Expansion Draft Preview: Colorado Avalanche

This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.

Check out articles like this one for every NHL team on our Expansion Draft Previews page.

Despite having the team close down operations in the past week as a precaution, the Colorado Avalanche are sitting pretty in the West Division. They’re out in front (even with the time off), they have the league-leading goal differential at an unreal plus-53, and the acquisition of backup netminder Devan Dubnyk from San Jose comes just as their starter Philipp Grubauer has exited the lineup due to COVID-19 exposure. Tonight is big for them: with a win over St. Louis they will clinch a playoff spot.

But the Avs face a similar problem to other teams doing well in their current season: the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft looms in the not-so-distant future, bringing the departure of one of the players currently contributing to their current success. Earlier this week we profiled how St. Louis will be able to protect most of the guys making an impact for them right now.

I’m pleased to tell you that Colorado will not be that lucky.

Damned If You Do

The debate surrounding Colorado centers on their choice of protection scheme. The Avs’ veteran defenseman, Erik Johnson, has a full no-movement clause on his contract, mandating that Colorado protect him during the expansion draft. Below him on the depth chart are four young and talented impact players that any team would jump at the chance to slot into their top pairing. Three are under contract for the next two years and beyond; one will become a restricted free agent at season’s end.

The rules of the expansion draft allow Colorado to protect all five of those defensemen if they want, using the 8-and-1 protection scheme. The New York Islanders did exactly that during the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft, so it wouldn’t even be unprecedented. But what happens then is, they have to expose forwards. Talented forwards. LOTS of talented forwards.

Even if Colorado can convince Johnson — currently on LTIR with only 4 games under his belt this season — to waive his no-movement clause for the purposes of the draft, hoping that they can use the 7-3-1 protection scheme to shelter more of their forwards from the Kraken’s tentacles, they still have no choice but to leave one of their young blueliners exposed. So in a very real sense, barring a deal in advance of the draft to move one or more defenders for either prospects or draft picks, the Avalanche are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

That’s terrific news for Seattle.

Protection List :: 8-and-1

Given that we really have no way to predict what Colorado GM Joe Sakic is going to do when he has to submit his protected list, we’re going to divide this preview into two sections. First, we’ll look at a scenario where the Avalanche have convinced Johnson to waive his NMC, and they opt for the 8-and-1 protection scheme — protecting 4 forwards and four defensemen. In that scenario, we predict that the Avs will protect the following players:

Forwards: Mikko Rantanen, Nathan McKinnon, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky

Defensemen: Samuel Girard, Devon Toews, Ryan Graves, Cale Makar

Goaltender: Philipp Grubauer

We’ll add here that the following players are UFA at season’s end and likely not to be considered by Seattle: forwards Brandon Saad, Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Calvert, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Carl Soderberg, and defenseman Patrik Nemeth. Additionally, defensemen Bowen Byram and Connor Timmins are exempt from the expansion draft.

Protecting so many defensemen means the Avalanche have to leave a wealth of talent exposed from their forward ranks. Here’s a sampling.

RW Joonas Donskoi, $3.9 million AAV, signed through 2023. Donskoi is a 6′, 190 lb. Finnish forward who does most of his work with his ass pressed against a goalie’s face: screens, tips, deflections, and rebounds. You’ll find him in that exact spot on the Avs’ #1 power play unit. He has adequate speed, protects the puck well, and has a 50% shootout percentage (for reference, that puts him in the top 30 league-wide over the last 10 seasons). He’s the prototypical European forward: good all-around skill, defensively responsible, and solid plus-minus numbers.

RW J.T. Compher, $3.5 million AAV, signed through 2023. Compher is a utility forward, spending the past 3 years playing center but moved to the wing for this season. He does everything well, but nothing exceptionally well. He logs sizable minutes on the Avalanche penalty kill — and has an above-average number of short-handed goals for his trouble — but is otherwise unremarkable. Not a bad player, he just doesn’t move the needle in any specific area.

LW Valeri Nichushkin, $2.5 million AAV, signed through 2022. Now we’re talking. 6’4″, 210 lbs. and not afraid to use his big frame to his advantage. Terrific speed, all the more remarkable due to his size, great hand-eye coordination, Hossa-like puck protection, and an excellent shot from in close. Nichushkin is not afraid to lower the boom, but he’s not a dirty player: in 330 games he’s dished out 361 hits, but has only 40 penalty minutes in his career. The last two years since coming to Colorado from Dallas: 107 games, 22 goals, 24 helpers, and a combined plus-35. This is the pick of the litter from the forward ranks, no question.

Protected List :: 7-3-1

In this scenario we continue to assume that Johnson waives his NMC, but the Avalanche opt for the 7-3-1 protection scheme. This will put Donskoi, Compher, and Nichushkin out of reach, but it opens up possibilities on defense. I’m looking at Cale Makar’s stats, and if ever there was a situation where a 22-year-old defenseman was a lock to be protected, this is it. So assuming that one protection slot goes to him, it will still require that one of the following three blueliners will be left exposed.

LD Samuel Girard, $5 million AAV, signed through 2027. Girard is also just 22 years old, and has stats nearly as impressive as Makar. 41 games, 5 goals, 26 assists, and a plus-17 rating. He’s smaller than his fellow blueliners at just 5’10” and 170 lbs., but he’s quick both with and without the puck. He is not afraid to join the rush — and frequently, he is the rush — and will go on Patrick Kane-esque “can’t catch me” escapades in opponents’ zones, drawing forwards out of position and opening up passing lanes. It’s an unusual style for a defenseman, but he’s making it work. And on a side note, I seriously hope this kid’s nickname is “Big Dog.” Fans of The Fugitive will get it.

LD Devon Toews, $4.1 million AAV, signed through 2024. The Avs picked up Toews from the Islanders during the last off-season, and he may represent the bargain of the century — costing Colorado their second round picks in 2021 and 2022. He has continued his above-average point production since coming to Colorado, but his plus-minus numbers have skyrocketed. He puts in 24 minutes a night for the Avs, logs time on both the PP and PK, blocks a significant number of shots, and his take-away numbers dwarf his giveaways in a complete reversal from his time on Long Island. Through 40 games this season he has 6 goals, 17 assists, and sits at plus-24 on the year.

LD Ryan Graves, $3.167 million AAV, signed through 2023. Graves is the Clydesdale of the bunch, standing 6’5″ and 220 lbs. He showed his offensive prowess last season, notching 26 points in 69 games (with a plus-40 rating), but with Toews’ acquisition they have put him in a more defensive role. Despite his size he has very good mobility, and while he’s not going to outrun anyone in an open-ice race to the puck, he holds his own in the speed department. He’s a shot-blocker and logs big minutes killing penalties, and you don’t hit Graves — you bounce off Graves. A very competent all-around defender, he is the most likely to be exposed, and would be a solid addition to the Kraken’s middle pairing.

The decision on which of these three to expose will come down to four things: age, size, cost, and similarity to the remaining defenders. Assuming they hold on to Makar, both Girard and Toews are similar puck-moving style players — where Graves is more of a hybrid, leaning towards stay-at-home. I can envision scenarios in which any of the three were the odd-man out; no matter which one it is, Seattle will be thrilled with the outcome.

Over A Barrel

As should be evident by now, Colorado really does have a problem on their hands. Remember that all of the scenarios above assume that Erik Johnson waives his no-movement clause, which is by no means guaranteed. If that doesn’t happen, the Avalanche really are over a barrel. That will require them to either expose an additional forward — likely Kadri or Burakovsky — or an additional member of their young defense corps. I have to believe Joe Sakic will be giving Johnson the hard sell as the draft approaches, for Colorado’s fate really does hinge on his decision.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m reasonably certain that Colorado would prefer to lose a forward rather than one of their impressive cadre of defensemen. But getting their hands on one of those blueliners is exactly what Seattle will want. So maybe there is a deal to be made. Here, again, Johnson waiving his NMC determines who has the leverage in such a negotiation. Without that, Kraken GM Ron Francis holds all the cards — able to select an impact player no matter what protection scheme the Avalanche decide to use.

Depending on which assets the Kraken would prefer, and what type of return Joe Sakic might ask for, it’s not a crazy idea to envision a scenario where a more comprehensive package is assembled — one that maximizes Seattle’s return, but provides some value to Colorado. Something like selecting Toews, then sending Nichushkin and goaltender Pavel Francouz to Seattle in exchange for a young & cheaper backup goalie (Connor Ingram?), a promising forward prospect, and one or more mid-round draft picks. Colorado has just 8 picks in the next 2 drafts combined, so they will be looking to replenish their stock.

Now: as of this writing, the Avalanche are just emerging from their COVID-19 shut-down, and so depending on how things go with players and tests and what-not their upcoming tilts may still be postponed. But as of now, you can check out all of the players we’ve just reviewed when Colorado takes on the Blues this weekend. Game time is 12 noon Pacific this Saturday, April 24th, broadcast nationwide on NBC.

Author: Tim Currell

2 thoughts on “Expansion Draft Preview: Colorado Avalanche

  1. “Something like selecting Toews, then sending Nichushkin and goaltender Pavel Francouz to Seattle…” This is what one can expect from NHL 2021 by EA Sports.

    1. Heh heh heh… I’ll take your word for it, not a gamer. We’re going to see some deals that seem ridiculous during the draft — different teams are motivated by different factors, money being chief among them. Young players mean entry level contracts. Lots of teams are praying they can give up something expensive and get back something cheaper. That’s going to play out in some strange ways.

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