J.D. Killian The Hockey Writers
Avalanche Face Big Choices on Players With Expiring Contracts
The Colorado Avalanche face some interesting choices over the offseason. They could be set for another substantial roster change. Currently, 12 players listed on the team’s starting roster sit on contracts ending whenever the 2019-20 season’s over. It’s the perfect time to look at each player and consider their chances of staying with the team.
(The scoring, ages, and salary information are for the 2019-20 season.)
Seven forwards will need new contracts after the season officially ends. Some of the players may be more hurt by the interruption of the season than others. But either way, the Avalanche could face some substantial changes to their forward corps.
Unsurprisingly, the forward corps could see the most disruption. Two players on expiring contracts will become unrestricted free agents (UFAs), which could get pricey for the club, especially if they elect to hit the open market.
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If last year’s free agency is any indicator, there could be some budget-busting contracts handed out. Don’t expect the Avalanche to be huge spenders though, as they have some pretty hefty contracts looming the following year (Cale Makar, Gabriel Landeskog, Philipp Grubauer).
Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs)
Only two forwards will be negotiating as unrestricted free agents. Both players face some interesting choices.
Vladislav Namestnikov is the 27-year-old forward the Avalanche picked up at the trade deadline in exchange for a fourth-round pick. He’s brought a big body game to the forward position and racked up four goals and two assists in his nine games with the club before the season was suspended.
Current Contract: $3.25 million
Scoring: Six points (four goals and two assists) as an Avalanche player.
Pros: Namestnikov plays a power forward game, willing to check, lay hits, and open up the ice. He’s gotten lucky on a couple of goals but he’s gotten that luck by being willing to fight for position around the net, something the team needs.
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Cons: Colorado is Namestnikov’s third team this season, he’s 27, and he may want a bigger payday. Also, there may be a couple of Colorado Eagles who want his spot on the team.
Projection: If he’s willing to take a bit of a pay cut, he could end up on next season’s roster. He’s one of those players who could be hurt the most by the suspended season. Namestnikov appeared to work well with the club and was showing flashes of the skill many expected from him but hadn’t always materialized.
Matt Nieto, the 27-year-old wing from Long Beach, California has played for the team for nearly four seasons. He has been a solid third- and fourth-line defensively responsible forward. Nieto plays a lot of minutes on the penalty kill.
Current Contract: $1.975 million
Scoring: 21 points in 70 games (8 goals, 13 assists)
Pros: Nieto competes with a scrappy game, can be tenacious fighting for the puck, and plays well on the penalty kill.
Cons: While he skates with energy, Nieto is not the kind of player one envisions in a “grinder” role on the fourth line due to his size and lack of physical play. As more players get healthy, he could become expendable.
Projection: At 27, he could be looking for a bigger payout on a long-term deal. With all the talent in the Avalanche pipeline, it’s hard to see the team offering him the term or the money.
Colin Wilson sits in a unique position as he’s been (and still is) on Injured Reserve for most of the season. He played nine games at the start of the season and hasn’t played since, due to an unspecified lower-body injury that required surgery. The 30-year-old forward signed a one-year extension last summer. He played two solid seasons with the team, moving up and down the lineup as needed.
Current contract: $2.6 million
Scoring: Four points in nine games – all assists
Pros: Regular season Wilson is a solid player, willing to play physically, yet able to keep calm. However, playoff Wilson is a revelation. He came up big in the 2018-19 playoffs, where he racked up eight points (4 goals, 4 assists) over 12 contests.
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Cons: He will be 31 at the start of next season and injuries have hampered his ability to contribute over the past couple of seasons. Because his injury hasn’t been fully disclosed, it’s hard to predict his ability to recover his previous form.
Projection: Wilson’s future is hard to assess at this juncture. His age works against him in the long run, especially with forward slots being a rare commodity. However, if he can recover and he’s willing to sign another one-year deal at a reasonable price, his veteran presence could be a valuable asset
Restricted Free Agents (RFAs)
Four other Colorado forwards will become restricted free agents (RFAs), meaning the Avalanche hold their rights. If the two sides can’t agree on an offer, either the player or the team can seek arbitration to resolve the issue, but that can get messy.
Andre Burakovsky, whom the Avalanche traded for last summer, signed a one-year qualifying offer shortly after being acquired. The 25-year-old played anywhere from the top line to the third line this season. He’s eclipsed all of his previous scoring records with the Washington Capitals, despite only playing 58 games this season.
Current Contract: $3.25 million
Scoring: 45 points in 58 games (20 goals, 25 assists)
Pros: Burakovsky proved to be a dangerous scoring threat, persistently hunting down the puck and creating chances with his flashy skills. He earned a spot on the top two lines and showed versatility in scoring with different linemates.
Cons: This season has been the 25-year-old’s best scoring performance, as he only totaled 25 points in each of his two previous seasons. It’s hard to know if he can maintain his improved scoring next season.
Projection: His 45 points in 2019-20 could be a fluke or he may have found his niche. Burakovsky could be a quality asset for a team looking to be cup contenders over the next few years. Hopefully, the Avalanche figure out how to sign him without overpaying.
Tyson Jost, a first-round pick selected 10th overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, will be finishing up his entry-level contract at the end of this season. At 22 years-old, fans either like him or hate him, with very few in the middle. He’s already logged 208 NHL games for the Avalanche, is in his third full season with the team, and scored a total of 72 points over his tenure.
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He’s young, some players take longer to develop, and the Avalanche may have rushed him up to the NHL. But his future potential is still murky.
Current contract: $885,333
Scoring: 23 points in 67 games (8 goals, 15 assists)
Pros: Jost shows flashes of greatness, especially in big moments. He’s young and he did everything but score this season – fighting for pucks, taking and laying hits, shooting from high danger slots. He appeared to elevate his game in the three weeks preceding the shutdown when pucks finally went in the net for him.
Cons: The young forward has yet to display the consistent scoring chops many hoped for when he was drafted, especially from such a high selection.
Projection: The club should be able to extend Jost for a reasonable salary. If he develops beyond where he’s at, great. If not, he will need to be on the lookout for the upcoming talent potentially pushing him out of the lineup in a couple of years.
The 25-year-old, Valeri Nichushkin, signed a “show-me” contract with the Avalanche last August after the Dallas Stars put him on unconditional waivers and bought out the remaining year of his contract. The six-foot-four Russian right wing proved to be a valuable asset this season, hard to knock off the puck and capable of opening up space on the ice.
Current contract: $850,000
Scoring: 27 points in 65 games (13 goals, 14 assists)
Pros: This season has been Nichushkin’s best since his rookie year. He’s played much better than expected, taking on a solid third-line role, while still having some quality scoring chances. If he’s willing to sign for a modest increase, he could be on the club for a while.
Cons: His scoring slowed down after the middle of February and his track record reveals some unpredictability. Of course, he could have been playing while dinged up – as a lot of his teammates were – prior to the unexpected break.
He’s also shown he’s willing to play in the KHL if he doesn’t like his NHL situation. He may want more money than the Avalanche want to spend.
Projection: Not unlike a couple of other players, Nichushkin represents that odd combination of skill and experience but suffered through some difficult seasons prior to joining the Avalanche. A lot will come down to money. He fills a hole the team used to have – a big body third liner with scoring ability. Again, a lot could depend on how he handles the playoffs, but with the season in limbo, he may be yet another player hurt by the hiatus.
Vladislav Kamenev’s story entails a more complicated situation. An important piece of the Matt Duchene trade, the 23-year-old forward battled injuries that cost him most of his first two NHL seasons. Currently, while healthy, he’s only shown flashes of the up-and-coming center who won face-offs and displayed some promising scoring skills. He’s been a healthy scratch for a number of games.
Current contract: $750,000
Scoring: Eight points in 38 games (1 goal, 7 assists)
Pros: He’s solid in the face-off circle and shows glimpses of being able to be more of a scoring threat.
Cons: His performance has been inconsistent in the few minutes a game he’s played. On a team with a surprising amount of forward depth, Kamenev faces an uphill battle getting enough NHL ice time to develop.
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Projection: The young Russian would benefit from a trade. He wasn’t initially considered a fourth-line player but that’s been the role he’s had on the Avalanche. It’s hard to know what his potential is due to injuries and limited ice time. Another club could offer him a greater opportunity. Either way, he’s likely to remain a relatively low-cost player next season.
Four Avalanche defensemen will be looking for new contracts at the end of the season. With Makar and Samuel Girard continuing to develop and Bowen Byram in the wings, the blue line could be a tough lineup to crack.
Two defensemen will be able to hit the open market whenever free agency begins, but neither of them will likely get big offers.
He hasn’t played a lot of games but Mark Barberio has filled the role of the seventh defenseman with quality. Barberio has been ready when he’s been called on to play and brings a solid commitment to the game. He hasn’t complained about his role, even though he’s 30-year-old, and he seems to get along well with his teammates.
Current contract: $1.45 million
Scoring: Two points in 21 games – both assists
Pros: Having a veteran player whose game has developed to the point he can come off the bench and bring an NHL quality effort is an asset the team hasn’t had in the past.
Cons: Barberio will not outplay any of the up and coming defensive prospects. He could also want a chance at a bigger role on another club.
Projection: The Avalanche could do worse than having a Barberio as a seventh defenseman. If he’s willing to take the role for another year or two at a reasonable price, he could be worth hanging onto.
The blueliner who was acquired over the summer in exchange for Carl Soderberg over last summer has played a very limited role with the club. Kevin Connauton spent the bulk of the season with the AHL affiliate – the Colorado Eagles.
Current contract: $1.375 million
Scoring: Zero points in four games
Pros: He has 314 NHL games under his belt and he’s played better than some call-ups in the Avalanche’s past.
Cons: Connauton struggles to keep pace with the speed of the team’s game, frequently looking winded at the end of his shifts. At 30 years old, that’s not likely to change. He’s also over-priced for the number of games he’s played.
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Projection: The blueliner seems a poor fit for the Avalanche’s future. If the Eagles are trying to replicate the NHL club’s style of play, he shouldn’t be a great fit for them either. He could thrive in a different environment, where speed isn’t such a factor in the team’s style of play. The club’s pipeline is too talented to block their progression by keeping Connauton.
Two Avalanche blueliners will be eyeing a raise on their upcoming contract, but only one of them will likely see a big bump from the Avalanche.
Few players present the mystery Nikita Zadorov does. One game he can shut down Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid. The next matchup, he’s a turnover machine against a struggling team. Zadorov’s in his fifth season with the Avalanche despite being just a 24-years-old. His 6-foot-6 stature belies his bouncy sense of humor and generous nature.
Current contract: $3.2 million
Scoring: 13 points in 64 games (4 goals, 9 assists)
Pros: When Zadorov is on his game, he can shut down the NHL’s top forwards, thwarting them at every turn. Other teams move out of his way when he’s playing his best hockey, which opens up the ice for some great scoring chances.
Cons: When Big Z is not on his game, he can be a liability on the ice. Coach Bednar has benched him a number of times, including over crucial games where the team could have used his best play this season while contending for the top spot in the Western Conference.
Projection: He can play top-notch defense one minute and dissolve into a mess of undisciplined play the next. If Zadorov could maintain his focus, he could be a top NHL defenseman. But it’s pretty clear he continues to get on the coach’s bad side, which doesn’t bode well for his future in Colorado. He’s also likely aiming for a long-term deal with a big salary bump, which looks doubtful from the Avalanche
Few players have surprised like Ryan Graves, the blueliner acquired in a change of scenery trade who erupted this season. Did he benefit from playing with rookie sensation Cale Makar? Yes. But Graves’ capitalized on the opportunity, better than some of his teammates. For whatever reason, the two young defensemen work well together.
Current contract: $735,000
Scoring: 26 points in 69 games (9 goals, 17 assists)
Pros: The Gravedigger knows how to work with his skillsets. At 24-years-old, he handles the speed of the game, skates well, finds ways to support the rush, and continues to improve. It’s hard to argue with his development this season.
Cons: He has some holes in his game. He can lose track of the puck in the defensive zone at costly moments. However, it’s also his first full season in the NHL. Some other blueliners don’t have that excuse.
Projection: Graves looks to be a lock for returning to the team, assuming the price is right. While Makar may be talented enough to play with anyone, chemistry is a tricky thing, and the Makar-Graves pairing has been very effective.
The Avalanche currently have only one roster goaltender on an expiring contract. The club pre-emptively locked up backup Pavel Francouz by extending him for two years at $2 million per year. They also have some promising netminders in their pipeline, so this field is getting crowded.
The Avalanche picked up Michael Hutchinson prior to the trade deadline as injuries started to mount. The club actually iced four different goaltenders in one week. The 30-year-old filled the crease in 127 NHL games over the course of a rocky career. He will be a UFA at the end of the season.
Current contract: $700,000
Save Rate (SV%): In his one game with the Avalanche, he earned a .944 SV%, allowing only one goal on 18 shots against.
Pros: He’s a veteran backup who has shown bursts of brilliance, enough to compete for a starting role with the Winnipeg Jets.
Cons: Hutchinson owns an inconsistent track record over the course of his career. During his NHL tenure, he has a SV% of .888 and allows an average of 3.47 goals against per game. Due to his age, there’s not likely to be much improvement in his game.
Projection: While he played well in his one appearance for the Avalanche, the club has some young talent in the pipeline that should be able to fill the role as the third goaltender when necessary.
WHAT TO EXPECT
The Avalanche could look very different – again – at the start of next season. While they have a fair number of expiring contracts, how some of the players perform in a postseason setting – if the NHL manages to have one – could dramatically impact which players return to the club.
The Avalanche have some cap room to play with, especially with Tyson Barrie’s retained salary and Brook Orpik’s buyout coming off the books. However, with some big contracts coming up the following year, things could get interesting.
Will the Avalanche try to keep the stable of players they have or will they go big game hunting in the offseason? A lot depends on these players, their contract negotiations, and whether there’s an NHL postseason. The 12 expiring contracts showcase just one aspect of what could be a tumultuous offseason for the Avalanche.
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