The Avalanche’s need for a second-line center has been well-documented since Nazem Kadri departed for Calgary last August. But the approach which general manager Chris MacFarland and the rest of the front office takes is still very much in question. On one hand, the Avs — like several other teams around the league — are in a cap bind. And with the salary cap expected to rise by just $1 million to $83.5 million, the team can’t dish out big dollars unless it finds a way to get creative. Though there’s also still that slight chance the cap rises past $83.5 million.

As it currently stands, the Avs enter the offseason with roughly $13.35 million in cap space. They have 12 regulars under contract, which includes five forwards (Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Artturi Lehkonen, Valeri Nichushkin and Logan O’Connor), five defensemen (Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, Devon Toews, Josh Manson and Kurtis MacDermid) and two goaltenders (Alexandar Georgiev and Pavel Francouz). Though it’s worth noting that MacDermid is likely not a long-term solution for the blue line.

I purposely left Gabriel Landeskog off that list, as he’s expected to miss the entire 2023-24 regular season. With his $7 million cap hit expected to be pushed to long-term injury reserve, the Avs’ flexibility increases to just over $20 million in space. And if they choose to trade Girard, it’ll give them more than $25 million to fill the remaining spots and replace Girard. Trading the young defenseman isn’t ideal, but it’ll also give them the ability to allocate some, or all of his dollars toward a new Bowen Byram contract. And it also gives them the flexibility to use some of that freed-up cap space on its forward core — which struggled mightily in the bottom two lines in the postseason.

Without getting too deep into the cap gymnastics and creativity necessary from the front office, the Avalanche ultimately have two ways they can go about solving their second-line center problem. They can add a big-name higher-priced center on the second line and a lesser name on the third line. Or they could spread the wealth among the two centers, and between the two of them and Alex Newhook, the team would have enough depth and options at coach Jared Bednar’s disposal. J.T. Compher, who is likely signing elsewhere in July, just posted a career-best 52 points in a top-six role. So it’s not entirely out of the equation that Colorado chooses to go with the second scenario above.

I’ll dive into both, in this two-part series, starting with the first scenario in this first part.

There are several big names they could target. And if that’s the way the team chooses to go, adding a third-line forward (not necessarily a center) to shore up the team’s depth is a great start. If MacFarland was to go this route, I would suggest a third liner that could play both center or wing — alternating with Newhook — and pitch in on the second line when needed if injuries occur.

Scenario 1: Add a clear-cut second-line center and an additional third-line forward

Ryan O’Reilly, 32

2022-23 season: 53 GP, 16 G, 14 A, 30 Pts
2022-23 playoffs: 11 GP, 3 G, 6 A, 9 P
Current team: Toronto Maple Leafs
Contract Status: UFA

Entering the offseason as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, Ryan O’Reilly is the ideal target for the Avalanche. The 32-year-old spent the first six seasons of his career with Colorado and has developed into one of the NHL’s best two-way centers. O’Reilly is coming off a season that started slow with St. Louis and ended in a second-round playoff loss with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who acquired him at the trade deadline.

Just four years removed from his Conn Smythe Trophy-winning season, O’Reilly could be a quick fix for the Avs’ woes on the second line. He’s among the NHL’s best in faceoff wins, kills penalties and has leadership qualities that were noticeable during his first stint with the Avs. After all, it was O’Reilly that took a 19-year-old Landeskog under his wing during the 2011-12 season. Landeskog went on to be named captain after his rookie year.

Of all the directions Colorado could go at 2C, O’Reilly would be the best name for the lowest cost. In the sense that he’s an unrestricted free agent and tradeable assets are not necessary to acquire him. His contract demands, however, could be high. And if the bidding war gets out of hand, the Avs should look elsewhere. But they would be doing themselves a huge disservice if they didn’t at least check in on O’Reilly.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, 24

2022-23 season: 73 GP, 27 G, 36 A, 63 Pts
2022-23 playoffs: 5 GP, 2 G, 2 A, 4 P
Current team: Winnipeg Jets
Contract Status: RFA (UFA eligible: Summer 2024)

It’s honestly a little strange to me that Pierre-Luc Dubois is just 24 years old given the number of headlines he’s made in his career so far. After asking out of Columbus and getting shipped off to Winnipeg, Dubois once again has made his intentions known that he’d like to be traded. Just one year away from unrestricted free agency, Dubois, who will be 25 later in June, reportedly would like to land in Montreal. But other teams will absolutely look into acquiring him.

For Colorado, acquiring Dubois is a bit tricky. He’s what I label the perfect second-line center for this team. But the cost will be high, and it might only be for a year.

Mark Scheifele, 30

2022-23 season: 81 GP, 42 G, 26 A, 68 Pts
2022-23 playoffs: 4 GP, 1 G, 0 A, 1 P
Current team: Winnipeg Jets
Contract Status: 1 more season, $6.125 million AAV (UFA eligible: Summer 2024)

The Winnipeg Jets are likely to undergo a bit of a makeover among its core players. While Dubois is someone they’d ideally keep, Scheifele seems like someone they’d like to trade. The relationship between team and player has soured over the years.

Scheifele has just one year remaining on his deal. Despite all the noise that surrounds him, he’s still coming off an exceptional offensive season — the first 40-goal campaign of his career. The cost for Scheifele will likely also be high, and he, too, might just be around for a year. But if the move makes sense, it’s worth looking at. Especially if, like Dubois, you look into signing him past the 2023-24 season.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, 31

2022-23 season: 81 GP, 12 G, 43 A, 55 Pts
2022-23 playoffs: Did not qualify
Current team: Washington Capitals
Contract Status: 2 more seasons, $7.8 million AAV (UFA eligible: summer 2025)

Feels like just yesterday that Evgeny Kuznetsov took the hockey world by storm with his World Juniors performance in 2011-12 with Team Russia. Or maybe I’m just getting old. Regardless, the 31-year-old is on the back nine of his career but still has a lot to offer to a contender. His career has been a mix of negative off-ice conduct, electric offensive prowess and year-to-year inconsistencies. Though he’s coming off a less-than-stellar season for his standards, Kuznetsov is just a year removed from a 78-point campaign in 2021-22.

Trading for Kuznetsov should absolutely involve some type of salary retention, and perhaps a third team to help broker the deal. For example, the Blue Jackets recently acquired Ivan Provorov from Philadelphia, but the Los Angeles Kings took part in the trade and retained 30 percent of his salary. If the Avs could get Kuznetsov in the $5 million or less range, he would be worth the gamble.

Nick Schmaltz, 27

2022-23 season: 63 GP, 22 G, 36 A, 58 Pts
2022-23 playoffs: Did not qualify
Current team: Arizona Coyotes
Contract Status: 3 more seasons, $5.85 million AAV (UFA eligible: summer 2026)

My guy. You’ve heard me pump Schmaltz’s tires since February if you’re a listener of Hockey Mountain High: Your go-to Avalanche Podcast (shameless plug. Don’t forget to subscribe!)

Schmaltz is the ideal trade target given his age, cap hit before retention, and ability to play both center and wing. He would easily slot in as the second-line center in 2023-24 but also gives the team flexibility to move him around if Newhook takes the next step. It would be the perfect scenario for Colorado if Newhook grew into the second-line center role and Schmaltz was able to shift to the wing. But unlike last season, having Schmaltz around would eliminate the pressure and urgency for Newhook to quickly jump into that role. Though it’s worth mentioning, a trade for Schmaltz could also include Newhook going the other way.

Regardless, this is the most ideal trade target for me. It could get a lot worse, but it can’t get much better than Schmaltz among the potential trade targets.