Avalanche offseason: Which remaining free agents can Colorado afford?

A franchise with patient and tactful repute around the NHL, the Avalanche energetically participated in the fanfare of unrestricted free agency out of necessity this year. Then Colorado leaned back and got comfortable.

The market has dried since early July, but UFAs remain, as does salary cap space at altitude. By reaching a pre-arbitration contract agreement with restricted free agent Ross Colton last week — four years, $4 million average annual value — the Avs arrived one step closer to a finalized 2023-24 payroll.

They have $90.3 million to work with, exceeding the cap by up to Gabriel Landeskog’s $7 million thanks to the advance knowledge (as opposed to last time) that he’ll miss the entire season. With Colton’s deal inked, approximately $2.8 million remains to fill three active roster spots. One of those spots will belong to prospective fourth-line center Ben Meyers, an RFA (not arbitration-eligible) who’s still without a new contract. One spot will likely be a revolving door of players already signed who are on two-way deals.

Meyers previously had a cap hit of $912,500 after signing out of college. If he signs in the Logan O’Connor range of $1.05 million, that would leave the Avs with about $1.75 million in cap space.

The biggest need? Another forward, preferably a right-shooting wing to balance Colorado’s current surplus of lefties. (As it stands, the top two right wings are both left-handed shots, plus three of the four centers assuming Meyers does indeed fill that hole.)

The Avs don’t have enough cash to afford either of the two premier right wing candidates remaining: Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane both project at north of $5 million. And rumors indicate Selke Trophy monopolizer Patrice Bergeron is likely to reach an extension with Boston.

Still, the market is sprinkled with a few players who are both cost-effective and a feasible fit in Colorado’s lineup.

Phil Kessel, RW: How about a fourth line made of iron? The all-time record holder for most consecutive games played is still available, and he projects at one year, $1.1 million, according to Daily Faceoff. Imagine the ridiculous toughness of Kessel and Andrew Cogliano skating together on opposite wings. Those late-career grinders would form quite a duo for the young Meyers to learn from, as well.

Noah Gregor, RW: The Sharks did not issue a qualifying offer this summer, releasing their rights to Gregor and making the 24-year-old a UFA. He cracked 10 goals for the first time last season with a high-danger chances rate exceeding 50% (solid for a bad team), and he’s a fast skater.

Jonathan Toews, C: Very little has circulated about Toews, the generational talent in decline who missed a chunk of last season due to the effects of long-term COVID-19. Since the Blackhawks moved on from him, it has been unclear whether he’ll even play this fall. But his name was associated with the Avalanche before the trade deadline in February, and he would still be an effective two-way center for any contender. This would be a way for Colorado to not immediately use Meyers at 4C. (Toews is a left-handed shot.)

Pius Suter, LW/C: Sure, another lefty, but an intriguing leftover free agent. Suter is the kind of fourth-line forward Colorado sorely missed last year: sturdy defensively but also able to contribute steady scoring for limited minutes. His goal totals in three NHL seasons are 14, 15 and 14.

The other element to consider as the offseason clock ticks closer to training camp is timing. Remember, at this point, the Avs need to count on Landeskog being healthy enough to return in 2024-25, eliminating the extra $7 million a year from now. On the current version of the 2023-24 roster (including one of Fredrik Olofsson and Brad Hunt at all times), seven players have expiring contracts in summer of 2024: Devon Toews, Pavel Francouz, Cogliano, Jack Johnson, Jonathan Drouin, Kurtis MacDermid and Olofsson/Hunt. Those contracts add up to between $10.275 million and $10.2875 million.

While it helps that a long-awaited significant salary cap increase is widely expected next year, Colorado will still have dramatically fewer resources to issue contract extensions to those players. (If it means Landeskog is back, that’s a good problem to have, ultimately.)

Toews is the top priority — he’s underpaid big time right now — but how much money will the Avs be willing and able to shell out for the top-pairing defenseman at the expense of depth players? It’s a conundrum they need to start weighing yesterday, one that has already impacted their free agency strategy and will play a role in the type of contract they pursue in the coming weeks. One-year rentals or long-term, extra-low-cost structures (see the Miles Wood risk) are ideal.

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