Chambers: Avalanche enters slow season with fulfilled check marks
The NHL offseason has begun and, notwithstanding the possible depth signing or trade, the Avalanche is up against the $81.5 million salary cap and appears set to give it another Stanley Cup-or-bust run.
Until training camp begins around Sept. 20, the biggest Avalanche news will probably be what Joe Sakic says at his annual mid-August charity golf tournament at Sanctuary Golf Course in Sedalia.
The Avs’ general manager has spent the last two weeks drafting for the future, doling out huge contracts for star defenseman Cale Makar and left wing Gabe Landeskog, and reshaping a roster beneath its core.
The belt was significantly tightened and good players they could no longer afford will play elsewhere in 2021-22. But after the Avs became much more expensive within the core and much cheaper in depth roles, they still might be just as good. They could still win the Presidents’ Trophy for the second consecutive year.
Losing goalie Philipp Grubauer in free agency to the expansion Seattle Kraken is certainly considered a core loss, but the trade for 6-foot-5 goalie Darcy Kuemper from Arizona undoubtedly plugged that hole nicely.
For me, the plug is an upgrade from Grubauer — who is generously listed at 6-1 — because Kuemper is just as talented, takes up more of the net and costs less against the salary cap.
Grubauer played behind the NHL’s stingiest defensive team this past season. The Avs gave up a league-low 25.4 shots-against average — a direct result why Grubauer led the NHL with a 1.95 goals-against average. If Colorado is similarly as stingy in allowing shots next season, I’m betting Kuemper’s GAA will also be under 2.00.
The thing is, Kuemper is not signed beyond this season and the 2021-22 Avs will not feature half of what became 20 regulars from last season. In fact, eight players who were on the 20-man opening-night roster Jan. 13 are gone, and Colorado also won’t have eight players from its season-ending Game 6 loss at Vegas on June 10.
Six of those players were on both of those lineups — Grubauer, Brandon Saad, Joonas Donskoi, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Ryan Graves and Conor Timmins. And four others were on one of them — Matt Calvert and Ian Cole on opening night and Patrik Nemeth and Devan Dubnyk in the elimination game.
So who knows if Colorado will limit shots-against as effectively as it did last season?
But retaining the core of forwards and defensemen suggests that it could — that it remains in that winning window and is again the offseason favorite to win the Stanley Cup.
The key question is adequately replacing wingers Saad and Donskoi, the Avs’ eighth and 10th-leading scorers last season, respectively, and fourth-line center Bellemare. Saad and Donskoi both played top-six roles at times and both contributed on the power play — Donskoi on the first unit.
Rookie Alex Newhook will likely step in for Saad at left wing and right winger Logan O’Connor will be back after missing much of last season with a leg injury. And young Russian Mikhail Maltsev, who was acquired from New Jersey for Graves, is in line to step in for Bellemare.
Those three young players will combine for a $2.4 million cap hit next season. Saad, Donskoi and Bellemare, meanwhile, have a combined cap hit of $9.4 million.
So that $7 million savings was required to feed the expensive core — to keep it intact before this window to win closes — and still be approximately $3 million under the cap for emergency use.
Sakic and his staff have done a nice job over the last two weeks. Now it’s time to golf.
Footnote. The Avs signed minor-league defenseman Jordan Gross two a one-year, two-way contract Saturday. For a complete look at the club’s recent additions and subtractions, click here.
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