Evaluating the Avalanche’s free-agent forward options: Nazem Kadri?  Evan Rodrigues?  Standing pat?

Evaluating the Avalanche’s free-agent forward options: Nazem Kadri? Evan Rodrigues? Standing pat?

Training camp is set to begin next month and, after trading for goaltender Alexandar Georgiev, the Avalanche have had a relatively quiet offseason. With limited cap space, general manager Chris MacFarland has focused mostly on keeping his Stanley Cup-winning core together, signing Valeri Nichushkin and Artturi Lehkonen to long-term deals and bringing back veterans Andrew Cogliano and Darren Helm on one-year deals.

Colorado still has one of the best rosters in the league, but its forward depth has taken a hit, as Andre Burakovsky (Seattle), Nico Sturm (San Jose) and Nicolas Aube-Kubel (Toronto) have all left in free agency. Nazem Kadri, meanwhile, remains unsigned. If the season were to start now, the Avalanche’s forward lines would look something like this:

left wing Center right-wing

Artturi Lehkonen

Nathan MacKinnon

Mikko Rantanen

Gabriel Landeskog

J.T. Compher

Valery Nichushkin

Ben Meyers

Alex Newhook

Logan O’Connor

Andrew Cogliano

Jayson Megna

Darren Helm

(Note: This lineup uses the same top line and a similar second line that the Avalanche used when they closed out the Stanley Cup Final. Megna is included on the fourth line because he was skating with the team during the Cup Final, but the Avalanche could also turn to other internal options.)

The Avalanche have around $4 million of cap space remaining, according to Cap Friendly. Some of that could go to another defenseman; perhaps Jack Johnson or Ryan Murray consider coming back on a cheap deal. Even if that’s the case, MacFarland will still have some flexibility, though he has to be aware of Nathan MacKinnon’s contract situation. The star center has one year left on his deal and is due a massive raise after next season.

Here are a few options Colorado has at forward as the offseason continues:

Nazem Kadri

Kadri, who will be 32 at the start of next season, is coming off a career-best 87-point year, and he scored one of the biggest goals of the postseason with an overtime winner in Game 4 against Tampa Bay. There has been some smoke connecting him to the Islanders, but general manager Lou Lamoriello hasn’t made an announcement on a signing. With Noah Dobson, Alexander Romanov and Kieffer Bellows as restricted free agents, Lamoriello would likely have to make a trade to fit Kadri under the salary cap.

MacFarland, and potentially other general managers interested in Kadri, are in a similar boat to the Islanders: Colorado would have to move someone off their roster to make space for Kadri. The Avalanche have made the center’s camp aware of how highly they view him, and Kadri said going into the offseason that his preference was to stay. But logistically it could be difficult.

The free agent pool

Most free agents have signed at this point, but there are still a few intriguing options available.

Evan Rodrigues

Rodrigues is a 29-year-old center and had 43 points in 82 games for Pittsburgh this past season. He would be a downgrade from Kadri but is solid defensively and more than capable as a middle-six option. The fact that he’s a right shot could also give Jared Bednar flexibility, considering Lehkonen, Rantanen, Nichushkin and Landeskog are all left shots.

Paul Stastny

Perhaps Stastny could be up for a reunion in Colorado after a 45-point season with Winnipeg. At 36, his skating might be limiting factor at this point, but he’s a smart player and could play in a variety of roles.

sonny milano

Unlike Rodrigues or Stastny, Milano isn’t a center, but he could be a solid third liner to give the team depth and could move up to the second line in a pinch. He didn’t receive a qualifying offer from Anaheim, so he could end up being one of the more cost-friendly options available.

Colorado could also look at someone like Phil Kessel, though the veteran’s defense and skating might not fit with the team’s identity, even if he continues to put up points. Or perhaps MacFarland looks for bottom-six depth additions as a stopgap until the trade deadline. Players like Tyler Bozak, Tyler Ennis and Sam Gagner could fall into that category.

The trade market

Colorado has used the draft and trade market to acquire core players far more than free agency. The Avalanche drafted their three top forwards — Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen — and traded for Burakovsky, Kadri, Compher and Lehkonen, as well as Devon Toews, Girard and Erik Johnson on the back end. Don’t be surprised if this is a route the team goes to try to fill a middle-six forward hole at some point before the 2023 trade deadline.

Anyone with one year left on their deal in Chicago is worth keeping an eye on — including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Max Domi — considering how aggressive the Blackhawks have been moving quality players in their rebuilding efforts. Other bottom-of-division teams could make for potential trade partners, and MacFarland could always pull of a surprise and acquire someone no one is expecting.

Internal options

The Avalanche could wait to add a forward and increased salary cap space until the trade deadline. If the front office goes that route, it would make Compher and Newhook the prime candidates to sixteen the second-line center role in training camp unless Bednar wants to use Rantanen at center, which he did at points last season. Compher is strong defensively and had a few key postseason goals, and Newhook is a 21-year-old coming off his first full season.

If Colorado doesn’t add another forward, players like Megna, Lukas Sedlak and Anton Blidh will have chances to sixteen NHL roles. So could younger players like Martin Kaut, Mikhail Maltsev and Sampo Ranta, all of whom have NHL games to their name. Oskar Olausson, the team’s 2021 first-round pick, is a promising young winger but will likely need more time in the AHL before he’s NHL-ready.

(Top pic: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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