With the Colorado Avalanche headed to their first Conference Finals in 20 years and vying for their first Stanley Cup Championship since 2001, much has been made about their impending UFAs and their ability to re-sign them. The bulk of that discussion has centered around star center Nazem Kadri and starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper, both of whom were brought in to take Colorado to the next level as a playoff team, and the noise surrounding them has been more than justified. Kuemper posted another strong season, his first in Colorado, with a .921 save-percentage and 2.54 goals-against average. Kadri, already a strong performer, had nothing short of a sensational breakout year, with 28 goals and 59 assists in 71 games. Not surprisingly, both have carried their production over to the playoffs. If and when Kadri or Kuemper hit the UFA market in July, they will have plenty of interest.
As much as the chatter around those two is justified, there are two key pieces of the Avalanche also on the heels of breakout seasons, headed for free agency, who appear to have considerably less buzz. Despite the lack of hype, or maybe being overshadowed on a star-studded team, forwards Valeri Nichushkin and Andre Burakovsky will hit free agency with, one would expect, strong markets for their services.
Burakovsky’s production is not exactly a new phenomenon, as the winger has averaged 0.79 points-per-game over his three seasons in Colorado, his 61 points in 2021-22 actually representing a (very small) step down at 0.76 points-per-game, but is a major step-up from the 0.44 points-per-game he averaged with the Washington Capitals previously. For the most part, COVID-19’s schedule disruptions are responsible for Burakovsky’s lower point totals in the two seasons prior to this one, however this season represent’s Burakovsky’s ability to produce at this rate not over 50-60 games, but over a full NHL season. Although Burakovsky has amassed his numbers on an incredible offensive team like Colorado, during a period of increased scoring league-wide, he has shown the ability to stay in the lineup and produce consistently, and at just 27 years of age, he appears ripe for a longer-term contract.
Unlike Burakovsky, Nichuskin had a true breakout season, setting a career-high with 52 points, 18 more than his previous career-high of 34 set in his rookie season in 2013-14 with the Dallas Stars. After three seasons with Dallas, Nichushkin left the NHL to play with CSKA Moscow of the KHL, but returned for the 2018-19 season, where he struggled to just 10 assists in 57 games for Dallas. He would leave Dallas for Colorado, where he would find consistent production before a strong 2021-22 season. Though Nichushkin does not have Burakovsky’s consistency, he has shown his ability to adapt and produce throughout his career, entering the league as an 18-year-old, where he put up 34 points. He has shown an ability to produce in the NHL since then, and while his production back home in the KHL was no more impressive than his NHL production to date, he proved he could take his game from one league and one side of the globe to another and produce, then back once again. Nichushkin also has a factor in his game that cannot be taught or taken away: his size. Listed at 6’4 and 210 pounds, Nichushkin is able to use his body to impose himself and create space for him and his teammates.
Nichushkin may have trouble finding the term that Burakovsky might be able to, however his unique skillset and his recent production should be enough to land him a contract with a strong AAV, and at just 27 years old, if he can continue to match his 2021-22 production over the life of a shorter contract, perhaps two or three years, he could be in line for a long-term deal in the future.
Looking at the market for these two certainly does not mean that Colorado will not be able to retain one or both of them, however the organization does have several questions to ask. First and foremost among them is how do they fit along with trying to re-sign the aforementioned Kadri and Kuemper? After letting goaltender Philipp Grubauer sign in Seattle, replacing him with Kuemper, Colorado will likely push to retain Kuemper. As brilliant as Kadri was this season, he is likely headed for a long-term deal with a reasonably high AAV this offseason, and at 32 years of age on opening night, it might not be the most prudent investment for Colorado, especially if they can, instead, re-sign both Nichushkin and Burakovsky.
With $26.485MM in projected cap space this offseason, Colorado could, in theory, bring all four back, leaving things a bit tight cap-wise (and would likely necessitate Josh Manson leaving via free agency). However, issues then arise after next season, when Nathan MacKinnon becomes a UFA, and would require a significant raise over his current, team-friendly $6.3MM cap hit. Defenseman Erik Johnson’s $6MM cap hit would also expire, and while he might take a reduced salary to stick around, it would probably not be enough to balance out MacKinnon’s raise, all of this before considering J.T. Compher’s UFA status, and the expiration of Bowen Byram and Alex Newhook’s ELCs. As much as some of these things seem like future problems for Colorado, the questions they pose back up into now, and how the organization could approach this upcoming offseason with four of their key pieces set to become UFAs.