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Even with free agent questions, Avalanche are built to last

Even with free agent questions, Avalanche are built to last

DENVER, COLORADO - MARCH 21: Mikko Rantanen #96, Cale Makar #8 and Nathan MacKinnon #29 of the Colorado Avalanche await a face off against the Edmonton Oilers at Ball Arena on March 21, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHLI via Getty Images

Chew on this scary thought: the Colorado Avalanche are built to last. In other words, this might not be the only instance where the Nathan MacKinnon - Cale Makar era Avalanche hoist the Stanley Cup.

Now, that’s not to say this will be easy. They very well may only win one. Most obviously, future Avalanche Stanley Cup wins are threatened by free agent questions, the salary cap as a whole, and a competitive NHL.

Yet, when you think of the building blocks of a contender, the Avalanche could flirt with repeats much like the Lightning franchise they just dethroned.

And, honestly, the Lightning still have enough of a foundation to treat the hockey world to a Stanley Cup rematch with the Avalanche. You never know.

Keeping Stanley Cup depth won’t be easy, but Avalanche maintain an elite core

During the offseason, PHT will take deeper looks at what the Avalanche need to do to keep as much of this Stanley Cup core together as the salary cap will allow.

One can ponder possible free agent exits for Nazem Kadri, Valeri NIchushkin, Darcy Kuemper, and others like Josh Manson.

Here’s the thing, though. The Avalanche’s savvy, analytics-leaning front office already left opponents in the dust by identifying talent before it blossomed. After a Stars buyout, Nichushkin was a reclamation project. Nazem Kadri was basically run out of town in Toronto. And the Islanders could barely get anything for an elite defenseman in Devon Toews.

[Generally, other GMs should’ve avoided the Avalanche’s trade calls]

So, even if the Avalanche let most of their biggest free agents (Kadri, Nichushkin, Kuemper) go, they could still be a force. Just a different-looking one.

Consider all the key pieces they boast, and how many of them are in or around their prime years:

  • Nathan MacKinnon, speedy superstar center, is just 26 years old. While he’ll cost more after his $6.3M cap hit expires after 2022-23, it’s hard to imagine the Avalanche not moving Heaven, Earth, several snow-capped mountains to keep him. He was a machine against Tampa Bay.
  • Reigning Norris and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Cale Makar is, frighteningly, just 23. His $9M cap hit is a bargain in the same way Leon Draisaitl’s a steal at $8.5M. That bargain runs through 2026-27.
  • Mikko Rantanen is 25 and Gabriel Landeskog is 29. Those are two big wingers who can make the difference in tough playoff situations.

[Young defense powers Avs’ attack]

  • Even now, Devon Toews is wildly underrated. He’s just 28, and only costs $7M in AAV for the next two seasons.
  • Do you keep Samuel Girard, who’s a bargain at $5M and also young at just 24? Not the worst problem to consider.
  • With Girard out after an Evander Kane hit, Bowen Byram took advantage of his opportunity. He looked dangerous and dynamic, without sacrificing too much defense. He’s also 21, and eligible for an extension that could add to the Avalanche’s almost-unfair bounty of young, modern, talented defensemen.
  • There are also some players on the perimeter who could take bigger roles. Alex Newhook, 21, could gradually go from young upstart to a mainstay in the core.

Pretty impressive, huh?

Avalanche have salary cap space to bring back one or more of Nichushkin, Kadri, Kuemper -- if they want to

With all of those strengths in mind, Avalanche free agent situations feel less do-or-die, and more “what should I load up on at the buffet.”

It’s worth noting that this world-class organization set itself up with incredible flexibility for a contender. Via Cap Friendly, the Avalanche enter an offseason of free agent challenges with a roomy $25M in salary cap space.

To be clear: that can be a bit deceptive.

Most importantly, the Avalanche obviously realize that Nathan MacKinnon’s due a raise after next season. That raise could very well almost double his $6.3M cap hit.

So, that might create some hesitation in giving Nazem Kadri and/or Valeri Nichushkin not just big money, but risky term. It must be noted that Kadri’s already 31.

[Nichushkin may have priced himself out of Colorado with star-making Stanley Cup run]

Either way, the Avs have some room to maneuver. Maybe the Avalanche could even convince Kadri, Nichushkin, or someone else to take a hefty one-year deal to try to repeat?

While Pavel Francouz’s locked in at $2M for two seasons, the Avalanche must either bring back Kuemper, or find another goalie. That’s the sort of thing that will eat into cap space, too.

But ... again, the Avalanche are built to last as Stanley Cup contenders. It won’t be easy to supplement core players with the sort of difference-makers who can tilt the scale, but the Avs often seem one step ahead of everyone else.

That goes for on the ice, and with their front office moves. For all we know, the Avalanche just began their Stanley Cup dynasty. Maybe Joe Sakic will win more as a GM than he did as a Hall of Fame player?