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The Colorado Avalanche returned home from an impressive east coast road trip that saw them pot seven of eight possible points in the standings. That success has them spending their off day today sitting atop the NHL’s standings in a tie with Central Division foe Nashville.
At 3.67 goals per game, Colorado’s offense is tied with New Jersey for seventh-most prolific in the NHL so far and their 2.11 goals against per game are good for second in the league. Clearly, things are going very well for an Avalanche team trying to make the postseason for consecutive seasons for the first time since its general manager was its best player (Joe Sakic, in case you’re new here).
On the other side of the hockey world, and arguably in the center of it (if only in their own minds), the Toronto Maple Leafs started like gangbusters. Scoring at will and flexing their offensive muscle with regularity, Toronto lit the world on fire for about 10 days before the offense dried up.
While the Maple Leafs were trying to work the kinks out in their high-priced offensive attack, sitting on the other side of the planet was a player who had produced 122 points and 42 goals the last two seasons for them. 22-year-old William Nylander is currently hanging out in Europe seeking a resolution to his contract stalemate while the team holding the restricted free agent’s rights continues to play hardball and make public statements about taking less to keep a great group together.
Of course, the Nylanders (father Michael is advising William throughout this process) watched with the rest of the hockey world when Toronto signed free agent superstar John Tavares to a seven-year deal that will pay Tavares $11 million per season. It’s hard to cry poor when a team makes a significant splash like that, especially when its currently sitting on more than $13 million in cap space today.
That’s where the impasse has created a fascinating situation being monitored by all around the league. Nylander is reportedly asking for upwards of $8 million per year and Toronto, knowing they have Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner coming off their own entry-level contracts after this season, would prefer something in the range of $6 million per year. That’s a significant bridge to gap, obviously, and here we are.
As each day passes and Nylander gets closer to the December 1 deadline for RFAs to sign a contract or be ineligible to play this year, the pressure increases on both sides to find a deal here. While the threat of an offer sheet technically exists, the history of players signing them is extremely limited and them actually working even less so. As such, I’m going to skip that possibility entirely here because it just doesn’t happen.
But this all brings us back to Colorado.
The case for trading for Nylander
The top line just polished off devouring the east for lunch and has all three members in the top 10 of scoring leaders (Mikko Rantanen is currently tied with Matthews with 16 points for the league lead). The issue is Colorado’s secondary scoring, especially on the right wing where Colin Wilson is moonlighting as a top-six player despite a career suggesting he just isn’t that guy.
While Tyson Jost and Alexander Kerfoot are looking to prove their worth as second line players, the hole on the right side is glaringly obvious and Wilson’s three goals early in the year got them through a couple of games and provided hope the Avalanche could scrape by but just a handful of games later we’re back on earth where it’s obvious this isn’t a long-term solution.
Insert Nylander, the right wing with back-to-back 61 point seasons in his first two full NHL seasons. It’s a natural fit, right?
In a lot of ways, absolutely. He would immediately slot on to the right wing next to Jost (assuming he eventually works his way back up the lineup) and Kerfoot and bring a huge injection of skill and scoring punch to a line that obviously needs more. In terms of plug-and-play fit, there aren’t many situations better than Colorado for a player of Nylander’s caliber.
It’s the same case to be made for Colorado looking into acquiring Jeff Skinner and Mark Stone last summer. They clearly need more help in their top six. That’s just reality right now.
The danger of trading for Nylander
But the cost for acquiring Nylander isn’t just a willingness to pay him the money he desires. Let’s assume he really does want $8M per year and that number won’t change if a team trades for him. Colorado, like Toronto, absolutely has the cap room to get it done today. They’re sitting on more than $13M in salary cap space and have a projected $33M in cap space heading into next summer (assuming the salary cap remains exactly the same, which it never does).
That’s a ton of space but again, like Toronto, Colorado faces its own expensive contract situation come summer time. Rantanen’s ELC is finishing and he’s going to be due an enormous raise. Kerfoot, Nikita Zadorov, J.T. Compher and Sven Andrighetto are all players on expiring contracts. This season has yet to play out so we’re unsure the level of their raises but it’s fair to say the Avalanche won’t get away with paying that foursome the combined $4.8M they are right now.
Also, consider Semyon Varlamov is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and is currently performing like a top-five goaltender in his age-30 season. That’s a lot of work to be done just next summer for the Avalanche. Nylander’s $8M cuts into that significantly, even if the salary cap predictably goes up again.
They also have two first round picks in 2019 and there’s a possibility the Ottawa selection they own finds its way into the top five. Should that happen, Colorado will have another very high selection in a deep and talented forward draft class. They also, you know, used their 2018 first round pick on, you guessed it, a right wing!
Martin Kaut is just getting his career going in North America and scored his first pro goal over the weekend as a member of the Colorado Eagles. He’s a bright and instinctive two-way forward who certainly has the potential to fill that right wing on Colorado’s second line for a long time. He may never be the offensive player Nylander currently is but there’s a decent chance Kaut never asks to be paid $8M per season either.
To add further intrigue, next summer’s UFA class is currently slated to be particularly deep at…right wing. While it’s always a fool’s errand in trying to predict which players re-sign with their current clubs and which make it to the open market, the position is oddly deep already with Stone, Jordan Eberle, Mats Zuccarello, Wayne Simmonds, Jakob Silfverberg, and Joonas Donskoi, among others, on expiring contracts.
Rolling the dice in UFA is always a tricky proposition and not something I’m always a big advocate for but in this case it allows them the luxury of keeping their assets, letting their current players figure out more of who they are in the NHL, and seeing what happens with the Ottawa selection and Kaut with the Eagles. There’s a world in which the Avalanche will be just fine starting next season and acquiring Nylander ends up being a short-term jolt that costs them long-term flexibility.
Getting back to the UFAs, I can already hear someone yelling “BUT NYLANDER IS 22, AJ” and that person is absolutely correct, although maybe a little rude to use caps lock like that. It’s a great point and totally fair but signing a UFA only costs money. William Nylander will cost money AND trading a combination of players and draft picks to get him. Which brings us to…
The Tyson Barrie problem
This is the real crux of the conversation. We’re 1,300 words into a piece about trading for Nylander and haven’t even discussed what it might cost the Avalanche. I told you it was a fascinating topic! But now we’ve arrived at that particular junction.
Tyson Barrie has proven himself a very good NHL player. A flawed defender with an elite ability to generate offense from the blueline, Barrie is a star in his own right. He’s just 22 points shy of becoming the franchise’s leading scoring defenseman and it seems a large segment of Avalanche fans have spent the last couple of years ready to move on from Barrie. While fans are going to fan, we’ve reached the time in Barrie’s contract situation where the conversation has started to make a lot more sense.
Barrie is set to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020, just as the Seattle expansion draft is likely to take place. With Colorado’s current setup, they have three defensemen, not including Barrie, they badly will want to protect in Erik Johnson (whose contract may stipulate he must automatically be protected), Samuel Girard, and Nikita Zadorov. Barrie’s UFA status makes this a murky situation as Seattle could select him and negotiate a new contract in a special window setup for free agents taken in the expansion draft.
Or Colorado could choose to protect Barrie and expose one of those other three (very unlikely). Regardless, if Barrie makes it beyond next summer on the Avalanche roster, it’s going to be a very interesting situation to keep an eye on.
Part of the reason for that is, of course, Cale Makar, whose start to his sophomore year at UMass has included back-to-back Hockey East Player of the Week awards and an upset over top-ranked Ohio State. It’s fair to say Makar is one of the best defensive prospects not already in pro hockey and he will make any Barrie deal very easy for the Avalanche to stomach. Combining Makar and Girard’s upside, it’s a reasonable gamble they’ll be able to replicate, if not on their own than certainly in the aggregate, what Barrie produces for Colorado.
If the Avalanche chooses to keep Barrie, he’ll likely be quite a bit more expensive than the $5.5M he’s currently making, creating a whole different issue. But without getting into those dynamics, let’s ask an important question so many Avalanche fans seem to skip over: would Toronto even want Barrie?
With Morgan Rielly on the roster and already signed long-term, they have an offensive dynamo already and one of their top prospects right-handed puck-moving defenseman Timothy Liljegren. Those are two pretty good reasons for the Maple Leafs to view Barrie as an unnecessary piece in a Nylander deal, even if the entire hockey world can agree Toronto’s porous defense is most likely to be the culprit that keeps the Maple Leafs from a Stanley Cup run this year.
Barrie, while certainly an explosive offensive player, would not address what Toronto needs the most, which is defenders who excel in their own zone first but also possess the ability to transition to offense. Barrie simply isn’t that guy. If the Avalanche were looking to make that deal, I’d suggest Zadorov would be a better piece to build around than Barrie. Granted, dealing Zadorov would not solve all of Toronto’s issues and Colorado doesn’t have an easy replacement ready to go like it does for Barrie and it still doesn’t solve the Barrie problem. They’d do all of that and still have to figure out what to do with Barrie down the road.
If no Barrie or Zadorov, don’t even think about Makar as a trade piece. He’s off-limits. With Conor Timmins dealing with his injury issues, he’s also off-limits, though for all the wrong reasons and he wouldn’t be a high enough caliber prospect on his own to get the Nylander ball rolling anyway. Given Colorado’s roster is about to get significantly more expensive, all those ELCs on upcoming draft picks are going to be much more valuable than Colorado’s current wave of ELCs were during the rebuild so trading draft picks is also out.
Should Colorado suck it up and just trade for Nylander?
So there’s the dynamics of a Nylander deal for Colorado. It obviously makes plenty of sense right away. But looking at the long-term view, Nylander for whatever the trade would cost plus the high-end contract makes it just too much for my tastes. The Avalanche could obviously use the help this year but Colorado likely isn’t winning the Stanley Cup regardless of having Nylander or not so the Avalanche should still be focusing on the long game.
They’re set up wonderfully for a great future built around future stars. It’s always tough to preach patience when the organization is so close to a legitimate Stanley Cup contention window but a deal for Nylander is just not enough long-term payoff for what has to be given up. In my eyes, it’s not the year for that big move. I know some of you are going to roll your eyes and shout into the void “WHEN WILL BE THE YEAR” and I don’t have a good answer for you other than to send you a picture captioned “Soon”.
The Avalanche should resist one last mousetrap of temptation. Their time is clearly coming.