Nathan MacKinnon is one of the best centers in the world, but the entire depth chart behind him could be different this season.
For a Colorado Avalanche team with the highest expectations possible, finding the right players to fill those spots could be the difference between another disappointing postseason exit and one that ends with a parade. The Avalanche traded for two players this offseason, Ryan Johansen and Ross Colton, with clear designs to slot them behind MacKinnon as the second- and third-line centers.
They are coming from different situations, with different but equally enticing resumes. If they both succeed, it will be a master stroke of roster building by general manager Chris MacFarland. It’s an interesting spot for both, being the guys earmarked to ease arguably the biggest concern on an otherwise loaded roster.
“In terms of pressure and stuff like that, I don’t think we want to focus too much on that,” Colton said. “They brought us in to just play our game. I think they trust that we’re both good players and we can play down the middle or on the wing wherever they see fit.”
Two years ago, Nazem Kadri was a great fit as the No. 2 center, and that led to a huge contract in Calgary. J.T. Compher slid up a line last season, and turned a career year into a contract Colorado couldn’t afford with Detroit. Alex Newhook and Lars Eller both spent time as the No. 3 pivot, but both are also elsewhere.
Enter Johansen in a trade from Nashville and Colton in a deal with Tampa Bay. The duo will account for $8 million in salary cap space the next two seasons – more than $4 million less than what Kadri and Compher will cost with their clubs.
Johansen has the offensive chops to produce in the role, and he might have a bit of a “chip on his shoulder” mentality after the Predators agreed to eat half his contract to move him.
He is coming off a down year offensively, and he missed the final 27 games after a skate cut on his right leg. Johansen said he felt back to 100 percent by early August. He’s had the chance to skate with both of Colorado’s projected top two lines in the first two days of practice because MacKinnon is at home in Nova Scotia to have his number retired by the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads.
“We’ve studied his game closely, looked at a lot of things,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “I expect him to be able to slot into the No. 2 hole for us. He’ll be able to play with some of our top offensive players and help them create offense.”
Johansen has been a top offensive player for his team throughout his first 12 seasons in the NHL, but this could be his best chance to win the Stanley Cup. He’s generally been the No. 1 or 1A center since establishing himself as a young star in Columbus, but this is also the first time he’ll play on a team with a center who commands as much attention as MacKinnon.
“It’s crazy. Your whole life flips,” Johansen said of the trade. “Everything kind of changes. There’s only one way to go about it and it’s just full on. It’s a new opportunity and an amazing opportunity for myself. I’m just really excited to be part of this club and showing these guys in the room that I can be a difference maker for this group.”
While Johansen is a veteran chasing his first championship, Colton brings that pedigree with him. He won the Cup as a rookie in 2020-21 and lost in the Final to the Avs the following year.
When coaches and executives speak about needing to find supporting cast players who can help a team win the playoffs, they are talking about guys like Colton.
“He’s a young player so I think he can grow in his game,” Bednar said. “I think he’s an important add for us because of the grit and determination he plays with.”
Colton moved back and forth between center and the wing in Tampa, in part because of how deep the Lightning forward group was. He looks set for a spot in the middle with the Avs, and has skated between a like-minded player (Miles Wood) and a guy with a consistent track record of production (Tomas Tatar).
Tampa Bay’s lack of cap flexibility was Colorado’s gain. And while Colton arrived as a restricted free agent, he signed a four-year, $16 million contract less than a month after the trade.
“It was their belief in me,” Colton said of the term on his contract. “I know the franchise. I know they obviously have a lot of talent, they know what it takes to win. They have guys here who have done it. For me, I just thought it was going to be a good fit and I wanted to sign for as long as I could for. It was a negotiation, and it’s a business, but I was super excited when I found out it was going to be Colorado. I know we’re going to be competitive for years to come.”
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