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Colorado Avalanche: 2021-22 NHL season preview

colorado avalanche

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The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Colorado Avalanche.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 39-13-4 (82 points); first place in West Division, Presidents’ Trophy
• Postseason: Lost to Golden Knights in six games during Second Round
• Offensive leader: Mikko Rantanen (52 games, 30 goals, 36 assists).

• Free Agent Additions: Darcy Kuemper (trade from Coyotes), Ryan Murray, Darren Helm, Kurtis MacDermid, Jack Johnson (PTO), Artem Anisimov (PTO).
• Free Agent Subtractions: Philipp Grubauer (Kraken), Brandon Saad (Blues), Joonas Donskoi (Kraken expansion draft), Ryan Graves (trade to Devils), Conor Timmins (trade to Coyotes), Patrik Nemeth (Rangers), Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (Lightning).

Biggest Question Facing the Avs

• Will the goaltending hold up?

A less calm-and-collected team might have given Philipp Grubauer the sort of contract that could’ve haunted the Avs down the line. Instead, the Avalanche made the painful decision to allow Grubauer to walk in a free-agent surprise to the Kraken.

Then, instead of making their own free-agent plunge for a goalie, they paid a pretty penny to trade for Darcy Kuemper. Making that swap may or may not have helped the Avalanche justify keeping Gabriel Landeskog around, which was by no means a sure thing.

In the grand scheme of things ... not too bad by the Avalanche. Not when you consider the iffy contracts handed out to questionable free-agent goalie options.

Instead, the Kuemper - Pavel Francouz duo boasts potential to deliver great goaltending for the Avalanche in 2021-22. That said, they’re also far from a sure thing. Considering all of the firepower the Avs piled up, it would be gutting if goaltending caused everything to fall apart, much like what happened in an injury-ravaged 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

(About that: is Francouz really an option, platoon or otherwise, for the Avalanche in 2021-22 after missing all of last season? Pretty important question, there.)

Even a powerhouse like the Avalanche will need goaltending to come through from time to time. Can the Avs count on that to happen?

What’s the salary cap situation?

During the offseason, the Avalanche answered some of their most important salary cap questions.

Crucially, they locked down superstar defenseman Cale Makar to a six-year contract that carries a $9 million cap hit. Even with RFA leverage in mind, that was a steal out of context. But in the context of an offseason where other teams paid that much, or more, for players both older and far less promising than Makar? That’s an enormous win.

Will they feel as strongly about bringing back Gabriel Landeskog for eight years at a $7 million cap hit? No doubt, the 2021-22 Avalanche would have been worse off without their rugged, talented captain. Landeskog plays a gritty style that doesn’t always age well, though, and he turns 29 on Nov. 23. That could be a contract that eventually haunts Colorado.

(That said, it’s also easy to imagine Landeskog landing more than $7 million on the free-agent market. So maybe the contending Avalanche just hope that the contract doesn’t haunt them too soon?)

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

The Avalanche have key pieces of their core (and maybe a player or two outside that core) locked up for some time.

  • Again, Makar (22) and Landeskog (28) are now locked up for considerable term.
  • Mikko Rantanen, 24, is easily worth his $9.25 million cap hit, which expires after 2024-25.
  • Like Makar, Samuel Girard is in his prime, and signed through 2026-27. The 23-year-old carries a mere $5 million cap hit.
  • Even on the obvious upswing, the Avalanche took advantage of the Islanders’ salary cap plight last offseason. Devon Toews was clearly worth more than the two second-rounders he cost the Avs, and his $4.1M cap hit is a mega-steal. The only bummer is that the 27-year-old’s deal expires after 2023-24. (Colorado piles up enough bargains to get you greedy.)

Impressive stuff, right?

Still, a huge hurdle looms.

With Nathan MacKinnon’s borderline-insulting $6.3 million cap hit, the Avalanche have enjoyed one of the league’s biggest bargains since the contract kicked in during the 2016-17 season. The 26-year-old superstar will need a new contract after the 2022-23 season, however.

[Back in late 2019, MacKinnon discussed possibly leaving money on table with next contract]

While MacKinnon indicated he might take less money to stay in Colorado, the Avs should still expect a big raise. Frankly, he deserves it.

Beyond MacKinnon, the Avalanche will need to figure out if Kuemper and/or Francouz will be part of the goaltending duo beyond 2021-22. Both 31-year-old goalies enter contract years.

Cap Friendly estimates the Avalanche to have about $2.3 million to work with for 2021-22. That said, one or both of Anisimov and Johnson could eat into that if they make the team on PTOs. This is, essentially, a cap ceiling team. That said, there might be a tiny bit of extra room to work with, and maybe that could make a difference during the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline?

Breakout Candidate

• Bowen Byram

The Avalanche already roll out Makar, Toews, and Girard. Shouldn’t it be, like, illegal to also boast a prospect as promising as Bowen Byram?

That glut of high-end, high-skilled defensemen could make it tougher for Byram to truly breakout for the Avalanche in 2021-22. To an extent, Alex Newhook might be the safer pick.

Still, there’s absolutely room for Byram to flourish. The Avalanche lost some pieces on defense, including Ryan Graves. That could leave the door open just enough for Byram to bloom at just 20 years old. It’s also worth noting that the Avs seem like a team that’s less likely to overthink things with a young player. Where stodgier franchises will talk themselves out of trusting young talents, the Avalanche mostly set them loose.

Don’t be surprised if Byram has a huge season. It really might just be a matter of “when,” not “if.”

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Avalanche

Close your eyes and picture the most dominant team next season. All due respect to the repeat champion Lightning ... but for 2021-22, it’s got to be the Avalanche, right? In a salary cap age, it’s unusual to see a team with so many strengths. Just about every important Avalanche player sits in the meat of their most fruitful prime years. Would it be that outrageous if Kuemper -- a goalie who thrived even when things were, at times, pretty dire in Arizona -- ends up being a big upgrade? If everything comes together, the 2021-22 Avalanche could be a juggernaut. Honestly, they could be dominant even with some bad luck.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Avalanche

Yes, there’s the more out-there worst-case scenario of missing the playoffs entirely. Let’s be more realistic about the 2021-22 Avalanche, though. It would be very bad if the 2021-22 Avalanche really end up the same as recent editions. Following another good-to-great regular season with a failed playoff push would be crushing. People have been reasonably patient with the Avalanche so far, but if they don’t sniff a conference final showing (or better), the “choker” label might start popping up. That’s often unfair, but it’s also the nature of the beast. A great collection of talent can inspire great expectations. If they fall short, people might start to get jumpy -- and maybe make some foolish mistakes.

Please, don’t kill this beautiful thing in Colorado.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.