In the salary-capped NHL, you get one, or two shots with one roster, and then you basically have to reshuffle everything around your core stars, and hope that new hand still produces a flush. It’s a constant game of draw poker.
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The Colorado Avalanche are learning that with the news that their captain, Gabriel Landeskog (SapsuckerFrog to those in the know), will miss all of next season after missing all of this season to undergo cartilage transplant surgery. It’s the same procedure that Lonzo Ball is undergoing before they send him to Dr. Nick. Landeskog may not be too far behind.
All of it puts the Avs in a bind. While they were able to win the Central Division again this season, their whole campaign felt like a whiskey-dick stumble praying for an end. They were riven with injuries in addition to their captain, as they only had five players suit up for 79 games, or more. The Avs of 2021-2022 that rolled through the league and then went 16-4 in the playoffs in one of the more dominant postseason runs in recent history were built not just on their nitro souped-up blue line riven with guys who could push the play, but a nuclear top six. There wasn’t much to be done about losing Nazem Kadri to free agency, he had earned his big payday. But combined with losing Landeskog as well turned the Avs basically into a one-line team. Evan Rodrigues or J.T. Compher or Valeri Nichushkin weren’t up to the task of being in a top six, and Alex Newhook just never made a jump in his development. Time is still on Newhook’s side, he’s 22, and the Avs might have to bank on that very fact going forward.
Colorado’s life gets more complicated next season as Nathan MacKinnon’s new contract starts, which sees his salary double to $12 million a year. The Avs will be paying MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar a combined $30 million per year for at least the next two seasons when Rantanen reaches free agency. And they should be, there’s probably still no better foundation of stars than those three in the league.
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But it means being awfully swift in every other spot and getting lucky in some others. The Avs only have 12 players signed from this year’s team for next year, and they’re going to have to give Bowen Byram a big raise from his rookie deal. Even before they do that, they only have about $13 million cap space. If Byram takes up $3-$4 million of that? Hard calls might need to be made, like deciding if Devon Toews one year out from unrestricted free agency is worth keeping around or using as a device to try and bolster the second line while Byram takes on his role.
The list of Avs free agents are a real conundrum. Compher, Rodridgues, and Cogliano are nice players, but difference makers they are not. Someone is going to have to skate beneath the top line and the free agency class this summer is, to be kind, total butt. Would they want to send Patrick Kane to get the bionic hip he clearly needs, miss half the season, and hope he can put together something resembling what he used for a discount? Seems a real stretch, and neither Kane nor his dipshit father want to go that far west anyway. Kane’s disappearing twin in the playoffs Vlad Tarasenko will also cost too much and has a lot of mileage. Could they convince Ryan O’Reilly to come back for a slightly lower hit? How much tread is on those tires either?
Jason Zucker is more in the fold of what they need, but he’s probably just short of being able to carry a second-line load these days, and coming off 27 goals for Pittsburgh he very well might get second-line money from someone.
The Avs really have nothing in the pipeline other than a player or two who can help on the bottom of the roster, but that won’t solve their second-line problem. If they can find a reasonable deal for Toews it’s worth looking at, but that would erode their blue line depth that made them special. There’s been talk that it could be Sam Girard (think him up a donut with sprinkles) who’s shopped around so the Avs can keep around their arsenal of nifty, fleet-footed blue-liners. But again, Toews is one year out from free agency, and defensemen who put up 50 points in their sleep make a whole lot more than the $4 million Toews is pulling in now. Trading Girard may see the Avs without both him and Toews come 2024.
And what may really worry the Avs is that even if they’re willing to be short next year, waiting for Landeskog to be anything like he was could be pure fantasy given that he’ll miss two full seasons and will be returning from a pretty out there surgery. What exactly will they be getting going forward? While the Avs can put Landeskog on LTIR for some cap relief, doing so in the offseason really handicaps a team during the season when injuries hit. Almost all teams wait until the season starts before going to that LTIR route. Landeskog’s injury almost certainly won’t aid them in the offseason.
The Avs catch a break in that their division isn’t all that challenging. The Stars are probably maxed out, the Wild are always irrelevant, and the Jets are breaking apart. Connor Bedard may be landing in June but he and the Hawks are at least three years from challenging for anything that truly matters. The Blues, Preds, and Coyotes, or moving back-ards.
But this is what happens in the NHL. The Hawks or Penguins or Lightning could tell you that. The last two went years between Final appearances as they had to redo the pack behind their leading horses. The Hawks had to do it after 2010, maxed out the second edition, and then never produced another one and let the end of the Kane, and Toews era was a beer fart.
But this is the way he wants it.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate as he’s still drinking Red Wings fans’ tears over Bedard.
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