The Colorado Avalanche announced they signed forward Ross Colton, who they had acquired using one of the draft picks they received in exchange for Alex Newhook, to a four-year contract that will earn him $4 million per year.
Ross Colton, signed 4x$4M by COL, is a physical shoot-first offensive forward whose prolific chance creation (especially near the net) has made him one of the most efficient per-minute goal scorers in hockey. Bump in ice time coming. #GoAvsGo pic.twitter.com/HSvZ6pW78h— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 17, 2023
Colton is going to bring some much-needed physicality and offensive punch to a third line which was treading water far too often last year. He should thrive in Colorado’s high-octane system and work particularly well next to Miles Wood to give Colorado as formidable of a third line as they have had since J.T. Compher was centering it.
Speaking of J.T. Compher, his contract is the one that we can compare Colton’s to in order to understand whether Colorado helped its cap situation with this deal. It’s not a one-to-one comparison because Compher could choose his path in unrestricted free agency while Colton’s market was dampened by restricted free agency, but it can help give us a ballpark idea of how the Avs approached this off-season.
Compher got a five-year, $5.1 million contract from the Detroit Red Wings, and the Montreal Canadiens paid restricted free agent Alex Newhook $2.9 million per year for four years. Compared to both, Colton’s deal looks superior, given that $4 million is good value for a good third-line center, as demonstrated by how deep the Avs looked when J.T. Compher and his $3.5 million contract were centering the third line during the Nazem Kadri era.
Compher is a good player, but he is getting paid like a lower-tier second-line center weeks after he was removed from that position in the playoffs. Alex Newhook never really found his footing as the third-line center, but never scored enough to justify top-six minutes and became something of an awkward fit in Colorado, especially after they traded for Lars Eller to replace him. Maybe the Avs are wrong, and the former 16th-overall pick lives up to his potential and makes them look silly while giving Montreal a bargain in its top six. Based on his NHL play to date, just under $3 million feels a bit rich for a player still without a defined role. Rebuilding Montreal can afford to take the risk. For a win-now franchise with designs on a dynasty who just had their middle six hollowed out by free agency and injuries, that cap space can be better utilized in the immediate future.
Which brings us back to Colton. Colorado’s bottom six lacked an identity last year outside of “just try to survive long enough to get Nate, Mikko, and company a breather,” and his well-established brand of hard-nosed and consistent hockey at a championship level should help the Avalanche win more minutes when their best players are off the ice. Whoever joins Colton and Wood will form a much-improved third line hellbent on throwing lots of pucks to the net while crashing the front of it (although Wood is more of a gamble, both in his head-scratching six-year contract and the fact that his play has been less consistent than Colton’s to date - but the Avs love his size, speed, and tenacity so it would be no surprise if they found another diamond in the rough and Wood became a fan favorite).
The way that good teams stay good is by avoiding over-paying players in the middle of the pack who can severely restrict their flexibility to improve the team should they not live up to the contract. Great players are hard to come by and are worth the premium, but good middle six options like J.T. Compher can be found across the league at varying prices, and price is a much more important variable when building the middle six around your stars.
The Avalanche came into this off-season looking at the prospect of paying two players whose roles they downsized in the biggest games of the season a combined $8 million per year. Instead, they let Compher walk and traded a player they weren’t re-signing for Ryan Johansen, then traded Newhook for two picks, one of which they used on Colton, and they will pay their new second and third-line centers a combined...$8 million per year.
Sure, there are questions about whether Johansen is really a 2C anymore and whether the Avs have replaced their J.T. Compher problem with another one—but getting him and his 0.8 points per game last year at the cost of $4 million for two years makes it a risk worth taking, plus Colton is a center that teams can anchor their bottom six around. But both are now ready to go, especially Johansen.
The third line is going to look a lot bigger and more dangerous next year. Given the lack of 2Cs on the free agent market (perhaps the top one being a player the Avs just demoted in a Game 7) and Colorado’s lack of cap space, it sure looks like Chris MacFarland and the rest of the Avalanche front office upgraded the team’s biggest weakness from last year for the same price it would have cost to run it back—all while only losing one young asset in the process (who they gave up on to a degree) and adding a first-round pick in return.
That’s pretty good business.