What went wrong for the Colorado Avalanche, and what comes next?

The path through the Central Division was going to be daunting for the Colorado Avalanche, no matter the matchup or playoff round. 

Finish in first place? Here are the reigning champion Vegas Golden Knights as a wild-card team, with their captain coming off long-term injured reserve.  Second place or third place? Enjoy a first-round matchup against a tough in-division rival in the Dallas Stars or Winnipeg Jets. 

Make it through that? The reward is meeting another contender in a second-round series worthy of a conference final.

At least one strong team inevitably was going to be eliminated in the second round, and have to start pondering offseason decisions. 

After falling to the Stars in double overtime in Game 6 on Friday night, Colorado became that eliminated team.

After storming through the first round agains the Jets, the Avalanche met their match. So what went wrong and what comes next for Colorado?

Colorado’s postseason got off to a bang with a chaotic 7-6 loss to the Jets. While the Avalanche may have been in the game until the final buzzer, that opening game raised quite a few red flags. 

Questions about their goaltending, in particular, became more pressing after Alexandar Georgiev struggled throughout that opener. Justus Annunen’s absence only raised skepticism around Colorado’s crease. Sure, the Avalanche are built to beat their opponents in high-scoring games. But the Jets are built to be stingy and to limit offense against, making the possibility of a repeat of Game 1 seem unlikely.

Maybe Colorado got underestimated after that Game 1 loss. But they quickly outplayed any flaws. The Avalanche stormed through the Jets’ once stout defense and made this year’s likely Vezina Trophy winner, Connor Hellebuyck, look human. Winnipeg had no answer for Colorado’s speed and firepower, so the Avalanche rattled off four consecutive wins to reach Round 2. 

But Round 2 proved to be a test too great for the Avalanche. 

The Stars are a legitimate powerhouse. They’re as complete as it gets, with a blend of star power and support, with offensive and defensive strengths up and down the lineup. With Jake Oettinger in goal, they have a backbone in net to round out the lineup. That’s what made them the favorites in this series. Dallas didn’t just look ready to slow down Colorado’s star-powered approach — they showed that they have the strengths to outright overwhelm them.  

If the Avalanche had fallen in five games, the reason was going to be that their top players weren’t playing like it. Cale Makar’s postseason was an extension of his regular season: the scoring was popping, but he wasn’t making as strong of an impact below the surface as usual. And heading into Game 5, Nathan MacKinnon really hadn’t taken over a second-round game, at least up to his usual game-breaker potential. 

That amplified the loss of Valeri Nichushkin, who had been one of the most productive players for Colorado this postseason. Through eight games, Nichushkin earned 10 points and an average game score of 1.60, good for second on the Avalanche in the playoffs and sixth in the league. 

The Avalanche weren’t the only short-handed team in this series — Dallas was without their number one center, Roope Hintz, who tends to play important matchup minutes. While the Stars really struggled without him in Game 5, their depth stepped up to make up for that. Along with Wyatt Johnston, who has stepped up all postseason, Jason Robertson made pivotal two-way plays, while veterans Jamie Benn and Matt Duchene contributed key scoring. 

For Colorado, at least, the big dogs came to play when it mattered most and extended this series. 

And then came Game 6. 

MacKinnon was buzzing around the ice and looked dangerous in most of his shifts. Few opponents can outright stop one of the best players in the world; they can just do their best to contain and slow them down. That’s what Dallas worked really hard to do in the final game of this series. So despite Colorado possessing the puck a ton, the scoring chances were that hard to come by. 

The Avalanche only broke even in expected goals in one period of play in Game 6 at five-on-five. Dallas found ways to hem in Colorado in their own zone and pepper them with dangerous chances. The Stars even had the edge in MacKinnon’s minutes. Colorado attempted 39 shots in MacKinnon’s 35:10 at five-on-five. Dallas blocked 16 of those shots, and another nine missed the net entirely. Those 23 unblocked shots had a total value of 1.01 expected goals for, which was less than what the Stars created. 

Some of that is thanks to the efforts of Chris Tanev, whose shutdown play was an absolute standout in Game 6, and throughout this series. 

And that also encapsulates the differences that separated the Stars and Avalanche in this series: their big deadline additions on defense. Tanev helped alleviate some of Miro Heiskanen’s workload and he has put up some stellar results. Sean Walker, on the other hand, has had to drag around Jack Johnson during this postseason. In that pair’s minutes this round, Colorado earned a sub-37 percent expected goals rate.  

Colorado made the Stars face adversity in this series. It started in Game 1, when Colorado fought back from a 3-0 deficit to win in overtime. And that continued in Game 2, when Dallas almost blew a big lead again. But in Game 6, Dallas came to play. The Stars shined, the depth players stepped up, the defense made life difficult for Colorado’s best, and Jake Oettinger was excellent. 

The Avalanche may not have struggled in the middle of this series, but they made this more of a fight with a Game 5 win. One of the best contenders just slowed them down and eventually knocked them out. 

With the offseason starting sooner than the Avalanche hoped, particularly after they loaded up at the trade deadline hoping for a long playoff run, the big question is where the team goes from here.  

That doesn’t have to be a complicated answer. Colorado’s strategy over the last few years has been to build a cost-effective supporting cast around their star-studded core. 

And that core is all locked up for the Avalanche. There’s just one pending raise to manage, with Devon Toews’ extension kicking in. 

That supporting cast, however, may have to be completely overhauled again. 

That was an area of focus for management over the last year, after a lack of depth hurt Colorado in 2022-23. The Ryan Johansen experiment may not have worked out, but the Casey Mittelstadt trade brought in a capable two-way center for the second line. That should secure the 2C position, which has been a rotating door since Nazem Kadri’s departure once management extends Mittelstadt, a pending RFA. 

Below him is where there may be more uncertainty. Jonathan Drouin, who was signed as a reclamation project, is up for a new deal. Zach Parise’s contract is also up this summer after he signed mid-year. Deadline adds Brandon Duhaime and Yakov Trenin also are pending free agents. On the back end, that’s the case with Walker, along with Johnson and Caleb Jones. 

When a team invests heavily in its core, cheap contracts are necessary for cap balance. Interchanging players sometimes is the best way to keep those costs low in depth roles. So is leaning on entry-level talent, as the Stars are with Johnston and Logan Stankoven, but Colorado doesn’t have a ton of it, after years of contending.  

The question is going to be how much latitude the Avalanche have to not just replace, but also upgrade, their supporting cast. That depends on their cap space. 

Right now, Colorado has $64.5 million signed between seven forwards, four defenders and two goalies next year. But that number can jump closer to $70 million, depending on whether two forwards return. 

Gabriel Landeskog could possibly return after missing the last two seasons. If he does, that’s another $7 million in cap space on the books. 

Then there’s the Nichushkin situation. While the Avalanche have cap relief for him during his six-month suspension, it isn’t as simple as just expecting a return to business as usual. As important as Nichushkin is to this lineup — and Games 4 and 5 spotlighted that — the front office, coaching staff, and locker room might have to decide whether trust can be rebuilt after losing Nichushkin during the most pivotal time of the season for a second consecutive year. 

So that’s another $6.1 million up in the air, until that situation is sorted out.

The best-case scenario leaves the Avalanche with both of their bonafide-top-six wingers, which should have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the lineup’s caliber. But that may not be the reality.

The safe bet is that Colorado will have somewhere between $10 million to $17 million to re-sign Mittelstadt and extend and/or replace the rest of their pending free agents. That’s the minimalist approach to the offseason, without any splashy changes or upgrades. 

But what if the Avalanche want more certainty in net? What if management wants to extend Walker, or wants a legitimate third-pair option to replace Bowen Byram? What if the feeling is that a clean slate is needed to round out their top-six winger depth?

Colorado has shown a willingness to spend — this trade deadline was a prime example of that. But generally, the Avalanche aren’t reactive with signings or trades. Management takes a very measured approach and is selective on when to swing big. So after filling out the roster in a low-key way, management could be patient until next deadline. 

Another playoff loss doesn’t mean the Avalanche aren’t built to succeed. Colorado lost to an elite team in Dallas. 

That doesn’t mean there isn’t something to learn, though. Maybe there’s an overarching question to consider: Why are balanced teams, like Seattle and Dallas, becoming the enemy of Colorado? The answer shouldn’t chip away at Colorado’s strengths and identity — leaning into that is what helped this team win the Stanley Cup just two years ago — but maybe it can expand it, with some creative, cost-effective adjustments.

(Data via NaturalStatTrick)

(Photo of Josh Manson: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)

First appeared on www.nytimes.com

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