leave the NHL scrambling to find a way to keep all of their teams financially solvent through massive breaks in play, limited arena capacities, and increased spending on health and safety measures. They also couldn’t predict that his tandem partner in net, Czech free agent Pavel Francouz, would miss the entirety of the 2020-21 NHL season with a lingering injury that left an oft-injured Grubauer playing nearly the team’s entire shortened season. Now, they need to not only get Grubauer re-signed at a fair price, but they need to figure out how they’ll address the question of starting distributions next year.
So here’s what they’ll need to consider when getting a deal done.
The First Consideration: His Performance
Few goaltenders in the NHL have been more satisfactory for their teams than Grubauer since the Avalanche acquired him via trade at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
His raw save percentage in the Mile High city has been a .918 in all situations, with 63 of his 108 starts earning a ‘Quality Start’ distinction and just 14 falling in the ‘really bad’ range by Rob Vollman’s metrics. He’s posted a collective 28.1 goals saved above average in all situations, with his relative numbers getting better each progressive season in comparison to the rest of the league, and he’s managed to record 12 regular season shutouts — twice as many in three years as he recorded in six as a backup and number three guy with the Washington Capitals.
It was good for his first-ever Vezina nomination this past season, which saw him finish third in voting after never receiving a single vote in years prior. And although he struggled in the team’s series against Vegas this summer, he was one of the league’s most consistent performers during the regular season; only Semyon Varlamov, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Ilya Sorokin had better quality start percentages than him among goaltenders with at least 20 appearances.
The Second Consideration: Team Needs
It’s hard to argue that Grubauer isn’t one of the best goaltenders on the market. But his ultimate payday won’t just be about how much money he’s worth comparable to the contracts being played out around the league, unfortunately — it’s going to be about how much the Avalanche can afford to allocate to one goaltending spot as a team that also needs to bring in a fresh number two.
Pavel Francouz is still on the books for Colorado for next season with a $2 million cap hit. And although it’s been reported that he’s expected to be healthy, it’s officially been just shy of one calendar year since the 31-year old goaltender has appeared in any kind of NHL game — and it’s hard to get a feel for just how well Francouz will be able to perform when he does make his way back.
The Avalanche have the quartet of Justus Annunen, Trent Miner, Jonas Johansson, and Hunter Miska under contract as well for the upcoming season, and there’s always the option to keep one of them in the NHL as a third goaltender. But in all likelihood, especially given how Miska performed in his limited NHL backup role last season, the Avalanche are likely going to need either a perfect bounce-back from Francouz or enough cap wiggle room during the year to potentially bring in someone new to work with Grubauer if something goes wrong.
So where does that leave them?
It wouldn’t behoove the team to lowball Grubauer, whose regular season numbers put him in the same conversation as Vezina winners like Fleury and Vasilevskiy. But it also could hurt the team to lock him into a deal that costs them on the upper end of the scale; they likely can’t afford to shell out a similar $7 million deal to Fleury’s, and with Grubauer’s injury history they almost certainly shouldn’t.
A better range to look at, though, would be to use Varlamov — a familiar face to Avalanche fans and a high performer last year — and Arizona Coyotes goaltender Darcy Kuemper as Grubauer’s comparables. Varlamov is signed for a $5 million cap hit, Kuemper for $4.5 million per season; that’s a range that would still give the Avalanche around $20 million to lock up returnees like Cale Makar and captain Gabriel Landeskog without completely filling up the team’s cap space.
It’s entirely possible that Grubauer won’t want to fall in that range — and as a defending Vezina finalist, he’s allowed to consider that a lowball offer. The team can always wiggle their way up to $5.5, even $6 million per on a shorter term deal if they’re confident in the health of the returning Francouz.
But in the NHL right now, having just one very good goalie at a time just doesn’t cut it. And while Grubauer was the team’s regular season backbone, they’ve struggled to get consistency from anyone in the health department at the position for years now — and that’s just not something that can be viewed as something to dismiss.