As the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues prepare for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, the other 29 teams have begun to prepare for what looks to be a busy offseason. The NHL Entry Draft will take place on June 21-22, while the free agency courting period begins the very next day, on June 23.
During his season-ending press conference with the local media last week, Avalanche Executive Vice President and General Manager Joe Sakic made it clear that he will be aggressive in free agency this summer.
“It’s a pretty good class this year,” Sakic said. “We already have targeted players in mind if they become available that we’re going to want to talk to about joining our club.”
It’s no secret that Colorado’s biggest need is depth scoring. Ever since Matt Duchene was traded, Colorado has relied on its top line consisting of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog for scoring. While other forwards have pitched in from time to time, they lack the offensive depth that other contending teams boasted in the playoffs this season.
Sakic could go the trade route to improve his forward core, perhaps offloading one of the many effective Avalanche blueliners in the process. But free agency will also be a helpful tool for the Hall-of-Famer, at least it will be if he gets the opportunity to negotiate with the players he wants.
We have positions of need that we’re going to want to look to. There are a few players that we want to talk to if they become available. We’ll be more aggressive this year with that,” Sakic continued. “But keep in mind if it doesn’t work out for the players that we want to talk to, we’re not just going to spend on anybody.”
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the names that Sakic could possibly be referring to.
Artemi Panarin, LW, Columbus Blue Jackets: When a superstar hits the market, you can very much expect that any team with cap space will be pitching an offer to the player. Panarin is coming off his second-straight 80+ point season with the Blue Jackets after exploding onto the scene with the Chicago Blackhawks two years earlier. Only seven players have recorded more points than Panarin since he entered the league in 2015-16.
Panarin has been linked to the Florida Panthers and his former coach Joel Quenneville as well as the New York Rangers, where John Davidson was just recently hired as the team President, leaving the Blue Jackets after a seven-year tenure in the same position. Will the Avs land the big fish? Probably not. But they are certainly one of a few teams that have both the cap space and a spot in the lineup for the 27-year-old to flourish.
Jeff Skinner, LW/RW, Buffalo Sabres: Perhaps the most intriguing name on the list, Skinner would be an impactful player if picked up by the Avalanche. The 27-year-old already has nine NHL seasons under his belt and has missed just 43 games since being drafted. He is a seven-time 20-goal scorer, while surpassing 30 goals four times, including a 43-goal campaign in his most recent season with the Sabres.
Skinner will more than likely fetch around $8 million per year on the market. His durability, scoring prowess and familiarity with former Kitchener Rangers teammate Landeskog makes him what should be the main target for Sakic in this talented pool of free agent forwards.
Gustav Nyquist, LW/RW, San Jose Sharks: A more affordable winger, Nyquist is coming off a 60-point season split between the Sharks and the Detroit Red Wings. It’s the first time in his eight-year career that the 29-year-old has reached 60 points. He recorded 16 goals and 33 assists in 62 games with the Red Wings before San Jos acquired him at the deadline. His 11 points in 19 games with the Sharks came while playing with Joe Thornton and Kevin Labanc. In the playoffs, Nyquist was shuffled up and down the lineup, scoring once and adding 10 assists in 20 games.
Nyquist has also played with Landeskog on the international level. If the Avalanche and Sakic were looking more towards a second-tier player, Nyquist fits the bill. He won’t ask for nearly as much as Skinner and could be a good consolation prize if Sakic misses out on the two bigger names above.
Kevin Hayes, C, Winnipeg Jets: The first centerman on the list, Hayes was acquired by the Jets at the trade deadline after scoring at a career-best pace with the New York Rangers in his fifth season in the league. When Hayes was a UFA out of college, the Avalanche were the runner-up in the sweepstakes that saw him land with the Rangers. Five years later, Colorado is expected to make a run at the 27-year-old after a career-high 55-point season in 71 games.
Michael Ferland, LW/RW, Carolina Hurricanes: Ferland is a unique winger in today’s NHL. He can score, he can fight, and he can hit. The 27-year-old is coming off a 40-point season with the Hurricanes and will be looking for a bigger contract in free agency. The two-time 20-goal scorer has a career high of just 41 points and was a nonfactor in the playoffs this season, albeit injury forced him into just seven games during Carolina’s run to the Eastern Conference Final.
Jordan Eberle, RW, New York Islanders: After enduring his worst season in the NHL during the regular season, the 29-year-old rebounded in the playoffs, recording four goals and five assists in eight games. Prior to his 19 goal, 18 assist season, Eberle recorded five straight 20-goal campaigns. The winger is coming off a long-term deal that paid him $6 million annually. If the Avalanche were looking for a lower-tier winger, Eberle may not fit if he expects to make as much as he did in his previous contract.
Marcus Johansson, F, Boston Bruins: Johansson’s future and perhaps even his value are still not set in stone, as he prepares for his Stanley Cup Final appearance. The 28-year-old was acquired by the Bruins at the deadline from the New Jersey Devils and has been an impactful player in the playoffs. He has three goals and six assists in 15 games after struggling in the regular season with Boston, scoring just three points in 10 games. Injuries have limited the forward to just 87 games over the past two seasons. If the Bruins choose to let him walk this summer, he could be a cheaper option to shore up the Avalanche’s depth in a limited role.
Honorable Mentions (left off the list because of their lack-of-fit or probability of re-signing with their current club): Matt Duchene, Joe Pavelski, Ryan Dzingel, Anders Lee, Brett Connolly, Mats Zuccarello, Joonas Donskoi, Thomas Vanek, Brock Nelson (recently re-signed with NYI)