Look, I love the NHL Draft. I think it’s fun, it’s extremely interesting, and looking back on how the decisions and how the league ends up shaped by the decisions of teams on draft day is one of the more educational things you can do when looking how to build and maintain a winning organization.
The Colorado Avalanche did the first part when they built a Stanley Cup champion on the back of homegrown stars such as Nathan MacKinnon, Gabe Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar.
Maintaining it, however, is the trick facing the organization now. Having a wildly talented core of players signed long-term already along with Valeri Nichushkin, Artturi Lehkonen and Sam Girard in the next tier of players who are also signed is a great start to staying competitive every year.
It’s a league of stars and Colorado has a few who look like they could make a real push for the Hall of Fame when it’s all said and done. That’s a massive advantage for the Avalanche moving forward, but it comes at a cost. In this case, it’s a literal cost as the majority of the Avalanche’s cap space is spoken for already.
While the cap is expected to increase in the coming years, how much it actually goes up could have a significant impact on how capable the Avs are in retaining these star players as their costs continue to rise given their lengthy list of accomplishments.
As this happens, the Avs have to find cheap solutions elsewhere on their roster. Right now, they’re getting by with a group of cheap veterans they trust. That’s the Andrew Cogliano, Darren Helm, Matt Nieto group, the experienced NHL guys who don’t cost a lot but comprise Colorado’s depth roles.
Those players have been necessary because of Colorado’s major struggles to draft and develop their own depth players. Of the regular forwards this season who are in the “bottom six”, only Alex Newhook was a draft-and-develop for the Avs and he was selected with the 16th overall pick.
There have been plenty of call-ups this season from players the Avs drafted from Martin Kaut to Jean-Luc Foudy and Sampo Ranta and even Oskar Olausson, their most recent first-round selection back in 2021. Kaut has since been dealt (for Nieto, actually) but the rest of the in-house options failed to stick.
This includes Ben Meyers, who was the prized free agent in last year’s NCAA free agent class. Meyers was highly-sought after with more than 20 teams vying for his services. It was considered a major upset when Meyers eschewed signing with his hometown Minnesota Wild in favor of powerhouse Colorado, whose limited roster spots seemed to make signing in Denver an oddity.
While Meyers got plenty of opportunity this year to make it work, it just never quite fully clicked and the Avs felt they had run out of time to let him find this way and bolstered the depth of the forwards, which primarily served to open the door for Meyers to be demoted to the Colorado Eagles of the AHL.
Meyers has been there ever since, but the path remains a viable one in Colorado’s eyes. Those draft picks I mentioned? After selecting 16 players between the 2018 and 2019 NHL Draft classes, Colorado followed it up with 11 selections in the next three drafts (’20, ’21, ’22).
Of those 11, only eight remain in the organization. The Avalanche’s reserve list (players whose rights the Avalanche own but are not currently playing pro hockey in North America) is down to just 12 players and two of those (Nicky Leivermann and Sergei Boikov) fall off that list this year.
They currently only own picks in rounds 1, 5, 6, and 7 of this year’s draft. There remains a high possibility they package this year’s first-round selection for a more long-term solution at 2C once they get into the offseason and more teams are willing to make deals.
This is a long-winded way to say the Avalanche need to find ways to infuse talent into the organization. Cheap talent, specifically, and nothing is cheaper than young players looking to break into the league.
After years of not being seriously involved in the college UFA market, the Avs are suddenly everywhere. They signed Ben Meyers and Wyatt Aamodt last year, both of whom are currently key contributors to the Eagles team that just clinched a playoff spot.
Over the course of the last 24 hours, the Avs have added three more college UFAs, all of whom are highly touted and among the most sought-after from this year’s crop: 24-year-old defenseman Sam Malinski, 24-year-old forward Jason Polin, and 22-year-old forward Ondrej Pavel.
Here are some quick thoughts on each of the players who have signed with Colorado, via Chris Peters of FloHockey.
Polin is more likely going to make the NHL in a depth role where he provides secondary scoring. He skates well enough, has a heavy shot and knows how to get himself into good positions to score. There isn’t any one tool that jumps out about Polin, but he plays the game with a good work ethic and is a high-character player as well. Roster spots will be scarce, but he can endear himself to the organization by finding a decent depth role at an especially affordable cap hit for the team.
Odds are Malinski is organizational depth with a chance to grow into a NHL call-up and maybe even perhaps an everyday fifth or sixth defenseman. Should Colorado need to shore up their blue line in the next few seasons, Malinski gives them a cheap option to plug in.
Pavel projects as a bottom-of-the-lineup, grind-it-out forward. He’ll score the odd goal and he’ll challenge defenders, but he’s never going to be a scoring champion. I thought he might go back for one more year of school to try to find his scoring touch, but tough to turn down an NHL offer from the defending champs. I think this is a nice, under-the-radar pickup for Colorado.
With Pavel the youngest at 22, there historically isn’t a ton of upside in undrafted players who are late bloomers to this degree, but this is the same pool of players we’ve seen Colorado have success with in the past when they found Logan O’Connor down the street at DU and watched him blossom in the AHL before becoming a mainstay on Colorado’s NHL roster in recent years.
What really caught my eye in reading the summaries from Peters about the three new guys coming to Loveland is that they all provide different games, and different looks on the ice. Pavel is the bigger body who wants to forecheck hard and create mistakes while Polin is more of a tryhard type who is capable of contributing some offense, especially in the area right around the net.
As Colorado’s forward corps potentially faces significant change this summer and going into next year, these are two young guys who can get to the AHL and see if they can find a fit and make a case for getting looks in training camp and early next season.
Malinski, however, brings a little offensive pop to Colorado’s blueline, which has badly missed what were expected to be significant offensive contributions from veterans Brad Hunt and Jacob MacDonald. Because injuries never ended in Denver this year, both spent most of their time in the NHL before MacDonald was included with Kaut in the deal to bring back Nieto and defenseman Ryan Merkley.
While we’ll have more on Merkley’s Colorado adjustment later, the addition of Malinski does bring a bit more of a puck-moving presence to a defense that has needed that dynamic and another blueliner with potential NHL upside if things go really well.
Malinski is already 24 so he’s not on an entry-level deal like the other two and got a standard contract. This guarantees Malinski more money at the AHL level, with the Avs going big and giving him guaranteed salaries of $200K. That’s very good money for the AHL level, especially for a player who has yet to make his pro debut. It isn’t a major thing, but that’s one of the few areas the deep pockets of KSE can make a difference and it’s good to see the Avs utilizing that advantage.
In the last 14 months, Colorado has gone from trading top D prospects Justin Barron and Drew Helleson at the deadline to adding Malinski, Aamodt, and Merkley to give the Avs three very different styles of players who the organization is hopeful can fill a specific role or two in the coming years, which might include time in the NHL if the injury bug continues to plague the Avalanche.
Undrafted NCAA UFAs don’t have a lengthy track record of success (certainly not compared to drafted college players who choose not to sign and go into free agency in August) but every year the rush for potential late-bloomers is on.
This approach by the Avs is not unlike when Patrick Roy entered the organization back in 2013 and the organization aggressively pursued and signed a number of European players to contracts to try to backfill the talent vacuum created by poor drafting in the years leading to Roy’s arrival. Mixed results followed, but Roy’s tenure was over quickly enough that it was hard to know if Colorado’s approach was the problem or Roy was.
The stability in Colorado’s organization at both the NHL and AHL levels should allow this concept a few more legs to see if it works out or not.
As the Avs continue to flirt with the idea of abandoning the NHL Draft entirely (this is a joke, not something they’re actually considering), they have found themselves quite persuasive in a different market as they continue to add talent to the organization.
If nothing else, this should help bring stability to the Eagles, who have experienced absolute roster chaos the entire season and these three should be in line for regular jobs next year…unless they become Avs.