NHL Salaries

Injuries, free agents, future salary cap

In the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals, the Lightning got a lot of attention for the injuries they suffered. The Avalanche weren’t exactly skipping trips to the coaching room, either.

This wear and sometimes literal can be used to glorify taking health risks that may be misguided.

Beyond that discussion, the Avalanche face a more practical matter. How might lingering injuries affect offseason plans when the Avalanche already have to weigh big questions about free agents, possible franchise-altering contract extensions and the salary cap in general?

After witnessing their dominating run to a Stanley Cup victory, one thought lingered: the Avalanche have the pieces in place to win more. Even so, you need a lot of skill, luck, and forethought to go from potential doing something to succeeding.

The Avalanche dealt with painful injuries in the playoffs en route to winning the Stanley Cup

Altitude’s Vic Lombardi tweeted a daunting list of Avalanche playoff injuries, covering Darcy Kuemper’s recovery process from an eye injury, as well as issues for Valeri Nichushkin, Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, Samuel Girard and Darren Helm:

Kuemper celebrated his journey from that scary injury to winning the Stanley Cup:

This photo of Valeri Nichuskin’s possibly broken foot is particularly gnarly.

These situations also bleed (hopefully figuratively) into free agent/salary questions for the Avalanche this offseason.

Darcy Kuemper, or another goalkeeper?

Before the playoffs, Darcy Kuemper, goaltending as an unrestricted free agent, was already emerging as an interesting question for Avalanche free agents.

At 32, Darcy Kuemper isn’t exactly a baby. We’ve also already seen an example of the Avalanche balking at a risky term with a goaltender.

After all, Philipp Grubauer left town after being a 2021 Vezina Trophy finalist. As shocking as that was, it’s the Kraken who likely carry some regrets from that trade.

Thus, the Avalanche were likely already aware of the inherent risks of signing Darcy Kuemper instead of allowing him to become a free agent. Now stack his eye injury as another risk factor. What if Kuemper has trouble reading plays and following the puck in the future?

(While Kuemper is on a level above Carter Hutton, I can’t help but think about Hutton’s eye/tracking issues.)

[Avalanche pulled off a rare feat by overcoming bumpy playoff netminding]

Considering Kuemper’s challenges, it’s all the more surprising that the Avalanche haven’t turned to Pavel Francouz more often. The Avs upgraded Francouz, 32, for two years to a $2 million cap reached in March.

Do the Avs view Francouz as a pure backup, or a 1B guard in a “platoon?”

To some extent, the Avalanche showed that you can win a Stanley Cup even with a dodgy goaltender in the playoffs. It’s not necessarily a magic trick you want to try year after year, though.

Avalanche must balance salary cap with threat of free agent departures from Kadri, Burakovsky, Nichushkin

According to Cap Friendly, the Avalanche are entering an important offseason with an impressive salary cap of $25.685 million. That’s unusual leeway for a team coming off such a dominant run.

Of course, the goalie situation alone tells you how quickly that money can start to evaporate. Cap Friendly’s salary structure projection only covers 14 spots on the Avalanche roster.

Josh Manson, Andrew Cogliano, Darren Helm and Nico Sturm rank among veteran free agents. Artturi Lehkonen is the most interesting pending RFA.

But, if you look at the toughest non-Darcy-Kuemper puzzles regarding Avalanche free agents, the trio of Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, and Valeri Nichushkin all present puzzles.

Evolving Hockey’s contract projections hint at a few possibilities for these four top Avalanche free agents:

  • Kadri, 31: 7 years, $8.469M (average duration: about 5 years (4.9), average maximum reached: $7.74M).
  • Burakovsky, 27: 7 years, $6.903M (average duration: 5.3 years, average ARV: $6.415M).
  • Nichushkin, 27: 7 years, $6.357M (average term: 5.6 years, average ARV: $6.05M).
  • Kuemper, 32: 6 years, $3.15M (average duration: 4.4 years, average ARV: $5.998M).

Frankly, Kadri might be in line for an even bigger raise than that.

That said, the Avalanche at least have a chance of bringing back some of those free agents thanks to that relatively robust salary cap space. But should they?

Can they find “the next” Valeri Nichushkin, or is fierce forechecking too valuable?

These decisions will really test this team and its professional scouts. Just look at this xGAR chart from the last three seasons to see how much Burakovsky, Kadri and Nichushkin meant to the Avalanche (via Evolving Hockey):

via Hockey in Evolution

Thus, the Avalanche faces the immediate questions of keeping or losing these free agents.

It also goes further. They also have to weigh retaining players like Nichushkin against the risk of losing other players down the line.

Management of the salary cap in avalanche: contract extensions for MacKinnon, Byram?

For years, the Avalanche have clearly set aside salary cap space to keep base players in place. As Elliotte Friedman mentioned in a recent “32 Thoughts Podcast,” that might have meant offering less tenure to star free agents like Artemi Panarin.

From Cale Makar to Gabriel Landeskog, there are players with a big mandate. There are also mid to essential plays such as Mikko Rantanen and Devon Toews.

As of this offseason, the Avalanche could settle one of their biggest questions: how much will Nathan MacKinnon’s next contract cost? If they are wise (and if the interest is there), they will also sign Bowen Byram for a contract extension.

Really, MacKinnon (26, last year with a $6.3 million cap) can basically name his own price. Whatever the number, at least Colorado would gain some cost certainty.

Buy low on Byram

Signing MacKinnon to a contract extension won’t come cheap, but it’s basically a no-brainer. For some, it might be less obvious to extend 21-year-old defender Bowen Byram.

But forward-thinking teams tend to sign (or at least try to sign) players before their value skyrockets. With Byram, you almost expect Houston to countdown its liftoff.

Quietly, Bowen Byram had promising regular season stats (17 points in 30 games, or 46-47 over a full season) despite frightening concussion issues. Still, it was his playoff breakthrough that turned many heads.

Over eight games, Byram averaged a modest TOI of 15:49. Still, the Avalanche unleashed Byram after Samuel Girard’s injury. For the next 12 playoff games, Byram averaged 21:43, trailing only Cale Makar and Devon Toews as the Avalanche’s ice time leaders. Rather than shrink in the big time, Byram has only become more prominent. He recorded 28:25 TOI in Game 4 and 25:48 in a close Game 6 to win the Stanley Cup. Remarkably, Byram dominated all Avalanche players period with 24:52 TOI evenly matched in Game 6.

He wasn’t just killing time either. Byram’s underlying stats jumped off the page.

Imagine if Bowen Byram hit the net instead of the crossbar or posted on some key chances. Even with bad luck (zero goals), Byram generated nine helpful assists in 20 playoff games.

In 2022-23, Byram could really post the kind of numbers that get him more mainstream attention. A smart team like the Avalanche will be proactive.

… At least, if they can. It’s up to Byram and/or his representatives to actually want a contract extension instead of betting on himself.

Just look at Valeri Nichushkin’s breakthrough, and you’d think the Avalanche would kick themselves if they didn’t at least ask Byram for a contract extension. If the Avs were successful, then watch out.

All in all, a slew of questions for Avs, but they’re not a dead end

As you can see, there’s a long to-do list for the Avalanche offseason. Naturally, there is room for deviations. Maybe the Avalanche could convince a key free agent or two to take less time. Priorities may change – extensions for MacKinnon and/or Byram are closer to “best practice” than absolutely mandatory.

All in all, there are a lot of tough decisions. That being said, the Avalanche are in an unusually flexible position to read and react.

It’s not that different from Avalanche’s brilliant escape. Of course, there are risks – those that other teams would avoid. Still, the Avs just might find all the right angles to make their opponents sweat.