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?

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)