Despite falling in six games to the San Jose Sharks in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Colorado Avalanche are a team on the rise.
Like last season, the Avs were the bottom seed among the Western Conference playoff clubs. This year, however, they upset the Western Conference-leading Calgary Flames in five games and pushed the favored Sharks to the limit in a hard-fought seven-game series.
The Avalanche are going through the inevitable growing pains of a rebuilding club finding its way. With their performance down the stretch and against strong competition in this year's postseason, they seem poised to take the next step towards Cup contender status.
— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) May 9, 2019
Powering their rise is the first line of center Nathan MacKinnon, right wing Mikko Rantanen and left wing Gabriel Landeskog. The trio forms one of the NHL's most potent scoring lines.
MacKinnon, 23, blossomed into a superstar over the last two seasons. The 2013 first-overall pick tallied 97 points in 2017-18 and 99 points this season. His playoff performance this spring earned rave reviews. Following Calgary's elimination by the Avs, Flames captain Mark Giordano called MacKinnon one of the NHL's best players.
Rantanen and Landeskog are also former first-round picks who have come into their own as scoring stars. The 22-year-old Rantanen finished second to MacKinnon in team scoring with 87 points and was their postseason leader with 14 points. Landeskog, their 26-year-old captain, finished third in regular-season points with 75.
While those three garner the bulk of the Avalanche headlines, several of their teammates are emerging from the shadows.
— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) April 29, 2019
Puck-moving defenseman Tyson Barrie was fourth among Colorado scorers with a career-best 59 points. Often mentioned in trade speculation during the Avs lean years, he's become invaluable to their offensive game. Now 27, Barrie is also a year away from becoming an unrestricted free agent, raising questions over his long-term future in Denver.
Acquired last summer from the Washington Capitals, goaltender Philipp Grubauer struggled early with his new club. He took over the starter's job down the stretch and helped the Avs secure a wild-card berth. The 27-year-old German finished the postseason with a sold 2.30 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.
Defensemen Cale Makar, 20, and Samuel Girard, 21, possess considerable upside. Makar, the 2019 Hobey Baker Award winner, made a seamless transition this spring from the college ranks into the Stanley Cup playoffs, finishing with six points in 10 games. Girard, meanwhile, enjoyed a solid sophomore campaign with 27 points in 82 games.
Forwards Alex Kerfoot and Tyson Jost could also figure into their long-term plans. Kerfoot, 24, is a good two-way player coming off his second-straight 40-plus point campaign. Jost, 21, is a versatile, speedy forward who can play center or wing.
In the first period of his first NHL game, Cale Makar scores his first NHL goal pic.twitter.com/Pg7KpRw4qe
— Spittin' Chiclets (@spittinchiclets) April 16, 2019
Much of the credit belongs to general manager Joe Sakic. Since becoming executive VP of hockey operations in 2013 and the full-time GM a year later, he's done a fine job patiently rebuilding this club back to respectability. All but Landeskog and Barrie were drafted, signed or acquired via trade by the Avs during Sakic's front-office tenure.
Heading into the offseason, the Avalanche have over $46.8 million invested in 13 players. Rantanen, Kerfoot and rugged defenseman Nikita Zadorov are their noteworthy restricted free agents. Former starting goalie Semyon Varlamov, trade-deadline pickup Derick Brassard and veteran forward Colin Wilson are the notable unrestricted free agents.
A new contract for Rantanen is the priority — one that will get expensive. He could ink a long-term deal worth around $9 million annually. That would be far more than MacKinnon's $6.3 million per season, but it's also the reality under a rising salary cap.
Varlamov's situation could be interesting. The oft-injured veteran lost the starter's job to Grubauer and could move on via free agency; however, if the market doesn't look promising, perhaps he'll consider staying in Colorado in a backup role for less money.
Sakic should also have sufficient cap room to add an experienced secondary scorer to ease some of the burden on the MacKinnon line. He could go the trade route, perhaps by targeting cap-strapped clubs looking to offload salary on the cheap. Sakic could also look into an affordable signing via the free-agent market.
The Avs also hold two first-round picks (fourth and 16th overall) in this year's draft. For the right offer, perhaps Sakic could be convinced to part with one of them.
With a core of young talent and several more in the pipeline, the Avalanche are only going to get better in the coming years. Depending on Sakic's moves this summer, their future could become even brighter much sooner.