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Avalanche offseason depth chart: Plenty of question marks, openings to fill with a tricky path forward

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2024-05-25

Avalanche offseason depth chart: Plenty of question marks, openings to fill with a tricky path forward

For a handful of teams around the NHL, it is existential crisis season.

Early playoff exits lead to macro-level discussions like does Team X have the right core players or does Team Y’s style of play not work when the calendar flips to May.

The Colorado Avalanche has a different kind of offseason ahead, but the road might be just as arduous.

This core group of Avs has reached the mountaintop. They thought they had a group that could do it again this year. But just getting back to that point might not be easy, given the roadblocks Colorado faces.

“The salary cap is a significant challenge for us, and we’ve got things we’re going to have to navigate,” Avalanche general manager Chris MacFarland said Thursday. “Obviously, the Val wrench is something that you’re not counting on. Like injuries happen and every team deals with that. We have another one, and does that impact things that potentially you want to try and do over the next few weeks? Very well may. But that’s our job is to try and find workaround solutions or workable solutions.

“But we still have Nathan Mackinnon and Cale Makar and Mikko Rantanen (and) Devon Toews, and that’s a pretty good launch point.”

The “Val wrench” is a suspension of at least six months for the guy who could have been next on MacFarland’s list of core players: Valeri Nichushkin. His $6.125 million cap hit is off the books while he’s suspended, but has to go back on when he gets reinstated, which could happen as early as mid-November.

Another guy who is also part of the inner-circle group when he’s available is Gabe Landeskog, and he’s the other big uncertainty. He’s confident he’ll play next season after missing the past two, but when is still unclear and how effective the Avs captain will be is also a mystery.

With those two large and expensive questions in mind, the Avs could have a tricky summer. Let’s break down where the depth chart stands as of today, and what solutions MacFarland and his staff need to come up with.

(Can’t see chart on mobile? Click here.)

MacKinnon might be the reigning league MVP when next season begins. Casey Mittelstadt was a great fit after the trade deadline and played well in his first NHL postseason. His contract could set up everything that Colorado can do this offseason if it gets done early, or could impact roster building in the other direction if it drags into July.

The Avs seem pretty happy with Ross Colton as the No. 3 center. Calum Ritchie might factor into Colorado’s top three in the future, but MacFarland pointed out that having these three guys will allow them to be patient with the club’s top forward prospect. Expect another year in the OHL for him.

Trenin would be a great signing, on the right deal. He really fit well as the 4C and on the penalty kill. Get used to this phrase: He might be outside the Avs’ price range.

Chris Wagner could start the year as the No. 4 center. Ondrej Pavel might have a shot at the job with a strong training camp. This is definitely a spot where the Avs could add someone.

There could be an opening or two where the Avs survey what’s available in June or July, don’t find what they’re looking for at the right price and essentially bank on finding another guy like Trenin before the trade deadline. Colorado should have more clarity on the short- and long-term futures of Nichushkin and Landeskog by then and would have lots of extra cap space to work with one of them not on the active roster.

(Can’t see chart on mobile? Click here.)

Artturi Lehkonen is having offseason shoulder surgery. MacFarland said “It will be close” for the start of training camp, so the Avs could begin without three of their top four wings (along with Nichushkin and Landeskog).

Even if the Avs don’t know if Landeskog will be ready for the season on July 1, the salary cap situation means they aren’t likely to be chasing any expensive players to fill in, anyway.

Zach Parise is going to retire. Andrew Cogliano said he hasn’t decided on that, yet. He played 86 games this year, including the playoffs. The Avs could want him back, even in a part-time role.

There are four clear-cut candidates to fill out the depth chart here — Lehkonen, Landeskog, Miles Wood and Nikolai Kovalenko. One of those four could end up on the right side as well.

The Avs would love to have Jonathan Drouin back, but he’d almost certainly need to give them a discount from what other clubs will line up to offer.

(Can’t see chart on mobile? Click here.)

Rantanen is entering the final year of his contract. It won’t affect the Avs’ cap for next season, but a huge new deal could further impact the offseason. Particularly, if Colorado wants to pursue anyone in a trade with multiple years left on a deal, or any free agents (beyond Mittelstadt) that want longer contracts.

Logan O’Connor didn’t come up Thursday, but he had hip surgery in March and his availability at the onset of training camp could be in question. He earned some games in the top six this past season after a hot start, but he’d ideally fit next to Wood and Colton on the third line.

Brandon Duhaime could come back as a depth option, but he could also be a popular target July 1 and end up with a bigger contract than Colorado can afford. Joel Kiviranta played his best hockey for the Avs in the playoffs, and could be welcomed back on an inexpensive deal.

Jean-Luc Foudy missed the start of this past season with a lower-body injury and Oskar Olausson’s year ended in February because of shoulder surgery. One or both of them could earn a place on the roster during camp, especially if key guys aren’t ready.

(Can’t see chart on mobile? Click here.)

Toews is starting a new seven-year contract. He and Samuel Girard were both excellent during the 2024 playoffs. Given good health, the Avs look set at those two spots.

The depth beyond that is a significant question. Jack Johnson has expressed a desire to keep playing. Would the Avs bring him back on another cheap, one-year contract?

Not playing for weeks at a time isn’t easy, but Caleb Jones filled the No. 7 role well this past season. Will he try to find a bigger role elsewhere?

Those two cost $1.55 million combined against the cap, with both on league-minimum deals. Will the Avs be able to find anyone who could be an upgrade at a similar cost? Would they be able to engineer the budget so more funds are available for a No. 5 defenseman?

All are good late-May questions.

(Can’t see chart on mobile? Click here.)

Like the left side, Makar and Josh Manson are a fantastic 1-2 punch to start. Manson is nearing an age where some decline could creep in, but he was really good next to Girard in the second half of the season.

His skill set is also pretty valuable to this group in particular, and finding a replacement with his blend of size, physicality and skill at around $4.5 million would be a challenge.

Also like the left side, there are questions beyond those two. Sean Walker seems like the best bet among the UFAs for the Avs to be priced out of the market. Sam Malinski looks like a natural choice to slide into the third pairing, but a veteran insurance option could be on the shopping list as well.

Sean Behrens had a great junior season with Denver, but he could need a full season or more in the AHL.

(Can’t see chart on mobile? Click here.)

Here’s a spot that could be relatively straightforward. Alexandar Georgiev is entering the final year of his contract, so he’s eligible for a new deal in July. Justus Annunen earned the chance to be the No. 2 guy with his strong work in the second half.

Trent Miner played well in a similarly small sample for the Eagles. The Avs need to add another goalie to play with him at the AHL level, and don’t be surprised if it’s an older guy who fits in as the No. 3. Miner could then compete with him for the starting role with the Eagles.

On a macro level, there are still more questions than answers. That might be true Sept. 1, as well.

There are many possibilities. The best-case scenario is Landeskog looks a lot like the pre-2023 version of himself and Nichushkin finally gets the help he needs while also mending his relationship with the guys in the locker room.

That might be the only path to being the same level of no-doubt Stanley Cup contender as the 2023-24 edition, unless MacFarland and Co. can find another Drouin (or two) this offseason.

* In millions via capfriendly.com | + Suspended | UFA = Unrestricted free agent | RFA = Restricted free agent

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