Colorado Avalanche showing shrewd strategy in free agency

The NHL is setting records in free agency spending, but are the Colorado Avalanche lucky to stay out of the big payday fray?
Colorado Avalanche v Edmonton Oilers
Colorado Avalanche v Edmonton Oilers / Codie McLachlan/GettyImages
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The Colorado Avalanche don't have room to be big players the free agent frenzy. This much was known coming into the offseason. The rest of the league is coughing up dough in record-breaking fashion. CapFriendly tallied the day one spending alone at over a billion dollars!

The Avalanche are rumored to have given an offer to this year's biggest fish, Steven Stamkos. But just looking at the terms he got from Nashville (4 years, $32 million) or $8 million AAV, it seems clear that any deal Colorado could have put on the table would have necessitated some major moving parts that will now remain unknown.

While bringing in the former Tampa Bay Lightning Cup-winning captain would have undoubtedly snagged national headlines, the risk vs reward calculations would be mind-boggling. I, for one, am glad that Colorado didn't shock us all with that news. The Nashville Predators also added Jonathan Marchessault and Brady Skeji to hefty contracts that might age like milk.

For an NHL club, finding yourself at the top of a list of 'free agency winners' is not always an indicator of great success. The last time I remember Colorado being pegged as such was 2022, following their last Stanley Cup. At that time, ESPN experts loved the Valeri Nichushkin and Alexandar Georgiev deals and shrugged at the loss of Nazem Kadri.

A few years later, I still like the deal for Georgie but the headache the Big Val situation has become is well-documented. The subsequent search for a reliable 2C replacement for Kadri took the better part of two seasons.

As it stands, the Avalanche entered the 2024 offseason with two top priorities: extend Casey Mittelstadt and re-sign Jonathan Drouin. The Avalanche and GM Chris MacFarland achieved both of those goals. Mittelstadt is now set to center the second line in burgundy and blue for the next three seasons. Meanwhile, Jonathan Drouin took a very team-friendly deal after a career-best season, signing for one year at $2.5 million.

I wrote a few days ago that I thought Jeff Skinner would've been a good fit for Colorado. He ended up taking a one-year deal to chase a Stanley Cup with Edmonton. That was a bummer to see, as I had talked myself into loving the possibility. However, Zach Parise’s example from last year reminds us that those types of targets might be found a few months from now.

The team retained players they know and like for their top-six forward group. Aside from those key contracts, the Avalanche seem pretty content to work towards smaller deals on the margins.

I would have liked to retain players like Yakov Trenin and Sean Walker, but frankly not at the high prices they fetched elsewhere. Trenin got $3.5 million per for 4 years from the Wild, and Walker got $3.6 million per for 5 years from Carolina. Those are huge commitments for guys that are considered depth players in Colorado.

As far as forwards who I expect to see considerable time on the bottom six, the Avalanche re-signed Joel Kiviranta and brought in Parker Kelly. Kiviranta is a grinder who gained considerable trust with coach Bednar. Kiviranta really seemed to pick it up in the postseason, even with an unfortunate injury.

Parker Kelly is a guy I obviously know less-well, but given two facts, I believe he's got guts. He was undrafted, and last year he played in 80 games for Ottawa. Players who show both determination and dependability will always be valuable in some way.

The re-tooling of what looks to be a bottom pairing on defense with Calvin de Haan and Erik Brannstrom are low-risk adds I like for different reasons. Calvin de Haan is a vet defense-first type who will probably fill the role of departing Jack Johnson. Erik Brannstrom on the other hand, is a definite project. He took a one-year $900k bet on himself coming to Colorado.

It is part of being a hockey nerd, but I love digging into old scouting reports on a good reclamation project player. Brannstrom fits that definition to the letter. He was once a 1st round selection of Vegas, and is described as an excellent skater. He has offensive instincts that most scouts like, but have yet be fully unlocked. The knock on him that I have seen is his size, but that feels like a familiar profile in Colorado.

Brannstrom, on paper, looks a lot like Samuel Girard. Now what that means on this Avalanche team could vary. Is Brannstrom Sam Girard insurance? I am on record as someone who absolutely loves Sammy G, and I do not want him moved. That said, it would seem that his name is never far from trade rumors when the Avalanche are mulling over roster moves.

In a best-case scenario for Brannstrom this season, I think Girard may become the center of a deadline package. Again, I repeat, this is not my hope, but a sense from experience with the Avalanche front office. Joe Sakic and Chris MacFarland seem to identify and asses tradable assets well in advance. Girard's $5 million cap hit is one they would move on from if they had the right guy waiting to fill the spot.

Last season I wrote about how much I didn't want Colorado to trade Bowen Byram. But of course they did, in a one-for-one blockbuster that landed the aforementioned Casey Mittelstadt. As much as that trade hurt my heart, it was right for the Avalanche and their needs.

At this moment, there is no telling what Colorado's exact needs will be when the trade deadline rolls around again next season. However the big swings they took, that I said won them the deadline last March, show why that is perhaps the more crucial transactional window for this club.

Another facet to the lack of free agency activity on the part of Colorado concerns Gabriel Landeskog and his health. Last offseason, the Avalanche knew he wasn't coming back any time in the immediate future. Placing him on LTIR meant that they could spend part of his cap space in free agency signings. Now, we are nowhere near sure of his imminent arrival, but not repeating that process this year may mean the team is feeling good about Gabe's progress.

Maybe all it means is that Colorado is reticent to take that money and make a comparable move this year. After all, I believe the spending mostly went into paying Ryan Johansen. That was a gamble that sounded great in theory, but fit like a wool sweater in July.

The Colorado Avalanche aren't out to impress with flashy moves this offseason. Still, from where I sit, the organization is projecting quiet confidence.

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