A Colorado Avalanche free agency preview

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NHL Free agency opens in a little over 12 hours and the market changed a whole bunch earlier today when an eye-popping 113 players around the NHL did not receive qualifying offers from their clubs, theoretically making them free agents.

One of the players who did not receive a qualifying offer was Colorado’s Denis Malgin, who had arbitration rights this year and could effectively force the Avalanche to sign him to a contract that would have exceeded the amount it takes to bury a contract in the AHL if a player doesn’t make a team or is to be sent down at any point.

That’s the primary reason Malgin will be hitting the market and the thought process behind many of the decisions made today. While those teams can renegotiate cheaper salaries for those players, at least for the moment it would appear one of the weaker free agent classes in recent memory is about to get a big boost in the area right where it is most useful to the Avalanche.

That is to say the market just got flooded with depth players who provide some level of cost efficiency for the teams signing them because they are likely to outperform the smaller contracts they’ll be signing to continue their NHL careers.

A Colorado Avalanche free agency preview

With that said, I want to do a bit of a free agency primer and get into the different categories to keep an eye on for Avalanche fans as the holiday weekend will be filled with signings of players you may not be as familiar with.

Let’s jump into it.

The former Avs

Ryan O’Reilly
Matt Duchene
Paul Stastny
Erik Johnson
Semyon Varlamov

Remember when these guys were all main players on Colorado’s extremely fun 2013-14 division champs team? That’s half of that team’s top-six forwards, it’s number one defenseman and star goaltender who probably should have won the Vezina Trophy that year.

Anyway, the only one of these guys that makes any sense to return is probably Johnson (I guess you could make a 4C argument for Stastny if you really wanted to) and that would be after a market failed to materialize anywhere else and if he was willing to return on a very cheap, one-year contract.

The former stars who may not be very good anymore

Patrick Kane
Vladimir Tarasenko
Jonathan Toews
Blake Wheeler
James van Riemsdyk
Oliver Ekman-Larsson
John Klingberg

These guys were all top-line players or top-pairing defensemen at one point in their careers and now hit the market under circumstances where they are either aging poorly, coming off injury, or just got bought out because of a combination of those factors.

There are actually decent arguments to be made for the Avs pursuing a few of these guys. If he’s healthy enough and wants to give it a try, Toews as 4C would be an interesting experiment. Wheeler as a playmaker and sixth forward with PP2 time would interesting but it sounds like he wants to head out east.

JVR is the kind of netfront presence the Avs could use more of and his 5v5 numbers are actually pretty strong, but his skating is a major misfit for how the Avs like to play. It’s fair to wonder if either OEL or Klingberg is any good anymore after they each had pretty disastrous seasons. Klingberg slightly redeemed himself in Minnesota, but not enough to really give you confidence he’s “still got it.”

I’d say the guys to really keep an eye on here are Toews and van Riemsdyk. Cheap depth roles could suit both players well.

The expensive guys

Dmitry Orlov
Scott Mayfield
Tyler Bertuzzi
Jason Zucker
J.T. Compher
Evan Rodrigues
Michael Bunting
Max Domi
Tomas Tatar?
Gustav Nyquist?

These guys have all very likely priced themselves out of Colorado’s limited budget. The last two are on here because I’m not sure what their markets will look like and each had an uneven enough season (Tatar with a terrible postseason and Nyquist missed a lot of the year with injury) that I’m open to their market failing to materialize.

If that happens to any of these guys, as it did to Rodrigues last year, the Avs as lurkers to snag one of these guys would be a lot of fun and very interesting. I wouldn’t plan on it happening to this crop, but you never know.

Versatile guys that would fit nicely in Colorado

Pierre Engvall
Conor Sheary
Phil Kessel
Alexander Kerfoot
Vladislav Namestnikov
Nick Bjugstad
Pius Suter
Garnet Hathaway

These are all guys that if they landed in Colorado tomorrow would be really good fits in some manner. They have a wide variance in playstyles so this isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of thing, but we know Kerfoot works in Colorado and Sheary plays the kind of game that would be a good addition if the price was right (it could easily be too expensive).

Engvall is an analytics darling with great size who has shown he can fit into two wildly different playstyles (Toronto and the Islanders), which gives confidence he could find a home in Colorado. Kessel is at the one-year deal stage of his career where he’s just looking for a home where he doesn’t have to play a lot of defense and can play with some pace and get puck touches. The Avs wouldn’t be the worst spot for that, assuming they find a defensive security blanket to pair him with.

Suter and Bjugstad couldn’t be more different in style but find about the same level of effectiveness. Bjugstad was a sound fit in Edmonton so it’s not hard to see where he could be 4C or slide onto the left wing anywhere in Colorado’s lineup. Smart player who always finds a way to fit in. Suter is more of a smaller playmaker, a la Malgin, but more effective all over the ice. Hockey IQ is off the charts with him. Hathaway plays the kind of heavy game the Avs could use if they move on from Andrew Cogliano.

Hurt guys who could help

Max Pacioretty
Connor Brown
Jonathan Drouin
Andreas Johnsson
Jesse Puljujarvi
Ethan Bear

These are guys who are either coming off injury or have spent significant time hurt recently and it isn’t clear just how good they will be upon return. Pacioretty is the sexiest name on this list with his goal-scoring history, but he’s coming off back-to-back blown Achilles. He is also eligible for a performance-laden contract so the Avs could get a little creative with how they go about paying him but if he landed in Denver he would be a legit boost to Colorado’s top two forward lines.

Brown and Drouin could both be solid second-line players if they overcome their collective issues but the downside is repeat injury or, in Drouin’s case, being too one-dimensional to find a spot in a competitive lineup such as Colorado’s. Johnsson is a solid middle-six talent who can score goals, but why is San Jose moving on from exactly the kind of guy they need?

Puljujarvi and Bear are both out and won’t be healthy until December at the earliest. They both could be good fits upon return but would the Avalanche invest and wait on either of them?

Major buyer beware feelings here.

Really fast guys who may not actually be very good

Miles Wood
Denis Gurianov
Tomas Nosek
Noah Gregor

These are guys who jump off the ice as very strong skaters and are depth players. Anyone who is a good skater is naturally going to be in the conversation to be an Av because that’s their dominant trait up and down their lineup. They play some fast hockey out here in the Mile High City.

These guys all are pretty fast but have a major flaw somewhere in their profile. With Wood and Gregor, it’s that they drive play offensively and can finish a little but are not good defensive players. Nosek was in the same boat two years ago but has been in decline two straight seasons. Gurianov played his way out of Dallas but has an absolutely lethal shot and is a terrific rush/transition player that you wonder if a change of scenery might help (going from Dallas to Montreal did not change anything).

One or two of these guys might land in Denver and if they do, they bring that element of speed that is easy to love, but there are real pros and cons to these guys.

Guys with involvement in an unfinished investigation

Max Comtois
Michael McLeod

Cal Foote
Sam Steel
Jonah Gadjovich

The investigation into the 2018 Canadian WJC team that has members of it accused of group sexual assault is still ongoing and who all is involved remains somewhat unknown. Through a process of elimination of various means, players have slowly been whittled down from that team and there are a few who remain under the microscope and every player on the list above did not receive a qualifying offer today.

Of note here is that all of Foote, Steel, and Gadjovich have denied involvement at all while McLeod and Comtois have yet to make any statements on it at all (two of seven to not make any statement).

Are there too many dots I’m connecting? It’s possible. I do think it’s an important story that deserves a mention, however, as we saw Alex Formenton (another player not to make a statement) not sign as an RFA last year as he didn’t play hockey in North America. The connection was made and the impact was obvious. How will it affect this list of players? Something to watch in my opinion.

The guy everyone agrees would be great in Colorado but may be too expensive

Daniel Sprong

Sprong has long been a tantalizing player going back to his junior career when he was dinged for being too one-dimensional. That dimension back then was scoring goals and has continued through his career as he has bounced around a bit before finding a home and blowing up in Seattle last year with a 46-point season.

The only problem here is the cost, which is absolutely why Seattle didn’t give him a QO. With arbitration rights, Sprong could have won a case paying him into the $4M range. If the Avs could get him in the $3M range? I think they should be involved in that. Anything lower would present the chance for a wonderful steal, which Colorado could really use.

The defensemen

Carson Soucy
Kevin Shattenkirk
Connor Clifton
Mike Reilly
Jack Johnson
Caleb Jones
Niko Mikkola
Travis Hamonic
Calvin de Haan
Justin Holl
Radko Gudas

Outside of a few of the guys above, I haven’t really touched on defensemen much because the Avs aren’t in need of much here. There are some other guys I’ve skipped over entirely (like Ryan Graves) who are too expensive and I didn’t want to waste too much time on them.

This list could honestly be longer, but here are the guys that I think could be affordable enough for the Avs to grab one or two of them depending on how the market evolves and which guys end up without jobs (a la Klingberg last year). This is a hefty mix of playstyles, too, with a guy like Shattenkirk as not such an obvious fit for what Colorado needs but we know he is a player the Avs have been fond of ever since trading him to St. Louis in 2011.

Guy who is in Colorado’s system but could sign at the end of his season and jump straight to the NHL

Nikolai Kovalenko

I wanted to include him in this not because he is a free agent but because his KHL contract expires at the conclusion of the KHL season in the spring. When that finishes, he could, in theory, come across to North America and sign his ELC with the Avalanche, which at this point would only be one year due to his age, and it would pay him a $95K signing bonus and he’d burn the only year of his ELC and immediately become an RFA.

I’m just putting on people’s radar that he could be coming at the end of the year and if there’s an obvious hole on the right side (he’s a right wing) of Colorado’s forward corps that could use another guy, the long lens here might be to include Kovalenko in the planning.

No guarantees or predictions here, just want to put it on people’s radar.

There are other guys the Avs could come away with (that would frustrate me given how big this list is but that’s life) and we’ll have all of it covered here at DNVR. It might be a slow burn for the Avalanche in free agency as a big part of their success in this area this year will come down to identifying great value and pouncing when it’s there. A major component of that is letting other teams make their decisions and spend their money and waiting for players’ markets to reduce their contract demands to where the Avalanche can make a comfortable move.

It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say the decisions they make in this area could play a deciding role in getting back to a deep playoff run or another early-round exit next postseason. No pressure!

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