Avalanche to ‘be more aggressive’ in free agency: who may they target?

Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar meets with the media following a loss in Game 7 to the San Jose Sharks.

You can’t describe the Colorado Avalanche as anything more than a success story this season.

Just two years removed from a dreadful 22-win campaign, with a 48-point total that marks the lowest of the cap era in 82 games, Colorado may be the best situated team in the league today.

Nathan MacKinnon is still on perhaps the best bargain contract in the league, signed for another four seasons with an unbelievably reasonable $6.3 million cap hit. He’s also the highest paid player on the team. Mikko Rantanen is due for a hefty hike as a big-ticket RFA this summer, but when you consider the cap ceiling could rise to $83 million by next season, the Avs walk into the off-season with roughly $35 million in cap space.

And as long as the free agent market doesn’t spiral out of control, you can expect GM Joe Sakic to be active when July 1 hits.

“It’s a pretty good class this year,” Sakic said at his end-of-season press conference this week. “Already have target players in mind, if they become available, that we’re going to want to talk to about joining our club. We see some positions of need…we’ll be more aggressive this year with that.

“But keeping in mind if it doesn’t work out with the players we want to talk to we’re not just going to spend on anybody. We want the right players and the right fit.”

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Aside from RFA Nikita Zadorov, Colorado’s defence is still all under contract. Philipp Grubauer turned it on at the end of the season and in the playoffs to assume the No. 1 job, so the Avs can walk away from Semyon Varlamov‘s $5.9 million price tag and look for cheaper support in net (“we’ll see what happens July 1 with him,” Sakic said).

The obvious area of need is up front. Only six forwards are under contract to the Avs for 2019-20, plus four RFAs likely to return. They have MacKinnon, Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog as the offence-driving stars, plus the likes of Carl Soderberg and Matt Calvert to fit in nicely on a third line.

What Colorado lacks, though, is at least one more player to really help drive a second line. While they loaded up the top line with their Big 3 throughout much of the season, by the end that wasn’t always the case.

So if Colorado goes shopping for offence on the free agent market this summer as Sakic suggests, who might their targets be? Obviously Artemi Panarin would be on any radar — every team with any cap room should at least make that call. Aside from the cream of the forward crop, here are a few others Sakic could target:

Mats Zuccarello
The Dallas Stars had the exact same need at the trade deadline as Colorado has this summer. They remedied it by acquiring Zuccarello from the Rangers, and the results were terrific.

Zuccarello had 14 points in 15 games (regular season and playoffs) with the Stars, most of which came after he broke his arm playing his very first game with the team. His presence allowed head coach Jim Montgomery to spread out his offence over a couple of lines and completely changed the look of the team.

Over the past three seasons, Zuccarello ranks 38th in primary assists per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 league-wide. Among wingers he ranks 20th. He’ll turn 32 this September so you wouldn’t want to commit too much term to him, but if you picture him either on Line 2 opposite Landeskog or even on the top line next to MacKinnon it could be a terrific fit.

Gustav Nyquist
Another good set up man, Nyquist comes with a bit more goal scoring upside than Zuccarello. The Swede will turn 30 in September, so you have a little more runway with him potentially.

The Avs just had a front-row look at the player in Round 2 of the playoffs as well. Nyquist had San Jose’s first goal of the series in Game 1, then recorded two-assist outings in Games 3 and 6. He plays the same side as Zuccarello, so it’d probably be one or the other.

Anders Lee
The expectation is that Lee will stay with the Islanders. The player recently said there was “nothing to be worried about” with his negotiations at this point — but this is what Sakic means when he talks about guys they’d be interested in, should they even be available.

Lee plays the left side, which is probably the bigger need for the Avalanche. He led the Islanders with 28 goals this season, and though that’s a sizeable drop from the 40 he scored the year before — and even from the 34 he potted in 2016-17 — it’s worth pointing out the increased emphasis on defence under Barry Trotz reduced New York’s average output of offence per game by nearly half a goal.

He’ll turn 29 on July 3 and assumed the Islanders’ captaincy after John Tavares left. Since the Avs are looking for more offence, picking up an actual goal scorer instead of a setup man would be a better way to accomplish that. Of course, that’d also drive up the price for Lee on the open market.

Matt Duchene
I kid, I kid.

The Avalanche probably don’t need a centre badly enough to go out and pay a heavy amount for one in free agency. Kevin Hayes could have made this list too after his career season and because of his ability to improve Colorado’s middle-of-the-pack penalty kill. But he’s also coming off a $5.175 million contract and is probably going to be too expensive on the market. Carl Soderberg or Tyson Jost should be fine surrounded by better wingers.

OTHER TOPICS

Of course, Sakic talked about things other than the UFA market. He has lots to consider this summer, such as…

Mikko Rantanen’s contract
One of the big RFAs up for a deal this summer, Rantanen has posted back-to-back 80-point seasons, with 2018-19 coming in as his best (31-56-87) in 74 games. But with MacKinnon at a bargain $6.3 million signed just three years ago, where exactly could Rantanen fit salary-wise?

The Avs might take a bit of a wait and see approach as the RFA market unfolds.

“It’s priority to get him done,” Sakic said. “We prefer long-term. If it has to be short-term it has to be short-term. Don’t ask me the time frame. There’s a lot of players in that same situation, a lot of great hockey players all coming up. We’ll just see how all the players and agents handle that.”

A plethora of draft picks
Even though they lost the lottery with Ottawa’s pick, the Avs are still sitting pretty with prospects. The reason they’re one of the best situated teams in the league right now is not only because of their contract set up, but also because they have some exciting youngsters just breaking in, or soon to break in.

Cale Makar leaped on to your screen in these playoffs. Shane Bowers and Martin Kaut are two other first-round picks from the past two years. Tyson Jost didn’t pop in Year 2, but he’ll still be just 21 years old next season and finished the playoffs with three goals in his last three games. And although Conor Timmins missed this entire season to a concussion, there’s still hope the touted prospect becomes a productive NHLer in time.

Colorado will head to the June draft with some high quality picks to either use in trade to upgrade their roster, or just to add to their prospect base.

“We’re going to listen to all options. We’re comfortable with four, we know we’re going to get a good player,” Sakic said. “We know we’re going to get a good player at 16. We have five picks in the first three rounds this year so we gotta do our best to hit those because you don’t always have that opportunity to have that many picks in the first three rounds.”

Tyson Barrie
No stranger to the rumour mill, Barrie finds himself there again this summer. The arrival of Makar and having 21-year-old puck mover Sam Girard as well at least makes it a possibility that Sakic explores trading Barrie for help elsewhere in the lineup. He’ll turn 28 this summer and is one year away from being UFA eligible, so Colorado could also start talking extension with him on July 1. By then, they’ll have an idea what the cost to keep him will be and can weigh all their options.

But he adds a lot to this lineup, and these days you can’t have too many blueliners who excel at moving the puck up the ice.

“All I can tell you is he’s an incredible player. He was a driving force down our stretch and in what we saw with him, Cale and Girard we’d be very, very comfortable starting the year with that group. I think they can do a lot of special things together. I love Tyson, love the way he’s played.”

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