Avalanche enters uncertain offseason with contender status in jeopardy: “They are a team in flux right now”

No NHL team has won more regular-season games over the past four seasons than the Colorado Avalanche.

The only clubs with more playoff victories in that span are Tampa Bay, the 2021 champion and ’22 runner-up, and Florida, which became the 2024 champ Friday night/can win the title Monday night.

And yet, there is unease about the future of the Avalanche as the 2024 offseason kicks into high gear this week.

The 2022 Cup champs have very little cap space to work with this summer — a common issue for most franchises that have spent half a decade building a title contender.

What separates the Avs are a pair of wrinkles in both the short- and long-term that no other championship contender can match. As Nathan MacKinnon put it this week during an interview on TSN 1050 radio in Toronto, “It feels like 10 years ago (when) we actually did win now.”

Nathan MacKinnon (29) hoists the cup as he parties alongside Erik Johnson (6) and Gabriel Landeskog (92) during the Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup celebration parade in downtown Denver on Thursday, June 30, 2022. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

“They’ve got multiple great players. They are always going to be a great team with MacKinnon, (Cale) Makar and (Mikko) Rantanen, but they are a team in flux right now,” Bruce Boudreau, former NHL coach and analyst for TSN and NHL Network, said. “They’re never going to be a bad team with those guys. It’s just a matter of whether they can get into the Stanley Cup conversation again.”

On one hand, the Avs just built one of a few no-doubt Cup contenders for the 2023-24 season. The window certainly remains open to keep doing that.

On the other, the margins are incredibly thin, and the challenges the Avs face this summer are unique. Gabe Landeskog’s attempt to return after two lost seasons, plus Valeri Nichushkin’s suspension until at least mid-November, could limit what the Avs can do the tweak the roster.

It could be difficult to just get back to where this season ended, let alone win 10 more playoff games in 2025.

“The salary cap is a significant challenge for us, and we’ve got things we’re going to have to navigate,” Avs general manager Chris MacFarland said. “Does that impact things that potentially you want to try and do? … (It) very well may. But that’s our job is to try and find work-around solutions or workable solutions.”

Colorado has a little more than $16 million in cap space available, per CapFriendly, but $6.125 million of that is Nichushkin’s contract not counting toward the $88 million ceiling while he’s suspended. That allows the Avs some flexibility, particularly when it comes to filling out the last few roster spots, but eventually either Nichushkin’s contract goes back on the books or the club will need a significant trade or injury to be cap compliant.

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So the working number for this summer is really more like $10 million, but that’s before new No. 2 center and pending restricted free agent Casey Mittelstadt signs a contract. The Avs would also like to bring back unrestricted free agent Jonathan Drouin, but both of those players’ new deals could be $10 million or more combined.

The Avs need to get Mittelstadt signed to find short-term clarity. They can also sign Rantanen to a long-term extension starting July 1, and that would provide a necessary data point for long-term planning as well.

The rest of the roster fine-tuning could involve creativity or a return to the bargain bin, where the Avs have collected some intriguing players in recent summers.

“It’s kind of like the Leafs with the salary cap, where you’ve got to find the right combination of other players,” Boudreau said. “I didn’t think they had great depth on the third and fourth lines. They need to find a way to get back to that.

“I love these two players, but I’m not sure you can win with (Zach) Parise and (Andrew) Cogliano as regulars in the playoffs. Look at what happened with a guy like (Joe) Pavelski too. If they can find younger guys to play like them, that would help.”

If the Avs could wish it into existence, Landeskog coming back and returning to something close to his level of play before his four procedures is the easiest solution to Colorado’s problems.

Colorado Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog, right, during practice before game five of the First Round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Winnipeg Jets at the Canada Life Centre in Winnipeg, Canada on Tuesday, April 30, 2024. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Devon Toews called Nichushkin a “one-of-one” player when he went into the NHL-NHLPA Players Assistance Program in January. The one player whose on-ice game most resembles Nichushkin’s is probably a healthy Landeskog.

Having both of those guys playing well in the 2022 playoffs was a huge part of the Cup run. Just having one of them this past year made the Avs one of the best teams in the league.

“If both of those guys were healthy, you’d sit there and say, ‘OK, we’ve got a juggernaut again on our hands,’” Boudreau said. “You just don’t know with those two guys.”

The Avs could find internal improvements in some places to help offset what could be a thinner and relatively unproven roster, at least at the start of the 2024-25 season. A full season with Justus Annunen as Alexandar Georgiev’s goaltending partner could help prevent more goals.

A full year of Mittelstadt should be an upgrade on the second line. Sam Malinski and the right low-cost partner next to him could cancel out the potential loss of Sean Walker.

Once the Avs have a better handle on what Landeskog and Nichushkin will contribute, there could still be time to alter the roster ahead of the trade deadline and improve the club’s Cup chances.

“Between the coaches and management, they have a really good feel for what they need,” said Minnesota Wild coach John Hynes. “Just look at what they did this year and some of the additions they made at the deadline. I think they targeted what they needed, and they got it. They didn’t ultimately win, but I think they made the right adjustments to their team.”

That is ultimately one of the biggest reasons for hope in Denver. The most obvious one is the top of the lineup. An inner-circle core of MacKinnon, Makar, Rantanen and Toews is arguably the league’s best. If Landeskog can be close to what he was before, the Avs add another core player and one of the great “heart-and-soul” figures in the NHL.

Colorado Avalanche right wing Valeri Nichushkin (13) celebrates his first ever hat trick after scoring an empty net goal late in the 3rd period against Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele (55), left, and center Mason Appleton (22) to win game four 5-1 of the first round of the NHL playoffs at Ball Arena in Denver on Sunday, April 28, 2024. Colorado Avalanche right wing Mikko Rantanen (96) gets up on ice behind Nichushkin. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

If Nichushkin can get right in his personal life and mend fences within the organization, he has a path forward to returning as part of the core as well. If not, there could be more salary cap flexibility to either improve the bottom of the roster or find an impact player to replace him.

Colorado’s hockey team still has a top half of the roster few NHL teams can match. There’s also reason for skepticism about the club’s short-term ability to remain on the short list of no-doubt Cup contenders.

“I think they’re going to continue to be a strong team,” Hynes said. “When you have the core guys they have and they’re in their prime … they’re extremely competitive and they’ve won. It’s in their DNA. I think it’s shown over the past few years that they are an extremely talented, competitive team in both the regular season and playoffs. It’s hard to win (the Cup), but they did it.

“They are still starting ahead of like 90 percent of the teams.”

They might face first-world problems, but the Avs have an uncertain summer after a frustrating end to what was a “Cup or bust” season. It busted, and the challenge now is to make sure those expectations remain reasonable in the years to come.

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