Last season, the Colorado Avalanche finished atop the Central Division as most expected. That’s despite missing captain Gabriel Landeskog and other core pieces such as Bowen Byram, Josh Manson and Valeri Nichushkin missing significant amounts of time. The 2022 Stanley Cup champions couldn’t find the magic for two seasons in a row, however, instead making history in another way by becoming the first team to lose to the Seattle Kraken in a playoff series, albeit in a hard-fought seven-game battle. That series loss was largely due to a lack of depth scoring, something GM Chris MacFarland addressed in a targeted manner this summer. Was it enough to return the Avs to 2022’s glory, however?
1-27: F Calum Ritchie, Oshawa (OHL)
1-31: D Mikhail Gulyayev, Omsk (MHL)
5-155: D Nikita Ishimnikov, Yekaterinburg (MHL)
6-187: D Jeremy Hanzel, Seattle (WHL)
7-219: F Maros Jedlicka, Zvolen (Slovakia)
While the Avalanche didn’t transform a weak prospect pool, they did make a shrewd move the day before the draft by trading Alex Newhook to the Montreal Canadiens, acquiring a second first-round pick in the process. Their two top selections, Gulyayev and Ritchie, were rather spectacular value moves for where they were taken – some public scouts had both ranked within the top 15 prospects available.
Ritchie is the closest to NHL-ready and could potentially see some time with the Avs as soon as 2024-25, but he’ll still need to be returned to juniors then if he’s not NHL-ready. All five players the Avalanche drafted are expected to return to the clubs listed above for the 2023-24 season, with the exception of Gulyayev, who is expected to join Omsk’s KHL team full-time.
Colton has developed into the type of middle-six point-producing forward that the Lightning have relied upon so much over the past handful of seasons, but they simply couldn’t afford to keep him as he was a restricted free agent this summer in need of a new contract. Colorado, who had some additional flexibility with Landeskog slated to go on LTIR for a second straight season, swooped in and acquired the 26-year-old, who for now is projected to center the third line after scoring 16 goals and 16 assists for 32 points in 81 games last season. His defensive reputation becomes a bit inflated publically once you dig deeper into his possession metrics, but he has maintained a role as an excellent play-driver with an accurate shot – something the Avalanche desperately needed to add to their second and third lines.
Johansen is projected to slot in just above Colton on the Avs’ center depth chart, but he’s more of a reclamation project than the former, and the two could easily swap roles if things don’t go as planned. The 31-year-old has a previous first-line center pedigree but has been wildly inconsistent over the past few campaigns, scoring just 28 points in 55 games last season after notching 26 goals and 63 points in 79 games with the Predators the year before. The Avalanche are hoping that by sticking likely one of Artturi Lehkonen or Nichushkin on his wing, they can help unlock some of the offense that’s been missing and re-elevate him to the 60-point range.
Fairbrother came from Montreal as part of the return for Newhook and will spend next year in the AHL with the Colorado Eagles. Olofsson, whose signing rights were acquired from the Stars, was immediately signed to an extension after the trade and will be one of many names looking to lock down a roster spot and contribute on the team’s fourth line.
Key UFA Signings
F Andrew Cogliano (one year, $825K)
F Jonathan Drouin (one year, $825K)
D Jack Johnson (one year, $775K)
F Fredrik Olofsson (one year, $775K)*
F Chris Wagner (one year, $775K)*
F Miles Wood (six years, $15MM)
*-denotes two-way contract
Most of their key boosts to their forward core came via trade in Colton and Johansen, but the Avs did dish out some money to fill out bottom-six spots via unrestricted free agency. While he may not play the highest in the lineup, their biggest move (and perhaps one of the more surprising contracts of the entire summer) was Wood, earning a lengthy commitment to play a bottom-six checking role in Denver. The 27-year-old missed all but three games in the 2021-22 season with injury but suited up for a full campaign last year, scoring 13 goals and adding 14 assists for 27 points in 76 games whilst playing a fourth-line role for the New Jersey Devils. His reputation as defensively responsible did take a hit last year after the rather serious hip injury, raising some concerns about the rather extravagant length of the deal.
Another player who could end up playing quite a large role is Drouin, who, for now, projects to slide into the team’s top-six on the cheap to hopefully revitalize the former third-overall pick’s point production. If they opt to spread out the wealth and play wingers like Lehkonen and Nichushkin on the second line, they could match Drouin alongside former Halifax Mooseheads teammate Nathan MacKinnon and hope for him to reach the 40-50-point ceiling he showed earlier in his career with the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning. He scored just two goals last season in 58 games and hasn’t played close to a full 82 games since the 2018-19 campaign.
A handful of re-signings, including Cogliano, Johnson and Olofsson, aim to play fourth-line or third-pair roles. Wagner, who spent most of the last two seasons in the minors, does have a history of full-time NHL play and will aim to regain such a role on the team’s fourth line.
Key RFA Re-Signings
We covered Colton’s acquisition in the trade section of this piece, but Byram’s two-year bridge warrants some analysis. Despite his development being derailed multiple times by serious injuries and concussion concerns remain, the 2019 fourth-overall pick is a bonafide top-four defender among one of the highest-powered defense corps in the league. He recorded a career-high 24 points in 40 games last season (a 49-point pace) and shouldered nearly 22 minutes per game – a significant workload for such a young, developing defender. Posting better defensive results than his defense partner, Samuel Girard, he could be in line for even more ice time next season and will likely exceed the value of his new deal.
Meyers, on the other hand, takes a league-minimum deal after failing to elevate himself in the Avs’ lineup in his first full pro season. The highly-touted college free agent signing out of the University of Minnesota last season skated in 39 games with Colorado at the NHL level, collecting four goals. He’ll likely get a crack at the fourth-line center spot out of camp but needs to show strides in order to avoid another demotion to the minors.
F J.T. Compher (Detroit, five years, $25.5MM)
F Lars Eller (Pittsburgh, two years, $4.9MM)
G Jonas Johansson (Tampa Bay, two years, $1.55MM)
D Erik Johnson (Buffalo, one year, $3.25MM)
F Denis Malgin (Switzerland’s ZSC Lions, five years)
F Alex Newhook (trade with Montreal)
F Matthew Nieto (Pittsburgh, two years, $1.8MM)
F Evan Rodrigues (Florida, four years, $12MM)
Compher played the biggest role in Colorado last season out of anyone on this list, claiming the second-line center spot by default after Newhook failed to capture it in the opening weeks of the season. He would average over 20 minutes per game and record a career-high 52 points, not something that he should be expected to replicate in Detroit (even though they paid him as such). In fact, Johansen could very well be seen as an upgrade on Compher, given his track record, so despite the gargantuan minutes he covered last season, the Avalanche likely won’t feel his absence too much after their other offseason moves.
Rodrigues was a solid two-way middle-six forward for the Avs in his lone season there, as he has been for the past few seasons. He recorded 39 points in 69 games (a 46-point pace), something they’ll likely look for Drouin to replace, although he provides no guarantee.
Eller and Nieto found roles in Pittsburgh under new GM Kyle Dubas after they were both late-season trade acquisitions by the Avs who had a marginal impact on their record. Perhaps the biggest supplementary loss here is Johnson, who was the longest-tenured member of the Avalanche roster and had logged over 700 games with the team and was still a reliable defensive presence, albeit a declining one. His leadership will be missed, undoubtedly.
Malgin was a bit of an intriguing depth scorer last season, notching 11 goals in 42 games in an Avalanche jersey, but he’s opted to return home to Switzerland to play out the prime of his pro career.
Salary Cap Outlook
With Landeskog again expected to miss the entire season due to an additional knee surgery, the Avalanche are in a better salary cap situation than many other contenders. The team still has a fair amount of wiggle room and is expected to be cap-compliant by around $2.025MM once Landeskog is placed on LTIR, per CapFriendly. They have no dead money on their books: no retained salary transactions, buyouts, or projected buried salaries in the minors. It still leaves room for them to make one more marginal addition from the free-agent market if they choose.
Can Georgiev Repeat?: 27-year-old Bulgaria-born Alexandar Georgiev was a revelation in the crease last season. Coming over after a handful of inconsistent years in a backup role with the New York Rangers, the Avalanche caught lightning in a bottle with Georgiev, who churned out true starting-caliber numbers with a .919 save percentage and 2.52 goals-against average with a heavy workload – 62 games played, by far a career-high. He had just a .898 with the Rangers in 33 games the year before, however. While goalies often hit their primes closer to age 30 like Georgiev, the Avalanche will need another strong season from him with diminished defense depth in front of him.
Do They Have A Second-Line Answer?: One of Johansen or Colton commanding second-line minutes will be a must for Colorado to fix last season’s Achilles heel. If they can do so enough to give the team a legitimate secondary scoring option behind MacKinnon, much like Nazem Kadri did before his departure in 2022, it could very well keep them atop the Central. If not, they’ll need full health and full power from their stars to avoid slipping down the standings in a tight division headlined by improved Dallas Stars and Winnipeg Jets teams.
What To Do With Devon Toews?: He’s not-so-quietly transformed into a top-flight defender who would be the best defenseman on about half the teams in the league. However, he’s entering the final season of a contract paying just $4.1MM per season and is hurtling toward unrestricted free agency next summer. If they aren’t close to an extension by the time the deadline rolls around, will the Avalanche keep him around as a self-rental or aim to flip him for an asset with more control?
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.