This is the newest file in THN.com’s continuing analysis of the off-season plans for the NHL’s 32 teams. On this day, we’re breaking down the 2021-22 Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche’s blueprint to continue their success.
2021-22 Record: 56-19-7
Finish In The Central Division: 1st
Salary Cap Space Available (As Per CapFriendly.com): $24.4 million
Restricted Free Agents: Nicholas Aube-Kubel, F; Arturri Lehkonen, F
Unrestricted Free Agents: Andre Burakovsky, F; Darren Helm, F; Nazem Kadri, F; Valeri Nichuskin, F; Nico Sturm, F; Jack Johnson, D; Josh Manson, D; Ryan Murray, D; Darcy Kuemper, G
What Colorado Has: A Stanley Cup-winning team that well could win back-to-back Cups by winning it all again next season; a brilliant GM in Joe Sakic; elite-level talent up front (led by superstar Nathan MacKinnon) and on the back end (led by Calder Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy-winner Cale Makar); speed to spare; and enough salary cap room to bring back at least a few members of the 2021-22 roster who now are free agents
What Colorado Needs: As much of their UFA talent who’ll take hometown financial discounts as possible; a new starting goalie if UFA veteran Darcy Kuemper moves on for greener pastures; at least one of experienced UFA blueliners Josh Manson and Ryan Murray to remain in Colorado.
What’s Realistic For Colorado Next Season: The Tampa Bay Lightning proved this season that it is realistic for elite teams to not only repeat as Cup champions, but to get within two wins of a back-to-back-to-back run as champs..With superstars Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar leading the charge, the Avs were virtually unstoppable in the 2022 post-season, never trailing in a series and beating well-above-average teams like the Bolts and Edmonton Oilers along the way.
The challenge falls to Sakic to deal with the salary cap issues the team has, and keep as much of his 2021-22 roster intact as he can. But there are going to be key cogs in the group that almost assuredly will move on, and that starts with star center Nazem Kadri. The 31-year-old had a career season on offense (59 assists and 87 points in 72 games), and he’s going to be paid well above the $4.5 million he earned last season. Kadri will be offered a multi-year deal in the $8-to-9-million by some team – Seattle, perhaps? Washington, maybe? – that the Avs simply cannot fit into their payroll. Same goes for winger Valeri Nichushkin, a UFA who had his best NHL regular season (25 goals and 52 points in 62 games) and playoff (nine goals and 15 points in 20 games). At 27 years old, he’s highly valued inside and outside the Avs organization and is due a huge salary bump on the $2.5 million he made last year.
Similarly, trade-deadline acquisition Josh Manson is a UFA this summer, and he too has earned a raise. At age 30, Manson is no spring chicken, but he assimilated into Colorado’s dressing room very well and may choose to forego the free agent market to stay with a bona fide Cup frontrunner. Then there’s the Avalanche’s goaltending situation: 2021-22 No. 1 Darcy Kuemper is a UFA, and in a thin goalie market, he’ll receive a notable amount of interest from multiple franchises. Kuemper is 32 years old, and this may be his last, best shot at a long-term, big-money deal, so, despite the glory of winning a championship in Colorado, he too may move on.
If there is an exodus out of Denver, Sakic is going to have to dip into his prospect pool. That pool has thinned somewhat as the Avs made moves for “The Now” and not down the road, but if Sakic can target two or three of his UFAs – our guess is he keeps Nichushkin, Manson and Kuemper – and give himself some cap flexibility during the regular season, Colorado will remain the top team in the Central Division and one of the very best groups in the entire league. They very well could have a dynasty in Denver.