With the first-round series loss to Seattle in the rearview mirror and the 2022 Stanley Cup run beyond recent memory, the Avalanche enter a busy 2023 offseason with a lot to do. While it’s not the most important part of their summer, general manager Chris MacFarland has five key veterans — four of which were part of the championship team — that all enter the offseason as unrestricted free agents.

Each of the five, which includes Andrew Cogliano, Darren Helm, Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson and Lars Eller, are at different points in their career.  Recurring injuries, late-season struggles and a late disappointing addition to the Avs highlighted some of their seasons. But each could have something to provide if offered a contract to return for another year.

Erik Johnson

It’s hard not to start with Johnson, the longest-tenured Avalanche.

Johnson was acquired by Colorado at 22 years old and suddenly finds himself as one of the elder statesmen on the team. His injury in 2021 almost led to retirement but he decided to continue another year and was a key piece in the Avs’ Stanley Cup run last summer. Johnson had a year remaining on his deal following the championship. He said several times that he felt better than he had in recent years and that continuing his career was the only option.

This past season, however, Johnson’s game slowed way down. He had just eight assists in 63 regular-season games before scoring his only goal of the year in the playoffs. Albeit it was a crucial tally, the game-winner in Game 6 that helped Colorado force Game 7. His defensive metrics also suffered and he also didn’t necessarily pass the eye test, either. He also had to fill a bigger role than expected on a number of occasions because of injuries.

Aarif’s take: Johnson reiterated his decision to keep playing several times this past season. But it might be time for Colorado to move on. Sure, Johnson could be brought back on a one-year deal at a low cap hit, but if the Avs are looking to fill a bottom pair or No. 7 defenseman spot with a veteran, Jack Johnson might be a better fit at this point. And if not him, there are other options. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if Erik Johnson returns, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if MacFarland and company decide to move on. 

Darren Helm

In hindsight, it’s easy to label Helm’s return this past season as a failure. After providing depth throughout the 2021-22 regular season, Helm stepped up immensely in the postseason. He scored the series clincher in Round 2 against St. Louis and even beat Andrei Vasilevskiy in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Helm, who also won the Stanley Cup in his rookie season with Detroit, could’ve walked away with a championship in his final season. But he instead returned and played just 12 games combined between the regular season and playoffs. He did not record a point in any of them.

Aarif’s take: I’ve joked for months that Helm will announce his retirement as soon as the final buzzer sounds on the Avs’ season. But it’s been almost three weeks and we’ve yet to hear from the 16-year veteran. I still think he’ll retire, but I often think about how these athletes are wired. It’s easy to say Helm is 36 and dealing with injuries. But being a competitor is what got him this far and it’ll probably be the reason why he returns — if he chooses to do so. Helm’s health is a giant question mark. But if a lengthy offseason of rehab could help mitigate those issues, why not give it another run? After all, Helm played through a similarly frustrating stretch a decade ago with the Red Wings. He played just one regular-season game in 2012-13 because of a back injury and missed the entire postseason before returning in the fall. 

Jack Johnson

Re-acquired before the trade deadline, Johnson had a somewhat surprising performance to close out the year. For his standard, and the expectation of what he brings at this point of his career, you could argue that Johnson was better this season than he was in the championship year. And he had to battle on a professional tryout to even earn a contract for that season.

Johnson appeared in 83 games in the regular season between Chicago and the Avs before injuries limited him to three playoff games.

Aarif’s take: I can’t help but think back to the opening game of the playoffs. And how, based on morning skate and pre-game warm-ups — as well as the roster sheet we received in the pressbox — head coach Jared Bednar was leaning towards dressing Jack and healthy scratching Erik. 

 It speaks volumes about how good Johnson was after being re-acquired. And it’s why I stand by my opinion that if MacFarland wants to bring back one of his two veteran defensemen, it should be Jack. 

Andrew Cogliano

Running it back in 2022-23 proved to be a good decision for Cogliano, at least for his on-ice performance. He scored 10 goals for the first time in five years, and, at times, had to play in the top-6 with Logan O’Connor and J.T. Compher. Cogliano’s season ended with a fractured neck in Game 6, which led many to believe that this could spell the end of his career. Questions surrounding his quality of life were also brought to the forefront.

But MacFarland said last week that Cogliano’s injury is expected to be a 6-8 week recovery. Will he recover to a point where he’s able to, and comfortable with returning to the NHL for another year?

Aarif’s take: Simply put, if he can and wants to return, the Avs should bring him back. Cogliano is a leader in the room and earned the vote of myself and fellow Avs reporters as the Colorado nominee for the Bill Masteron Memorial Trophy. I don’t think it’s smart for him to return if his quality of life could suffer. But other than that, I see no reason why Cogliano shouldn’t be brought back as a fourth-line winger.

Lars Eller

It was a disappointing stint with the Avs for Eller, who was the team’s big forward addition at the deadline after striking out on other candidates around the deadline, mostly because of injuries. Eller isn’t the same player with the same playoff pedigree that we’ve seen for years in Washington and Montreal. And it’s unclear at this point if he wants to continue his career.

Aarif’s take: I don’t think he should be brought back. if Helm retires and the Avs need a fourth-line center, they could explore the market both in free agency and trades. If all else fails, Eller is an option to fill that role. It wouldn’t disappoint me, but it also wouldn’t excite me.