Colorado Avalanche
Despite being the standout player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Nathan MacKinnon was unable to drag a depleted Colorado Avalanche past the Dallas Stars. Where do they go from here? Photo: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

After the Colorado Avalanche battled back from 3-1 down in the best of seven series against the Dallas Stars, there was a real belief the team could come back in seven games. It didn’t make it any less nail-biting, but there was also a belief in this team and what they had accomplished this season. Then the lineups broke, and there was no Gabriel Landeskog or Connor Timmins, who both left game six with injuries.

Landeskog and Timmins found themselves on an already lengthy wounded list that included: starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer, backup goaltender Pavel Francouz, Defenseman, and alternate captain Erik Johnson, second-line forward Joonas Donskoi, and fourth-line forward Matt Calvert.

The hope died at that point. There were just too many injuries, especially to key players like Johnson, Landeskog, and Donskoi. That’s a top-pairing defenseman and two-thirds of our second line gone. Also, despite playing a lot of time on the fourth-line what Matt Calvert brings to the team can not be underestimated. His time on the top-line earlier in the regular season when injuries hit the Av’s hard is a testament to this. And that’s without mentioning the fact we played the last three games with a third-string goaltender.

It’s not an excuse, as Jared Bednar said in his post-game interview. The Avalanche forcing the series to seven games speaks volumes about the character within the organization. That includes what the Colorado Eagles have done in the American Hockey League to prepare players for the step up if and when needed. Seven players who played for the Avalanche in these playoffs have, at some point, represented the Eagles. Alas, it wasn’t to be as an overtime goal ended the Colorado Avalanche’s playoffs hopes for the second year running in the second round.

After the game Nathan MacKinnon was asked about changes to which he replied:

“I wouldn’t change anything about the team. I think we’re good enough to win…I love the group of guys we have.”

Nathan MacKinnon after the game seven loss to the Dallas Stars

A very PR answer from probably the best player in the game right now; however, I think even he knows there will be moves this offseason. Tyson Jost, Andre Burakovsky, Nikita Zadorov, Ryan Graves, and Valeri Nichushkin are all Restricted Free Agents. I would not be surprised if all re-sign, but given the depth and cap situation, I also wouldn’t be surprised if they moved on from at least two.

Tyson Jost has yet to break through and become the talent the Colorado Avalanche thought they were getting with the 10th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. During the Dallas Stars series, Jost and JT Compher were pretty invisible, and given his draft position, a third liner is probably not what the Avalanche had in mind. Given that Martin Kaut, who impressed during his short stint in the regular season, could take that third-line role at half the cost does not bode well for Jost either.

Jost may get a short term deal if money can be agreed, but don’t be surprised if the Av’s trade his negotiating rights for a positional player more in need.

The same can be said for Nikita Zadorov, who signed a two-year deal in 2017 and then a one-year deal last summer. Zadorov has proven to be an essential part of the Colorado Avalanche defense when it comes to shutting down opposition top lines. He also added a scoring outlet to his game during the playoffs, finishing just behind rookie sensation Cale Makar in goals scored.

Zadorov’s problem is his consistency. There were times during the regular season when head coach Jared Bednar healthy scratched him from the lineup and rightfully so. If Zadorov does get another contract with the Avalanche, it may be at a lower rate than the $3.2 million they are currently paying him. It also won’t be longer than one or two years with 2019 first-round draft pick Bowen Byram looking ready to step up to the pro leagues.

Ryan Graves and Andre Burakovsky look most likely to be signed longer term after the seasons they had. Graves led the league in plus/minus, which is seen as a dead stat by many, shows how far he’s come since joining the Avalanche in 2018 on trade deadline day from the New York Rangers. At the time, the deal looked like a minor hockey deal for two players (Chris Bigras, the other) that needed a change of scenery. Now Graves in a top-pairing defenseman with Cale Makar after working his way up from the Colorado Eagles.

Burakovsky also had a career year after the Colorado Avalanche traded for his negotiating rights as a Restricted Free Agent last year from the Washington Capitals. While his minutes have decreased with the Capitals, he played chunks of the season on the Av’s first and second lines, finishing the playoffs on a line with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen.

My only concern is the Avalanche overpaying for MacKinnon or Rantanen on long term deals. They have both Cale Makar and captain Gabriel Landeskog to sign after next season, which will put a considerable dent in their cap space.

As for Valeri Nichushkin, I’m trying to re-sign him, but again I’m not going long term, and I’m not going into the $2 million or above range. Once he got going this season, Nichushkin was a huge offensive threat, and even when he wasn’t scoring earlier in the regular season, his defensive game meant he wasn’t hurting the Avalanche. While he can play in the middle six, the preferred position for him would be somewhere within the bottom nine forwards. With Martin Kaut, as mentioned above, and Logan O’Connor both staking claims to be with the NHL club full-time next season, it may come down to what Val asks for versus what Jost’s demands are.

Then there are the Unrestricted Free Agents. While one could make a case to keep the Restricted Free Agents, that same argument can decide whether or not Unrestricted Free Agents should stick around.

Vladislav Namestnikov was purely a rental. At $3.25 million, he would be an expensive bottom nine option to have, however like Nichushkin, he is flexible and has played on the top two lines.

Matt Nieto is a fantastic bottom-six forward who can help you on the penalty kill, but again, like Namestnikov, unless he takes a salary hit, I don’t see how he comes back. Making just under $2 million, Nieto could easily join a team that can push him over that threshold. And honestly, he deserves it. But it shouldn’t be the Avalanche, especially when it looks like Logan O’Connor is a ready-made replacement at less than half the price.

Rumors circulating that Mark Barberio has already agreed to a deal with the Swiss club, Lausanne, so that will be one less body on the blue line. As for Kevin Connauton, if Nikita Zadorov does return, that would put him as the eight defensemen, possibly even ninth. A lot will depend on the impact of Bowen Byram in the pre-season camp. However, bringing Connauton back to a two-way deal similar to the one he had would not be horrendous. The Colorado Eagles could use his experience to help the youngsters coming through, and it would give you more depth should the apocalypse hit your squad yet again.

Colin Wilson and Michael Hutchinson are no brainers. Wilson played nine games all season dealing with injuries since joining the Colorado Avalanche from the Nashville Predators. As for Hutchinson, he lived the dream and helped the Avalanche during the Dallas Series. In the future, however, he is not going to replace Philipp Grubauer or Pavel Francouz, and placing him with the Eagles only blocks the younger talent like Adam Werner from getting much-needed game time in preparation for the NHL.

It’s not going to be a massive overhaul by any means. General Manager Joe Sakic will play it smart by keeping his cap salary available for superstars like Makar and MacKinnon. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s actively scouring the market as the Colorado Avalanche go into win-now mode.

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