Avalanche offseason questions: Injuries, free agents, salary cap future

During the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning drew a lot of attention for the injuries they fought through. The Avalanche weren’t exactly skipping trips to the trainers’ room, either, though.

That wear-and-sometimes-literal-tear can be used to glorify taking health risks that are maybe ill-advised.

Beyond that discussion, the Avalanche face a more practical question. How might lingering injuries affect offseason plans as the Avalanche already need to weigh big questions regarding free agents, possible franchise-altering contract extensions, and the salary cap in general?

After witnessing their dominant run to a Stanley Cup win, a thought lingered: the Avalanche have the pieces in place to win more. Even so, you need a lot of skill, luck, and foresight to go from having the potential to do something, to actually pulling it off.

Avalanche faced painful playoff injuries on way to Stanley Cup win

Altitude’s Vic Lombardi tweeted out a daunting Avalanche playoff injury list, covering Darcy Kuemper‘s process recovering from an eye injury, plus issues for Valeri Nichushkin, Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, Samuel Girard, and Darren Helm:

Kuemper celebrated his journey from that scary injury to Stanley Cup win:

This photo of Valeri Nichuskin’s possibly broken foot is especially gnarly.

These situations also bleed (figuratively, hopefully) into the free agent/salary questions for the Avalanche this offseason.

Darcy Kuemper, or a different goalie?

Before the playoffs, pending unrestricted free agent goalie Darcy Kuemper already loomed as an interesting Avalanche free-agent question.

At 32, Darcy Kuemper isn’t exactly a baby. We’ve also already seen an example of the Avalanche balking on risky term with a goalie.

After all, Philipp Grubauer left town after ending up being a 2021 Vezina Trophy finalist. As shocking as that was, it’s the Kraken who likely carry regrets from that exchange.

So, the Avalanche were already likely aware of the inherent risks of signing Darcy Kuemper instead of allowing him to become a free agent. Now stack on his eye injury as an other risk factor. What if Kuemper struggles to read plays and track the puck going forward?

(While Kuemper’s at a higher level than where Carter Hutton was, I can’t help but think of Hutton’s eye/tracking issues.)

[Avalanche pulled off a rare feat by overcoming bumpy playoff netminding]

Considering Kuemper’s challenges, it’s all the more surprising that the Avalanche didn’t turn to Pavel Francouz more often. The Avs re-upped Francouz, 32, for two years at a $2M cap hit back in March.

Do the Avs view Francouz as a pure backup, or a 1B goalie in a “platoon?”

To an extent, the Avalanche showed that you can win a Stanley Cup even with iffy playoff goaltending. It’s not necessarily a magic trick you want to attempt year after year, though.

Avalanche must balance salary cap with threat of free agent departures of Kadri, Burakovsky, Nichushkin

According to Cap Friendly, the Avalanche enter an important offseason with an impressive $25.685 million in salary cap space. That’s unusual wiggle room for a team coming off such a dominant run.

Of course, the goalie situation alone tells you how quickly that money can start to evaporate. Cap Friendly’s salary structure projection only covers 14 Avalanche roster spots.

Josh Manson, Andrew Cogliano, Darren Helm, and Nico Sturm rank among veteran free agents. Artturi Lehkonen‘s the most interesting pending RFA.

But, if you’re looking at the toughest non-Darcy-Kuemper conundrums regarding Avalanche free agents, the trio of Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, and Valeri Nichushkin all present riddles.

Evolving Hockey’s contract projections spit out some possibilities for those four prominent Avalanche free agents:

  • Kadri, 31: seven years, $8.469M (average term: about five years (4.9), average cap hit: $7.74M).
  • Burakovsky, 27: seven years, $6.903M (average term: 5.3 years, average AAV: $6.415M).
  • Nichushkin, 27: seven years, $6.357M (average term: 5.6 years, average AAV: $6.05M).
  • Kuemper, 32: six years, $3.15M (average term: 4.4 years, average AAV: $5.998M).

Frankly, Kadri might be in line for an even bigger raise than that.

That said, the Avalanche at least have a chance to bring back some of those free agents thanks to that relatively robust salary cap space. But should they?

Can they find “the next” Valeri Nichushkin, or is the ferocious forechecker too precious?

These decisions will really test this team and its pro scouts. Just look at this xGAR chart from the past three seasons to see how much Burakovsky, Kadri, and Nichushkin meant to the Avalanche (via Evolving Hockey):

Avalanche offseason questions: Injuries, free agents, salary cap future Evo
via Evolving Hockey

So, the Avalanche face the immediate questions of keeping or losing those free agents.

It goes deeper, too. They also must weigh keeping players like Nichushkin vs. the risk of losing others down the line.

Avalanche salary cap management: contract extensions for MacKinnon, Byram?

For years, the Avalanche have clearly set aside salary cap space to keep core players in place. As Elliotte Friedman mentioned in a recent “32 Thoughts Podcast,”  that may have meant offering less term to star free agents such as Artemi Panarin.

From Cale Makar to Gabriel Landeskog, there are players with big term. There’s also medium term to core pieces such as Mikko Rantanen and Devon Toews.

As early as this offseason, the Avalanche could settle one of their biggest questions: how much will Nathan MacKinnon‘s next contract cost? If they’re wise (and if the interest is there), they’d be wise to sign Bowen Byram to a contract extension, too.

Really, MacKinnon (26, in the last year with a bargain $6.3M cap hit) can essentially name his own price. Whatever the number is, at least Colorado would gain some cost certainty.

Buy low on Byram

Signing MacKinnon to a contract extension won’t be cheap, but it’s basically a no-brainer. To some, it might be less obvious to extend 21-year-old defenseman Bowen Byram.

But forward-thinking teams tend to sign (or at least try to sign) players before their value skyrockets. With Byram, you almost expect Houston to count down his lift off.

Quietly, Bowen Byram managed promising regular-season stats (17 points in 30 games, or 46-47 over a full season) despite dealing with frightening concussion issues. Yet, it was his playoff breakthrough that turned many heads.

Through eight games, Byram averaged a modest 15:49 TOI. Yet, the Avalanche unleashed Byram once Samuel Girard was injured. For the next 12 playoff games, Byram averaged 21:43, only trailing Cale Makar and Devon Toews as Avalanche ice time leaders. Rather than shrinking in the big time, Byram only become more prominent. He logged 28:25 TOI in Game 4 and 25:48 in a tight Stanley Cup-clinching Game 6. Remarkably, Byram topped all Avalanche players period with 24:52 TOI at even-strength in Game 6.

He wasn’t just killing time, either. Byram’s underlying stats jumped off the page.

Imagine if Bowen Byram hit the net instead of the crossbar or post on some key chances. Even with bad puck luck (zero goals) Byram generated nine useful assists in 20 playoff games.

In 2022-23, Byram could really put up the sort of numbers that gain him more mainstream attention. A smart team like the Avalanche will be proactive.

… At least, if they can. It’s up to Byram and/or his reps to actually want a contract extension instead of betting on himself.

Just look at the breakthrough for Valeri Nichushkin, and you’d think the Avalanche would kick themselves if they don’t at least ask Byram about a contract extension. If the Avs pulled that off, then look out.

Overall, a slew of questions for Avs, but they’re not in a bind

As you can see, there’s a long to-do list for the Avalanche offseason. Naturally, there’s room for swerves. Maybe the Avalanche could convince a key free agent or two to take less term. Priorities can shift — extensions for MacKinnon and/or Byram fall closer to “best practices” than absolutely mandatory.

Overall, there are a lot of tough decisions. That being said, the Avalanche are in an unusually flexible position to read and react.

It’s not all that different from the Avalanche’s brilliant breakout. Sure, there are risks — ones that other teams would flinch away from. Yet, the Avs might just find all the right angles to make their opponents sweat.

Even with free agent questions, Avalanche are built to last

Chew on this scary thought: the Colorado Avalanche are built to last. In other words, this might not be the only instance where the Nathan MacKinnonCale Makar era Avalanche hoist the Stanley Cup.

Now, that’s not to say this will be easy. They very well may only win one. Most obviously, future Avalanche Stanley Cup wins are threatened by free agent questions, the salary cap as a whole, and a competitive NHL.

Yet, when you think of the building blocks of a contender, the Avalanche could flirt with repeats much like the Lightning franchise they just dethroned.

And, honestly, the Lightning still have enough of a foundation to treat the hockey world to a Stanley Cup rematch with the Avalanche. You never know.

Keeping Stanley Cup depth won’t be easy, but Avalanche maintain an elite core

During the offseason, PHT will take deeper looks at what the Avalanche need to do to keep as much of this Stanley Cup core together.

One can ponder possible free agent exits for Nazem Kadri, Valeri Nichushkin, Darcy Kuemper, and others like Josh Manson.

Here’s the thing, though. The Avalanche’s savvy, analytics-leaning front office already left opponents in the dust by identifying talent before it blossomed. After a Stars buyout, Nichushkin was a reclamation project. Nazem Kadri was basically run out of town in Toronto. And the Islanders could barely get anything for an elite defenseman in Devon Toews.

[Generally, other GMs should’ve have taken the Avalanche’s trade calls]

So, even if the Avalanche let most of their biggest free agents (Kadri, Nichushkin, Kuemper) go, they could still be a force. Just a different-looking one.

Consider all the key pieces they boast, and how many of them are in or around their prime years:

  • Nathan MacKinnon, speedy superstar center, is just 26 years old. While he’ll cost more after his $6.3M cap hit expires after 2022-23, it’s hard to imagine the Avalanche not moving Heaven, Earth, several snow-capped mountains to keep him. He was a machine against Tampa Bay.
  • Reigning Norris and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Cale Makar is, frighteningly, just 23. His $9M cap hit is a bargain in the same way Leon Draisaitl‘s a steal at $8.5M. That bargain runs through 2026-27.
  • Mikko Rantanen is 25 and Gabriel Landeskog is 29. Those are two big wingers who can make the difference in tough playoff situations.

[Young defense powers Avs’ attack]

  • Even now, Devon Toews is wildly underrated. He’s just 28, and only costs $7M in AAV for the next two seasons.
  • Do you keep Samuel Girard, who’s a bargain at $5M and also young at just 24? Not the worst problem to consider.
  • With Girard out after an Evander Kane hit, Bowen Byram took advantage of his opportunity. He looked dangerous and dynamic, without sacrificing too much defense. He’s also 21, and eligible for an extension that could add to the Avalanche’s almost-unfair bounty of young, modern, talented defensemen.
  • There are also some players on the perimeter who could take bigger roles. Alex Newhook, 21, could gradually go from young upstart to a mainstay in the core.

Pretty impressive, huh?

Avalanche have salary cap space to bring back one or more of Nichushkin, Kadri, Kuemper — if they want to

With all of those strengths in mind, Avalanche free agent situations feel less do-or-die, and more “what should I load up on at the buffet.”

It’s worth noting that this world-class organization set itself up with incredible flexibility for a contender. Via Cap Friendly, the Avalanche enter an offseason of free agent challenges with a roomy $25M in salary cap space.

To be clear: that can be a bit deceptive.

Most importantly, the Avalanche obviously realize that Nathan MacKinnon’s due a raise after next season. That raise could very well almost double his $6.3M cap hit.

So, that might create some hesitation in giving Nazem Kadri and/or Valeri Nichushkin not just big money, but risky term. It must be noted that Kadri’s already 31.

[Nichushkin may have priced himself out of Colorado with star-making Stanley Cup run]

Either way, the Avs have some room to maneuver. Maybe the Avalanche could even convince Kadri, Nichushkin, or someone else to take a hefty one-year deal to try to repeat?

While Pavel Francouz‘s locked in at $2M for two seasons, the Avalanche must either bring back Kuemper, or find another goalie. That’s the sort of thing that will eat into cap space, too.

But … again, the Avalanche are built to last as Stanley Cup contenders. It won’t be easy to supplement core players with the sort of difference-makers who can tilt the scale, but the Avs often seem one step ahead of everyone else.

That goes for on the ice, and with their front office moves. For all we know, the Avalanche just began their Stanley Cup dynasty. Maybe Joe Sakic will win more as a GM than he did as a Hall of Fame player?

Avalanche vs. Lightning: What to watch for in Game 6 of 2022 Stanley Cup Final

The Stanley Cup will be in the building again on Sunday night as the Colorado Avalanche get another chance to win their first championship in two decades.

It is not going to be easy, though, as they try to knock off the reigning back-to-back champion Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final.

The Lightning are looking to overcome what was a 3-1 series deficit and push the series to a decisive Game 7, and will have a chance to do so on home ice where they are 8-2 this postseason, with only one of those losses coming in regulation. They have the championship experience and the goalie that can help push them forward, but they are going to have to slow down one of the league’s top offenses to get there.

Here is everything to watch for in Game 6 of the series on Sunday night.

What to watch for in Game 6 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final

• Same lineup for Lightning. That means no Brayden Point. Again. Point made a brief appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, playing in Games 1 and 2, but he was clearly not even close to 100 percent, recording just a single assist and one shot on goal in the two games. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said it is a significant injury for Point and based on that it seems highly unlikely that he will be available even if the series goes to a Game 7 on Tuesday night.

Point has only appeared in nine games this postseason,. He was injured in Game 7 of the Lightning’s First Round win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

[Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

Andre Burakovsky could play for Avalanche. On the other side of ice, the Colorado Avalanche were hoping to get Andre Burakovsky back in the lineup after missing the past three games due to injury. He made a brief appearance on the ice at Colorado’s morning skate but did not return.

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said “we will see” when it comes to Burakovsky’s availability.

Burakovsky had two goals and an assist in the first two games of the series, including the Game 1 winning goal in overtime.

He has three goals and eight total points in the playoffs so far. The Avalanche still have plenty of scoring depth without him (especially with Nazem Kadri back in the lineup) but having him back would add even more scoring punch to a lineup that has already carried the play for most of the series.

[The Wraparound: Avalanche get another chance to win Stanley Cup]

• The goaltending matchup. This is going to be one of the biggest X-factors in this game and series. Colorado has carried the play through the first five games, having a decisive edge in terms of shot attempts, scoring chances, and expected goals. Given their dominance in those areas this series should be well within their control. But it’s not. Tampa Bay is still very much in this and they have their all-world goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, to thank for it.

These situations are typically when he lifts his play to an even higher level and is at his absolute best.

Vasilevskiy is a major asset for the Lightning in any matchup, but especially here against a team that has a major weakness in goal.

Darcy Kuemper had a fine regular season and has a strong NHL track record, but he has not been great in the playoffs. Colorado has not needed him to steal many games, but given who is playing at the other end of the rink he still has little margin for error. He has allowed more than a handful of questionable goals in this series and he is going to have to make some saves if the Avalanche are going to close this series.

[RELATED: This is Andrei Vasilevskiy’s time to shine]

Cale Makar‘s continued excellence. If Colorado does win the series it seems like a given that Cale Makar will be the Conn Smythe winner, which will wrap up an incredible season that already includes his first Norris Trophy. He is putting up historic numbers this postseason for a defenseman and continues to average more than a point per game for his career in both the regular season and playoffs. For a defenseman, those numbers are staggering.

He also already has three multi-point games in this series alone.

No defenseman has had four multi-point games in a Stanley Cup Final series since Brian Leetch during the 1993-94 playoffs as a member of the New York Rangers.

• Not many teams go down 3-1 and force a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Final.

Via the NHL:

NHL

• Bednar does not want Avalanche to play safe. That was the word Bednar used to describe the Avalanche’s play in Game 5 of the series. He does not want them to play safe in Game 6 of the series, and instead play to their strengths. Which is attacking on offense. The wild thing about that is the Avalanche still has 37 shots on goal and were the better team for most of the game. If they can find an extra gear on top of that it is going to be a huge challenge for the Lightning.

• Lightning need to limit Avalanche power play. Colorado’s power play this postseason has been one of the best team-wide performances we have seen in the modern era, and it has played a significant role in this series. Not only are the Avalanche converting on more than 30 percent of their power plays this postseason, they have been especially productive on the road. Tampa Bay was able to limit Colorado to just two power play opportunities in Game 5 and did not allow a goal. The best penalty kill is staying out of the box. The second best penalty kill is having a great goalie. Tampa Bay has the latter. Just need to make sure it sticks with the former in Game 6 of the series.

2022 NHL playoff schedule: Stanley Cup Final

COLORADO AVALANCHE v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (COL leads 3-2)

Game 1 – Avalanche 4, Lightning 3 (OT)
Game 2 – Avalanche 7, Lightning 0
Game 3 – Lightning 6, Avalanche 2
Game 4 – Avalanche 3, Lightning 2 (OT)
Game 5 – Lightning 3, Avalanche 2
Game 6 – June 26: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 7 – June 28: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)

* if necessary

Lightning stay alive by beating Avalanche in tight Game 5

Dreams of a Stanley cup three-peat remain alive for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning fought through injuries and a raucous home crowd to beat the Avalanche in Game 5 by a score of 3-2. Colorado’s series score is now at 3-2.

As you’ll see below, Ondrej Palat scored the game-winner almost 14 minutes into the third period to win it. While the Avalanche fought back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits to tie things up, the Lightning fought off elimination.

Game 6 takes place in Tampa Bay at 8 p.m. ET.

Lightning build 1-0 lead early

Heading into Game 5 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, many expected the Avalanche to come out on fire, and wondered if the Lightning could survive those first 5/10 minutes. Instead, it was a fairly buttoned-down start to Game 5.

Maybe chalk some of it up to some Lightning power-play opportunities messing with some of the flow? (The Lightning continued their power play struggles by going 0-for-2, but the Avalanche couldn’t connect on their lone opportunity in the first period.)

Via Natural Stat Trick, both teams only managed two high-danger chances apiece at 5-on-5 during the first period.

The only goal of the opening 20 minutes sure didn’t look like a high-danger chance. Once again, Darcy Kuemper allowed a goal he’d “want back.” This time, it was a Jan Rutta shot:

This thread goes into greater detail, but long story short … Jan Rutta does not score many goals. But Kuemper’s allowed some real stinkers. The Rutta goal’s worse than the Victor Hedman Game 4 backhander. Going game after game allowing duds has not instilled maximum confidence in Kuemper.

Lightning maintain one-goal lead through second period

Valeri Nichushkin continues to take a star turn during the 2022 Stanley Cup Final. He got the Avs on the board after Andrei Vasilevskiy was handcuffed a bit by a Cale Makar shot:

[Officiating under the microscope]

Did Jon Cooper’s comments and the outrage about “too many men on the ice” benefit the Lightning at times over the Avalanche in Game 5? Might be a stretch.

Whatever the explanation was, it was strange to see Pat Maroon take down Nathan MacKinnon, with no penalties involved.

At least since some calls were being made, compared to “The Wild West” mentality for much of Game 4.

During a 4-on-3 power play, Nikita Kucherov beat Kuemper to make it 2-1.

Game 5 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final: another exciting finish

As Game 5 went along, we saw the Avalanche assert themselves more against the Lightning.

In the second period, the Avs generated a 14-8 shots on goal advantage. (In the first, Colorado only had a 12-11 edge.)

To start the third, Colorado really pushed, and eventually got rewarded. Cale Makar sent a puck toward the net, and Valeri Nichushkin created havoc on the 2-2 goal. Makar may end up being credited, but both players were involved:

For a while, the Avalanche nearly went up 3-2 over the Lightning. Instead, Ondrej Palat found open space in the slot. Palat finished that play, stunningly giving Tampa Bay a fairly late 3-2 advantage:

As if scripted, the Lightning received a power-play opportunity after the Avalanche were whistled for “too many men on the ice” in Game 5. It happened late, too: 17:17 into the third.

The Avs killed the penalty, but lost precious time to try to tie things up. Tampa Bay held on, and the 2022 Stanley Cup Final moves on to Game 6.

COLORADO AVALANCHE v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (COL leads 3-2)

Game 1 – Avalanche 4, Lightning 3 (OT)
Game 2 – Avalanche 7, Lightning 0
Game 3 – Lightning 6, Avalanche 2
Game 4 – Avalanche 3, Lightning 2 (OT)
Game 5 – Lightning 3, Avalanche 2
Game 6 – June 26: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 7 – June 28: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)

* if necessary

So of course Darcy Kuemper wins Game 4

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Which only makes this more of a controversy than it needs to be. The extra guy is a D-man for the Avs, who Kadri wasn’t coming on for. Whether that player is on the bench or at the boards, as he was, the Avs didn’t gain an advantage. Or… y’know:

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What’s galling Cooper is he was down to five D-men after Cernak’s injury, and Sergachev and McDonagh were simply too gassed to cover the middle of the ice. It’s a nothing, and it won’t get Cooper anywhere. If he is looking to taint the Avs’ win here, he’ll find plenty of people gleefully arguing that the Lightning don’t have a legit Cup among their three (Gelinas goal, Bubble, 2021’s weirdo schedule/standings/system).

Either way, Kuemper has his moment, and the Avs have three chances to start their era in the wake of the Bolts.

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Puttin’ on a Sho’

There will be lots of annoying conversations about Shohei Ohtani not too far down the line. He will be entering the last year of his deal, and the Angels have done dick with him. Ohtani has made it clear he wants to win, so an automatic re-signing isn’t a given. So there will be talks about what he should net in a trade, if the Angels can bring themselves to do such a thing. Or what he could get on the open market. Which will then be followed by some well-actually’ers and eyeglass-pushers to try and claim he’s not worth that much if the Angels couldn’t win with him.

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Leave that for another time. Ohtani has had the most remarkable two nights in MLB history. On Tuesday he racked up eight RBI, including this punching of the sky to tie the game in the bottom of the 9th:

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Last night, he turned around and struck out 13 Royals in eight innings. It’s never been done. This is a true unicorn, and beyond the description of all but the most gifted with the language. That’s certainly not me. You can’t do more on a field in a two-game span. You can’t do more in just about any sport in a two-game span. It is bewildering in the best way.

The Wraparound: Kuemper or Francouz for Avalanche in Game 4?

The Wraparound is your look at the 2022 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down Game 4 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, including the all-important television information.

After a 7-0 blowout loss in Game 2, the Lightning returned the favor, clobbering the Avalanche 6-2. Can Tampa Bay even up the series, or will the Avalanche bounce back and put the repeat champions on the brink?

• Aside from GM of the Year, the league handed out the remaining 2022 NHL Awards on Tuesday. Auston Matthews locked down the Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay to complete quite the season, Igor Shesterkin won the Vezina, Cale Makar notched the Norris, and Moritz Seider captured the Calder.

• Coaches continue to lock down jobs around the NHL. Adam Gretz wonders if Peter DeBoer can lead the Stars to a quick turnaround. After turning the Oilers’ 2021-22 season around quickly, Jay Woodcroft received a contract extension.

In an ideal world, every contending team would be able to identify a rock-solid goalie they can count on during the playoffs.

In the real world … well, there aren’t a lot of goalies as reliable as Andrei Vasilevskiy. Many are most impressed by Vasilevskiy’s occasionally acrobatic saves, or the way he performs after a loss. For me, it’s just how often he’s reliable, and frequently elite. Vasilevskiy’s doubled any other goalie’s workload the past three postseasons (68 playoff games; Semyon Varlamov‘s second at 34) while being a regular season workhorse (157 regular season games since 2019-20, second only to Connor Hellebuyck‘s 169).

Truly, Vasilevskiy presents the Lightning with a rare (if not literally unique) luxury of reliably elite playoff goaltending.

The Avalanche do not enjoy that luxury.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

Now, let’s make this clear: the Avalanche haven’t been outright fools when it comes to goaltending. To an extent, they should be applauded for pragmatism. While other teams burn salary cap space reaching for elite goaltending (looking at you, Florida Panthers), the Avalanche aren’t forcing it.

For the most part, that’s worked out for them — even with some bad injury luck. Yet, as Game 4 approaches on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET), they must ponder a choice between Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz.

For whatever it’s worth, Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar didn’t reveal if he’s starting Darcy Kuemper or Pavel Francouz against the Lightning in Game 4.

Unfortunately, at the moment, it at least feels like there really isn’t a “good choice.” Instead, the vibes lean closer to picking your poison.

Let’s sort through the venom, then. Pavel Francouz vs. Darcy Kuemper: who should be the Avalanche starter for Game 4 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final?

Pros and cons of starting Darcy Kuemper for Game 4

Here’s a take: the Avalanche made a reasonable bet in trading for Kuemper during the offseason.

Personally, I’d rather give up the equivalent of a trade deadline rental for a productive goalie instead of handing term to, say, Philipp Grubauer. In the grand scheme of things, it was the right move.

And, to an extent, it worked out. During the regular season, Kuemper generated 25.12 Goals Saved Above Average, the fourth-best mark in the NHL.

Really, Kuemper probably deserves more love as a legitimate(-looking?) starting goalie. His career regular-season save percentage is a strong .918, and his 2021-22 season number was even better at .921.

Contrarians will chalk that up to the team in front of him, yet Kuemper also generated some of his career-best dragging the lowly Coyotes to semi-credibility.

[Related: Avs defying the odds with playoff goaltending]

If the Lightning turn Game 4 (and more) into low-event hockey, there’s logic to the Avalanche hoping that Darcy Kuemper can just … somehow regain his previous form. After all, if the pace is slow and grinding, wouldn’t you prefer the 6-foot-5 goalie who checks many traditional boxes?

Unfortunately, Kuemper hasn’t looked so sharp for much of these playoffs. Look at his series-by-series numbers, and it’s clear this isn’t just a blip vs. the Bolts.

None of this is meant to condemn Kuemper, especially big-picture-wise. After all, it seems like his drop-off coincided with a scary eye injury. That doesn’t mean he’s struggling because of the injury. It may also boil down to getting knocked out of his rhythm.

But, either way, Kuemper looks vulnerable.

Francouz presents more of the unknown … maybe that’s not such a bad thing?

Importantly, note that the Avalanche haven’t received great goaltending during the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, even when they’ve beaten the Lightning.

Whether it’s Francouz or Kuemper, it sure feels like the best route to victory is just to make goaltending as irrelevant as possible.

But if they need some saves, Francouz’s gathering a consensus.

So far, both Francouz and Kuemper experienced ups and downs during the playoffs. In 13 playoff appearances this season, Kuemper’s managed a save percentage of .896. Francouz, meanwhile, generated a more palatable .896 mark in seven games (four of which were starts, six ended up being wins).

Broadly, each goalie has looked shaky at times. Yet Francouz instills at least a modicum of greater confidence.

Normally, I’d roll my eyes at a coach playing coy about announcing their starting goalie. No doubt, Bednar not revealing Francouz or Kuemper for Game 4 does inspire some of that feeling.

Yet, this is a case where such “gamesmanship” makes extra sense.

In a league where goalies are increasingly cookie cutter, Kuemper – Francouz are about as different as you can get.

  • Kuemper is the prototype, size-wise, listed at 6-foot-5. Francouz must rely more on athleticism, as he’s listed at 6-feet-tall. (Note: this doesn’t mean Kuemper lacks any athleticism, mind you.)
  • Kuemper’s also typical in catching with his left hand. Unlike the vast majority of contemporary NHL goalies, Pavel Francouz catches with his right hand.

Both goalies have posted sneaky-solid stats, at least when they’ve been able to play.

Injuries forced Francouz to miss all of the 2020-21 season. Overall, the 32-year-old’s only played in 57 NHL regular season games, yet he’s produced when healthy enough to play. Francouz sports an impressive .921 career save percentage, collecting almost 20 GSAA over those 57 games.

While it’s not the same as blanking NHL shooters, Francouz also put up sparkling overseas stats, including in the KHL.

[More on Nichushkin taking a star turn during playoffs, Cup Final]

So … the Avalanche set themselves up with relatively strong options in Francouz and Kuemper. At least to the degree that, by not risking too many resources on goaltending, they could focus on building to other strengths.

More often than not, the Avs could likely bring a goalie match closer to a “tie” than many might realize.

Again, though, the 2022 Stanley Cup Final may continue to intensify the mismatch between Andrei Vasilevskiy against Kuemper and/or Francouz.

Personally, I’d lean toward Francouz, even if it merely gives a different look. Colorado’s most important task is to shift the focus off goalies (or at least their goalies) entirely. Tampa Bay might not give them that option, though.

COLORADO AVALANCHE v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (COL leads 2-1)

Game 1 – Avalanche 4, Lightning 3 (OT)
Game 2 – Avalanche 7, Lightning 0
Game 3 – Lightning 6, Avalanche 2
Game 4 – June 22: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 5 – June 24: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 6 – June 26: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 7 – June 28: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)

* – if necessary

That’s the difference between the goalies

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Meanwhile, Darcy Kuemper was doing stuff like this:

Maroon buries the 5th and ends Kuempers night!

Cirelli goes 5-hole to tie it!

Flip the goalies, and the Avs probably win last night. In statistical terms, at all strengths the Lightning created 3.03 expected goals in the first two periods last night. They scored six goals. The Avs created 2.26 and were held to two. Vasilevskiy didn’t have to perform miracles, just kept the Avs to what they earned. But it was far better than what was going on at the other end.

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This has been the story for Kuemper all playoffs, who has put up a -5.8 goals above (or below in this case) expected throughout the playoffs in 13 appearances. It hasn’t mattered much to the Avs, who have just trucked whoever has been in front of them until Game 3 against the Bolts, basically. But that’s how good they have to be to outrun Kuemper’s performance.

Analytically, there is something of a question of what the Avs should do in net. In seven appearances during Kuemper’s injury absence, Pavel Francouz has been exactly even in terms of goals given up over expected. Sure, he hasn’t seen anything quite like the firepower that the Lightning can offer (more on this in a sec), but he also won four games against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. However, as various towel-snappers will tell you, the games aren’t played on the statsheets. Avs coach Jared Bednar won’t want to start a whole firestorm by making a switch. Because if it doesn’t work, then what do you do? And yet he’s only got one or two more Kuemper pants-shittings to spare while Vasilevskiy gets more and more attuned to his Avs.

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What might save Bednar and the Avs, if they need saving at all, is that the Lightning might not have anyone left to fill out the roster. Brayden Point’s brave but ultimately handicapped attempt to return in Games 1 and 2 was ended in Game 3 as he was scratched. It was clear he just wasn’t himself in Denver. Nick Paul and Nikita Kucherov both left Game 3 with injuries (though Paul kept returning and leaving like the Undertaker gimmick gone wrong, but was clearly limping). The Avs have their own injury problems, with Nazem Kadri looking less likely to return and being unable to shoot the puck if he does, Samuel Girard already out, Andre Burakovsky’s status up in the air. This is getting to be attrition as much as it is matchups and strategy to find open ice.

Whenever this series is decided, and whoever wins though, the most likely balance point will be just how much the Avs can shrink the distance between the goalies. Vasilevskiy is unlikely to have another Game 2 where the walls cave in. Can the Avs merely get goaltending that keeps things on a level between what should be and what is on the scoreboard? That’s all it should take, but Kuemper hasn’t proven he can do that. 

Electric response: Lightning clobber Avalanche in Game 3

Should we be surprised that the Tampa bay Lightning responded to a tough start to the 2022 Stanley Cup Final by beating the Colorado Avalanche handily in Game 3?

The answer might be “Yes and No.”

Either way, the Lightning won Game 3 by a resounding 6-2 score, reducing the Avalanche’s series lead to 2-1.

Clearly, the Lightning aim for a Stanley Cup three-peat for a reason. This championship team keeps finding ways to respond to tough situations. They were down 2-0 and looking shaky as recently as the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers. They didn’t flinch.

Yet, with the way the Avalanche thumped the Lightning in Game 2, some wondered if the Cup Final might be short and not-so-sweep for Tampa Bay. Instead, it seems like we may get the battle many hoped for.

Lightning generate 2-1 lead over Avalanche through first period of Game 3

Coming into Game 3, I couldn’t help but wonder: maybe the Lightning need to score the first goal to really slow down the Avalanche?

Hmm, nope.

Throughout the first 20 minutes, things were more even. After creating basically nothing in Game 2, the Lightning looked much better than the Avalanche (then Tampa Bay ran away with Game 3). For instance: despite trailing for basically all of Game 2, the Bolts only managed 16 shots on goal. During the first period of Game 3, the Avalanche fired more shots on goal (14), but the Lightning were close (12).

Of course, the most important scoreboard consideration went Tampa Bay’s way.

First, it seemed like Valeri Nichushkin scored yet another goal. Instead, it was nullified by an offside goal review.

(Honestly, that seemed like the right call, but it was close.)

Credit the young Avs with shaking that off. After a failed Lightning power play, the Avalanche scored on their own man advantage.

Then the repeat defending champions struck twice in quick succession.

Much has been made about Anthony Cirelli‘s defensive work. At times, he’s been a black hole of all offense when on the ice as far as actual goals go. That’s been more than good enough as he’s slowed or even nullified some true stars during the playoffs.

Yet, it’s not as though Cirelli and his line haven’t attempted to create offense. They just haven’t received many bounces.

Keep hammering away, though, and eventually you’re likely to “make your own luck.” That happened when a great Cirelli push to the net resulted in a funky goal.

Less than two minutes later, we saw an example of the Avs’ brave defensive passing sometimes having its drawbacks. Devon Toews‘ pass was just a bit off to Cale Makar, setting up a Bolts counter. Yet again, top Tampa Bay scorers put together some great weaving body and puck movement.

It’s often been Nikita Kucherov running the show. In this case, Ondrej Palat and Steven Stamkos combined for a give-and-go beauty.

Second period: more injuries to watch, Bolts chase Kuemper

Game 3 of the Cup Final added injury situations to watch. Nicholas Paul found himself in and out of the locker room dealing with what appears to be a lower-body issue. Corey Perry was shaken up after awkwardly tangling with Josh Manson.

Even at far from 100%, Paul scored a helpful 3-1 goal. It would be part of a busy second period.

After the Lightning went up 3-1, Gabriel Landeskog scored his second power-play goal of Game 3 for the Avalanche. Once again, the Avs beat Andrei Vasilevskiy high on the blocker side. (Maybe that’s just one of those goals that just happens; perhaps it’s something to watch.)

In Game 2, Darcy Kuemper cruised to a 16-save shutout. The Lightning would not make life so easy for Kuemper in Game 3.

To restore a two-goal lead, Steven Stamkos snuck to a high-danger area to score a nice 4-2 tally. No surprise that Nikita Kucherov factored into the offense with two assists in the middle frame.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

How much was any of this on Darcy Kuemper? It’s tough to say. Either way, once Pat Maroon scored on a little backhand move, the Avalanche replaced Kuemper with Pavel Francouz.

Truly, Kuemper’s looked shaky at times, particularly since being injured and missing time. It’s not totally certain if Kuemper is the Avalanche’s best option compared to Francouz. Neither, of course, inspire the same level of trust as Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Some second-period saves from Vasilevskiy helped Tampa Bay truly control a game that could’ve been a closer “track meet.”

Quite a rebound by Lightning in Game 3

Was this contest as lopsided as the score? You could argue that Game 2 was as close to a 7-0 contest as Lightning – Avalanche would get. Through 40, it wasn’t overwhelmingly clear that this was 6-2-level dominance.

But the Lightning absolutely punished the Avalanche in key ways during Game 3. This collection of stats captures some of that feeling.

We saw glimpses of Colorado’s speed, but controlling high-danger chances indeed seemed like the recipe for Tampa Bay.

Add Nikita Kucherov to list of Stanley Cup Final injuries to watch?

While the Avs made some third-period pushes, Vasilevskiy and the Lightning didn’t let them back in. Some of the most notable developments may have been some of the hits.

The exchanges most likely to make an impact involved Nikita Kucherov.

First, Kucherov caught Josh Manson with a dangerous-looking hit. Soon after, Kucherov received a hit from Devon Toews and came up gingerly.

No doubt, the injures are stacking up for both the Avalanche and Lightning as the Stanley Cup Final wages on.

2022 NHL playoff schedule: Stanley Cup Final

COLORADO AVALANCHE v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (COL leads 2-1)

Game 1 – Avalanche 4, Lightning 3 (OT)
Game 2 – Avalanche 7, Lightning 0
Game 3 – Lightning 6, Avalanche 2
Game 4 – June 22: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 5 – June 24: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 6 – June 26: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 7 – June 28: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)

* – if necessary

Avalanche dominate Lightning in Game 2 rout

The Tampa Bay Lightning were confident they would have a better start in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.

That confidence, it turns out, was unfounded.

The Colorado Avalanche roared out of the gate for a second straight game on their way to a 7-0 win to take a commanding 2-0 series lead as it shifts back to Tampa Bay on Monday night. This is just the second time the Lightning have lost consecutive playoff games since 2020, and these two games have probably been the worst ones they’ve played during that stretch.

Tampa Bay simply has had no answers for anything Colorado has done over the first two games. They can not match their speed, they can not slow down their forecheck, they can not establish any offensive zone time, and they have been unable to take advantage of the goaltending matchup that should benefit them.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

The Avalanche again jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes on goals from Valeri Nichushkin and Josh Manson, and then added another when Andre Burakovsky found the back of the net for the second game in a row. Colorado recorded 15 of the game’s first 16 shot attempts and by the end of the first period had a commanding 24-10 attempts lead and an 11-5 shots on goal edge.

Colorado finished the game with a decisive edge in every major category offensively.

Even more than the score and the stats, the Avalanche just looked better. Even when they were not scoring goals they were creating golden scoring opportunities and making Andrei Vasilevskiy make more big saves than he probably wanted to be making in a game against that sort of offense.

What makes this Colorado onslaught so impressive so far is that it is not necessarily the superstars providing the goals. They have been great, sure, but the secondary players like Nichushkin and Burakovsky have been sensational, while Manson had a stellar game from the blue line.

[MORE: Nichushkin making star turn during Stanley Cup playoffs]

Nichushkin was especially great in Game 2, continuing his magnificent postseason long performance that has seen him take a star turn. Along with the opening goal on the power play he added a second goal in the second period.

Along with the goals, he was also a menace on the forecheck and a constant disruption to Tampa Bay’s attempts to cleanly exit its own zone. He is a pending unrestricted free agent, and whether it is with Colorado or another team he has made himself a ton of money this season.

There is also the fact that Colorado is doing this without two of its top players as forward Nazem Kadri and defenseman Samuel Girard remain out of the lineup.

Cale Makar also added to his Conn Smythe candidacy with two more goals.

Lightning primed to come back?

This is not unfamiliar territory for Tampa Bay this postseason.

As we wrote on Saturday, the Lightning have started slow in every series this postseason. They have lost the first game in three of their first four series and are facing a 2-0 deficit for the second series in a row. They were able to overcome a deficit in the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Rangers when the series moved to Tampa Bay. They managed to hold serve with two wins there, and then won four consecutive games to advance.

But this feels a little different. The Lightning have not looked this bad in any of those early series, and certainly not against the Rangers. There was at least an argument to be made against New York that Tampa Bay was getting its chances but was simply getting out-goalie’d by the likely Vezina Trophy winner and a possible Hart Trophy winner in Igor Shesterkin. They were able to dominate the remaining four games of the series.

That sort of argument can not really be made here. This is not about the Lightning creating chances and matching its opponent in play only to lose because of goaltending. They are simply getting outplayed. Badly. In a way that we have not seen them get out played in years.

The Avalanche are now 14-2 this postseason with only one of those losses coming in regulation. It is to this point one of the most dominant postseason performances we have seen in years.

COLORADO AVALANCHE v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (COL leads 2-0)

Game 1 – Avalanche 4, Lightning 3 (OT)
Game 2 – Avalanche 7, Lightning 0
Game 3 – June 20: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 4 – June 22: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 5 – June 24: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 6 – June 26: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 7 – June 28: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)

Avalanche defying the odds with playoff goaltending

Thanks to their overtime 4-3 Game 1 win in the Stanley Cup Final, the Colorado Avalanche are just three wins away from a championship that has seemed inevitable for this core for a couple of years now.

It has been to this point a completely dominant run that has seen them go 13-2 over their first 15 playoff games with only single loss coming in regulation. They have been an absolute machine and overwhelmed every opponent they have faced with their speed, talent, skill, and all-world defense. And they have done that with some pretty significant injuries along the way to defenseman Samuel Girard and center Nazem Kadri.

What makes their postseason dominance even more impressive is they have done it with a pretty significant Achilles Heel in their own net.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

It has not mattered. Yet.

Starting goalie Darcy Kuemper has missed a handful of games this postseason to injury, and when he has played he has not exactly been great. Backup Pavel Francouz has given the Avalanche a similar level of play when he has been thrown into action. Neither one of them has had to steal a game at this point as Colorado has scored at least four goals in 11 of its 15 playoff games, and won eight of them by multiple goals. It is a completely dominant team-wide effort.

As a duo, the Avalanche goalies have managed just an .899 save percentage through the first 15 playoff games. That is way lower than what you would expect to see from a Stanley Cup Finalist. Typically goaltending is one of the driving forces behind teams that go far in the playoffs. It is the ultimate X-Factor game-changer, series-changer, and season-changer. It can mask a lot of flaws if it is great, and it can make you think you have flaws you do not actually have if it is bad. Teams that get sub-.900 goaltending in the playoffs tend to have very short runs and do not make the Stanley Cup Final.

Just consider that in the salary cap era no Stanley Cup finalist prior to this season finished the playoffs with a save percentage lower than .907. Only three of them were under .910 for the playoffs (the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins, the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings, and the 2006-07 Ottawa Senators).

Again, the Avalanche are not only below all of those teams, they are below .900 overall.

It is a testament to how good and dominant the rest of the team is that it has been able to overcome that.

All of the numbers show it.

[Related: Valeri Nichushkin making star turn for Avalanche in Stanley Cup Playoffs]

Colorado’s offense is sensational and gets most of the headlines, but it is the defense that makes this team such a powerhouse. Even without Girard the Avalanche blue line is loaded with superstars (Cale Makar), quiet stars (Devon Toews), rising stars (Bowen Byram), and just plain old rock-solid veterans (Erik Johnson, Josh Manson). By pretty much every defensive metric the Avalanche have the best defensive team in hockey this postseason.

During 5-on-5 play they are allowing just 2.09 expected goals per 60 minutes. Only one other team this postseason (Minnesota) was below 2.20.

They are allowing just 2.34 expected goals per 60 minutes in all situations, by far the best mark in the league. The next lowest team in the playoffs: Pittsburgh at 2.91 expected goals per 60 minutes in all situations.

But only a handful teams have seen a bigger gap in their actuals goals against versus their expected goals against.

Entering Game 2 of the series on Saturday, Colorado is giving up 0.46 more goals than expected this postseason. The only teams that saw a worse difference were Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Nashville. All three of those teams lost in the first round, and two of them (Pittsburgh and Nashville) were playing without their starting goalies. Of the eight teams that saw the biggest negative gap in actual goals versus expected goals, six of them lost in the First Round while another (Calgary) lost in the Second Round in just five games. Then there is Colorado, giving up nearly a half goal more per game than expected and still steamrolling everybody.

You can even look at Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final for an example of this.

[Related: Avalanche beat Lightning in Game 1 overtime thriller]

Colorado was by far the better team. During 5-on-5 play. On special teams. Statistically it is a lopsided game territorially as Colorado had a 3.59 to 1.71 expected goals edge in all situations. Yet the game still went to overtime where it was one shot from going in a different direction.

It really is a fascinating situation to watch unfold. Colorado is so good that it has not needed its goalie to be great. It mainly just needs Kuemper and/or Francouz to not lose the game. So far, that has been the case.

But Tampa Bay is the best team Colorado has faced so far this postseason and the first one that has a goalie at the other end of the ice that is capable of stealing some games and potentially shutting down the Avalanche offense.

At some point the Avalanche might need its goalies to be great in this series. Whether or not they can do that could be the difference between a championship and a very long offseason.

[Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick and Hockey-Reference]

COLORADO AVALANCHE v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (COL leads 1-0)

Game 1 – Avalanche 4, Lightning 3 (OT)
Game 2 – June 18: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 3 – June 20: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 4 – June 22: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 5 – June 24: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 6 – June 26: Avalanche at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 7 – June 28: Lightning at Avalanche, 8 p.m. ET (ABC, ESPN+, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)