Avs roster won’t look the same, but Sakic is right guy to make tough calls
The Stanley Cup is still fresh on everyone’s mind. And rightfully so.
The Colorado Avalanche won the best trophy in sports on Sunday night in Tampa Bay and have been celebrating ever since. That party will continue on Thursday with a well-earned parade through the streets of downtown Denver in which hundreds of thousands of fans are expected to attend.
Let’s soak this in, let’s cherish every moment and let’s appreciate the 2021-22 Avs as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) teams in Colorado sports history.
But with a championship, immediately some chatter begins about next year. Can the Avalanche do it again? Is this the start of a dynasty? Will we get to experience the same journey next summer?
These are all fair questions, as Conn Smythe winner Cale Makar and a slew of other guys are under contract. Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon (more on him in a moment), Devon Toews, Samuel Girard, Bowen Byram, JT Compher, Logan O’Connor, Alex Newhook and Pavel Francouz should all be back in the Burgundy and Blue. This is great news for a core that can deliver multiple titles to the Rocky Mountain Region.
However, the list of key guys who aren’t under contract is also a bit jarring. The unrestricted free agents alone would form an excellent team. That list includes Nazem Kadri, Valeri Nichushkin, Andre Burakovsky, Josh Manson and Darcy Kuemper. Whether you watched every game of the regular season or just the postseason, you’ll remember a key moment each of those guys had.
Kadri’s hat trick in St. Louis and OT winner in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. Nichushkin’s unreal play throughout the final, which included four goals and two assists. Burakovsky’s goal to take Game 1 in overtime. Manson’s OT tally against the Blues plus his phenomenal “save” in Game 6 of that series. Kuemper helping the Avs steal Game 4 in Tampa Bay and his shutout in Game 2. All five guys were key, but you can’t keep everyone.
According to Spotrac, the Avalanche have $23.96 million in salary cap space. There’s no way they’re paying all five guys, and it’s hard to even see four getting big checks from the Avs. Throw in the fact Artturi Lehkonen is a restricted free agent (and Colorado gave up a top prospect for him at the deadline), and this going to get tricky fast. Some tough decisions will need to be made.
Thanks goodness the Avalanche are led by Joe Sakic.
Sakic’s received a lot of praise the past few days, months and even years — and he’s worthy of it all. He built this team his way, trusted a process and led the Avs from the worst team in the NHL after Patrick Roy quit as head coach to Cup champions. He hasn’t been shy about making tough calls along the way (the Duchene / Girard trade, the Barrie / Kadri trade, letting Grubauer leave, etc.) and will have to make plenty more this summer. The stars on this team are here to stay; the depth will require some Sakic magic.
The first task is to lock up Nathan MacKinnon with a massive contract. That sounds counterintuitive given all the free agents outlined above, but Mackinnon has earned his next big deal from Colorado. He’s entering the final year of a seven-year, $44 million contract (a bargain) and deserves to be taken care of. The thought of letting him hit the open market is a scary one, and Sakic knows it can’t reach that point in the summer of 2023.
With “Mack” paid, Sakic must then turn his attention to the rest of the roster. Would Kadri or Nichushkin take a Denver discount to stick around? Would Manson appreciate the chance Sakic took by trading for him and sign for less? Does Burakovsky know his best chance for a third Stanley Cup (after also winning one in Washington) is in Colorado? They’re all valid questions, but Sakic might not get the answers he wants.
These guys love winning, obviously, but getting the biggest deal on the open market is certainly their right. Which brings us to Kuemper. Will Sakic even offer him a contract? Do the Avs want him back or is goalie a position that needs an upgrade? My gut is Kuemper would like to return, but we’ll see if the feeling is mutual.
The parade is in about 24 hours. There’s plenty of time to mull over and discuss these huge decisions. But now’s a good time to put them on your radar, because I guarantee they’re already on Sakic’s.
And Avalanche fans are lucky “Super Joe” is the one who will be making them, because hasn’t steered us wrong yet.