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NHL

Let The Bidding Wars Begin For The Avalanche’s Playoff Heroes

Nazem Kadri is congratulated by Valeri Nichushkin
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

There are many benefits to being part of a team that wins the Stanley Cup. You get your name quite literally etched into maybe the coolest prize in sports. You can take the trophy back to your hometown, or wherever you want, and bask in its glow with your loved ones. You get smiles and cheers and free drinks anywhere you go in the city where you won, for years and years. Maybe best of all, the aura of your success can make you a coveted asset in the free-agent market. With a bunch of key players on this year’s champions on expiring contracts, either we’re going to have some fancy new centerpieces on other Cup hopefuls, or Colorado is going to need to free up an avalanche of cash to keep this potential dynasty together.

With the salary cap increasing for the first time in three years (though by just $1 million, to $82.5 million), and with a couple of 40-goal scorers in Johnny Gaudreau and Filip Forsberg plus some aging A-listers in Claude Giroux, Evgeni Malkin, and Patrice Bergeron about to field offers, this is set to be an intriguing and potentially landscape-shifting summer for the NHL. Who thinks Marc-Andre Fleury still has something left in the tank? Who’s bold enough to add Ondrej Palat to their own top line? Who’s willing to risk committing to Evander Kane? There better be some dang drama on the horizon, is what I’m saying.

But no team is in danger of losing more top talent this offseason than the Avalanche, whose title defense begins the moment free agency opens on July 13. Colorado GM Joe Sakic will barely have time to sleep off that post-celebration hangover before he has to worry about the trash compactor that is the NHL salary cap, which mercilessly limits the length and extent to which a superteam like the Avs can stay together.

Three of the Avs’ top seven goalscorers from the regular season are about to become unrestricted free agents: Nazem Kadri (28 goals), Valeri Nichushkin (25), and Andre Burakovsky (22). All of them improved upon arriving in Denver and did one or more cool things when the spotlight was on them the brightest. Kadri was a solid scorer with the Leafs but regularly made headlines with his disciplinary issues, and after a relatively down year where he was suspended for the majority of the Leafs’ 2019 first-round defeat, he was traded to the Avs. Even when it wasn’t his fault, he still couldn’t manage to escape controversy, but Kadri blew away his old career high in 2021–22 by notching 87 points, and in the playoffs, despite a thumb injury that caused him to miss time, he scored seven and got the sudden-death winner in his Game 4 return against the Lightning.

And while Kadri is still in his prime, those other two targets are perhaps even more desirable because they’re just entering theirs. Burakovsky, now 27, was a streaky producer with a bunch of potential for the Capitals, prone to disappearing for long stretches only to come up in a massive moment like Game 7 of the Conference Final. He was traded to the Avs in 2019 and became more and more solid, averaging a goal every 3.5 games and a point every 1.3 in each of his three seasons after never touching that pace in Washington. And though, like Kadri, his playoff run was hampered by injury, Burakovsky still enjoyed a day as a hero when in Game 1 he finished off an overtime one-timer to give the Avs a series lead.

And then there’s Val Nichushkin, also 27, who’s coming off an awesome, unexpected high of a coming-out season. Originally drafted 10th overall by the Stars, he could never escape from the shadows in Dallas, and after a season in which he failed to score a goal in 57 games the team cut him loose and allowed him to sign an $850k deal with Colorado. His first two years with the team showed a huge improvement as a defensive forward and also saw him find the net at least sometimes, but then in 2021–22 he was like a whole new player. Nichushkin tallied 25 goals and 27 assists in 62 games and then further made his name with clutch playoff performances. After scoring just three goals in 25 playoff games over his first two years with the Avs, Val went wild with nine this spring, including a pair in that emphatic takedown of Tampa in Game 2.

These are all cool and intriguing options for other teams that want proven winners and better forwards, and the Avs will certainly have to pay if they want to hang on to them. But wait, there’s more! Darcy Kuemper—who, say what you will about him, was good enough to be the No. 1 on a championship team—also becomes a free agent, and barring something unexpected the Avs face the tough choice of either bringing him back or saving money by handing the keys to his backup, 32-year-old Pavel Francouz. Josh Manson, a tough defenseman rented from Anaheim, will be an appealing option for someone looking to add muscle. Older veterans who helped carry the Avs the distance, like Andrew Cogliano and Darren Helm will almost certainly find other homes as locker-room leaders with a new championship luster. Other standouts present further complications. Artturi Lehkonen, a pending RFA acquired smartly from Montreal who’s proven to be a lucky charm in the postseason, will be due a raise. And getting an extension done for Nathan MacKinnon, currently signed for just one more season at a bargain rate of $6.3 million, is a priority that outranks everything else

The good news is that Colorado’s finances are in relatively decent shape. While the NHL cap is never large enough to keep together anything more than the tightest core of a wannabe dynasty, the Avs still enter the offseason with $24 million to dole out across seven open positions. Most importantly, their biggest commitments—six years/$55 million for Mikko Rantanen, eight years/$56 mil for Gabe Landeskog, six years/$54 mil for Cale Makar—have all gone to their true top guys. This is a franchise that has spent its money well, and past shrewdness will pay huge dividends as Sakic tries to preserve and pick up the right secondary pieces.

But the walls eventually close in, just like they do for everyone else. (Future raises for Bowen Byram and Devon Toews have be taken into account, too.) Even the Lightning, who have seemingly done absolutely everything they could to stretch their ceiling to its limit, have still had to let guys like Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, and Carter Verhaeghe become key contributors elsewhere, because keeping them simply was not mathematically possible. The process ultimately has a silver lining for those involved. Whomever the Avalanche do lose will inevitably be going to a worse team, but they’ll be doing so with a bigger opportunity to be a center-stage actor, and a larger contract to match those expectations. Winning a Cup is a team achievement. But everybody who contributed deserves an individual reward.

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