Expansion Plan: Projecting the Colorado Avalanche’s protection list for the 2021 expansion draft

The Avs are almost certainly going to lose a better player to Seattle than they did with Vegas, but that means that the building blocks for a bright long-term future in Denver are more than adequate.
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Welcome to the Expansion Plan, our summer series projecting the protected lists for the 30 NHL franchises who will participate in the June 2021 Expansion Draft.

Over the next two seasons, every team – save the Vegas Golden Knights, who will be exempt – will be planning for the arrival of the NHL’s 32nd franchise and Seattle GM Ron Francis will begin to consider the options for his inaugural roster. As such, over the course of the next 30 days, we will profile one team, in alphabetical order, and forecast their potential list of protections and exposures, as well as address each team’s expansion strategy, no-brainers, tough decisions and what lessons they learned from the 2017 expansion process.

This exercise requires some important ground rules. The 2021 Expansion Draft will follow the same rules as the 2017 Expansion Draft, but some assumptions are necessary. These are the guidelines followed:

  • No pre-draft trades
  • All no-movement clauses are honored
  • Players who will become restricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 remain with current teams
  • Players who will become unrestricted free agents in 2020 or 2021 either remain with current teams or are left off lists entirely (eg. Nicklas Backstrom protected by the Washington Capitals, Tyson Barrie not protected by Toronto Maple Leafs or any other team.)

• • • 

It's a good time to be a Colorado Avalanche fan right now. Due to having a rather thin lineup back in 2017 – a league-worst 22 wins will do that to you – the Avalanche lost Calvin Pickard in 2017, allowing the team to build around its core in the two seasons since. Now? the Avs are almost guaranteed to lose an impact player, and that's a good thing.

Despite injuries to key players nearly taking the team out of the playoff conversation, Colorado had a season to remember. Per Corsica, Colorado’s top trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, which spent more than 1,100 minutes together at all strengths, generated more shot attempts (1,351) than any other unit in the league, boasted the best goal differential of any line at plus-59 and ranked first in goals for percentage (70.9 percent) among the 24 lines to play at least 450 minutes as a trio. With all three registering career highs in points, the Avalanche are in a great spot with their young stars.

One thing or another, the Avs should be in a great spot regardless of who Seattle chooses in 2021. But who do they end up keeping after the obvious few choices?

PROTECTED (7F, 3D, 1G):

Forwards:

  • Nathan MacKinnon
  • Gabriel Landeskog
  • Mikko Rantanen
  • Tyson Jost
  • Nazem Kadri
  • J.T. Compher
  • Vladislav Kamenev

Defensemen:

  • Erik Johnson (NMC)
  • Samuel Girard
  • Cale Makar

Goaltender:

  • Philipp Grubauer

NOTABLE EXPOSURES: Andre Burakovsky, Nikita Zadorov

STRATEGY: In reality, this is an easy draft for the Avalanche. The core you need will be easily protected and the biggest assets lost are the supporting cast, and the team can find replacements for that. The Avs may have a gem in Philipp Grubauer, who, for the first time in his career, proved himself worthy as an NHL starter. He's a UFA at the end of 2020-21, but if he can repeat the play that made the Avs a second-round playoff team, then they'll keep him long-term, especially with no star young goaltender in the system.

The Avs are going to find themselves in a bit of a bind in 2023 when Nathan MacKinnon comes off of his deal with an AAV of $6.3-million and Gabriel Landeskog (UFA in 2021) and Mikko Rantanen (currently an RFA) signed long-term. But there's no way the Avs move on from the trio that created one of the best first lines in the NHL, where all three could have hit the 100-point mark if they remained healthy. But the players below them on the depth chart matter, too: Tyson Jost projects to have a breakout season with Nazem Kadri by his side on the second line while allowing J.T. Compher and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to handle center duties. Vladislav Kamenev still needs to sign a deal as an RFA, but he's a good young piece the Avs should look to keep and after recovering from shoulder surgery, he's ready for his first full NHL season.

THE NO BRAINER: Other than Erik Johnson's NMC, it doesn't get more obvious than protecting Samuel Girard and Cale Makar, the future of the team's blueline. Girard has thrived in Denver since being used as a trade chip in the three-way deal that sent Matt Duchene to Ottawa. Girard has forced himself into the No. 1 role on the left side and Makar, one of the favorites to win the Calder Trophy in 2019-20, isn't far away from joining him. It won't be long until Bowen Byram and Conor Timmins join the fray, either.

THE TOUGH DECISION: Fortunately, this strategy saves the team's core assets and prospects such as Byram, Timmins and Martin Kaut don't need to be protected. But the potential of losing Andre Burakovsky, a UFA in 2020, could be a tough one to swallow. Even though he's been limited to 25 points a season over the past two years, Burakovsky helps bring secondary scoring that the Avs desperately needed last season. Look for the 2019-20 season to be a breakout season for him.

LESSONS LEARNED: Youth matters. Even though Kadri and Landeskog have been around the block for quite a while, five of the protected forwards are under 25 and Girard and Makar are still in the infancy of their careers. The Avs won't be the only team looking towards the future, but this is a young group that's capable – with a bit of refining around the edges – of winning a Cup sooner rather than later.

Up Next: Columbus Blue Jackets

Previous:Anaheim Ducks | Arizona Coyotes | Boston Bruins | Buffalo Sabres | Calgary Flames | Carolina Hurricanes | Chicago Blackhawks

(All salary cap information via CapFriendly)

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