Even with free agent questions, Avalanche are built to last

Chew on this scary thought: The Colorado Avalanche are built to last. In other words, this may not be the only instance of Nathan MacKinnon’s – Cale Makar – Avalanche lifting the Stanley Cup.

Well, that doesn’t mean that will be the case easy. You may very well win just one. The most obvious threats to future Avalanche Stanley Cup wins are free agent questions, the overall salary cap, and a competitive NHL.

However, if you think about the building blocks of a contender, the Avalanche could flirt with reruns much like the Lightning franchise they just dethroned.

And frankly, the Lightning still have enough foundation to spoil the hockey world with a Stanley Cup rematch against the Avalanche. You never know.

Maintaining Stanley Cup depth won’t be easy, but Avalanche retains an elite core

During the offseason, PHT will take a closer look at what the Avalanche needs to do to keep as much of that Stanley Cup core together as the salary cap will allow.

One can ponder possible free agent departures for Nazem Kadri, Valeri Nichushkin, Darcy Kuemper and others like Josh Manson.

Here’s the thing though. The Avalanche’s savvy, analytically driven front office has already let opponents down by identifying talent before it blossoms. After a Stars buyout, Nichushkin was a winback project. Nazem Kadri was effectively driven out of town in Toronto. And the islanders could hardly get anything for an elite defender at Devon Toews.

[Generally, other GMs should’ve avoided the Avalanche’s trade calls]

Even if the Avalanche let go of most of their biggest free agents (Kadri, Nichushkin, Kuemper), they could still be a force. Just a different looking one.

Consider all the key pieces they can boast of and how many of them are in or near their prime:

  • Nathan MacKinnon, the fast superstar in the middle, is just 26 years old. While he’ll cost more once his $6.3 million cap expires after 2022-23, it’s hard to imagine the avalanche not moving sky, earth and several snow-capped mountains to hold him. He was a machine against Tampa Bay.
  • The reigning Norris and Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Cale Makar, is shockingly just 23 years old. His $9 million cap hit is a bargain, just as Leon Draisaitl’s $8.5 million was a bargain. This bargain runs until 2026-27.
  • Mikko Rantanen is 25 and Gabriel Landeskog is 29. These are two great wingers who can make it the difference in difficult playoff situations.

[Young defense powers Avs’ attack]

  • Even today, Devon Toews is grossly underestimated. He’s only 28 years old and only costs $7 million in AAV over the next two seasons.
  • Keep Samuel Girard, who’s a bargain at $5 million and also young at just 24? Not the worst problem.
  • After Girard was out after a goal from Evander Kane, Bowen Byram took his chance. He looked dangerous and dynamic without sacrificing too much defense. He’s also 21 and eligible for an extension that could add to the Avalanche’s almost unfair bounty of young, modern, talented defenders.
  • There are also some fringe players who could take bigger roles. Alex Newhook, 21, could gradually evolve from young upstart to mainstay at the core.

Pretty impressive, right?

Avalanche has room for salary caps to bring back one or more of Nichushkin, Kadri, Kuemper – if they want

With all of these strengths in mind, Avalanche free agent situations feel less like all or nothing and more like “what am I going to load at the buffet.”

It’s worth noting that this world-class organization positioned itself with incredible flexibility for a competitor. Through Cap Friendly, the Avalanche head into an off-season of free-agent challenges with a generous $25 million salary cap.

To be clear, this can be a bit deceptive.

Most importantly, the Avalanche seem to realize that Nathan MacKinnon is due for a raise after next season. That raise could very well double his $6.3 million cap hit.

So that could lead to hesitations in giving not only big money but also a risky tenure to Nazem Kadri and/or Valeri Nichushkin. It must be noted that Kadri is already 31.

[Nichushkin may have priced himself out of Colorado with star-making Stanley Cup run]

In any case, the Avs have some leeway. Perhaps the Avalanche could even convince Kadri, Nichushkin or someone else to sign a hefty one-year deal to try and repeat?

While Pavel Francouz was at $2 million for two seasons, the Avalanche must either bring Kuemper back or find another goalie. That’s the kind of thing that will eat its way into the cap space as well.

But…again, the Avalanche are built to last as Stanley Cup contenders. Complementing core players with the kind of difference makers that can move the scales won’t be easy, but the Avs often seem to be a step ahead of everyone else.

This applies both on the ice and in your front office moves. As far as we know, the Avalanche just started their Stanley Cup dynasty. Maybe Joe Sakic wins more as a GM than as a Hall of Famer?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Write him a message phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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