By Sean Gentille, Shayna Goldman and Eric Duhatschek
Avalanche get: Ryan Johansen (50 percent of $8 million average annual value retained in Nashville).
Predators can: Alex Galchenyuk
Type: At some point, the Avalanche will have to replace Nazem Kadri. In fact, it happened last season. That didn’t happen, and the problem was exacerbated by the weak class of unrestricted summer agents. Ironically, JT Compher, their Kadri replacement, may be the best option on the open market for teams looking for options at center. He’s not bad for the Avs – he still looks good as the team’s 3C behind Nathan MacKinnon and Johansen – but even in a career year, he’s not good enough to be a top contender’s 2C. General manager Chris MacFarland’s situation is clear.
Also, the solid work he did in this move. Johansen, despite turning 31 this summer and coming off a failed attempt to follow up his bounceback 2021-22 season, is better on paper than any of the UFA 2C options. The salary cap, which brings his cost to the Avs down to $4 million in each of the next two seasons, makes it an even bigger no-brainer.
Now, is Johansen perfect? Not much. Those 26 goals in 2021-22 could be a blowout mixed with a five-year slump, and the idea of signing him to an $8 million AAV may — or should — be a no-no. y can. However, he has the size, some ability to drive the play and enough goal scoring to make the appeal obvious. When decent players like Johansen are overpaid like he was in Nashville, this is their value. In Denver, he can’t get paid. The Avalanche have money to spend and a pressing need for goals to fill, especially with Gabriel Landeskog’s pending season out. It’s simple enough.
In the Preds’ end, if this move is the only alternative to buying Johansen, it’s a win for them as well. Based on the return — Galchenyuk’s negotiating rights — that’s a fair assumption. Now they can get out of under his deal in two years (and $8 million paid) instead of four years and about $10 million. Trades where a team has to eat money and get almost nothing in return are rarely palatable for a fan base, but Preds supporters should be satisfied that GM Barry Trotz seems set to move the franchise to its next phase. Given the number of players who love to play in Nashville, any cap space is valuable.
Avalanche grade: A
Predator grade: B+
Duhatschek: There are some basic facts about the Johansen-for-Galchenyuk deal that got the draft-week NHL trading game started on Saturday morning, starting with the fact that Johansen is absolutely untradeable for $8 million per season. The fact that the Predators had to absorb half of the contract for the two remaining seasons is proof of how low Johansen’s value has fallen around the NHL. At $4 million per season, on the other hand, Johansen is a defensible risk for the Avalanche over the next two years.
But it’s still that: a risk.
Until training camp begins, the season begins and Johansen has a chance to settle in, the Avalanche won’t know which version of him they’ll get. Because there are many variants, starting from his time at the beginning of his career in Columbus, after he was the fourth pick in the draft in 2010. He evolved into, if not actually No. 1 center, then a legitimate high-end No. 2. The Predators thought enough of him midway through the 2015-16 season that they traded a young up-and-coming blueliner Seth Jones to get him.
Johansen’s results in Nashville were decidedly mixed. His 50-assist season in 2019 was the zenith. There was another disappointing two-year decline in the next two, followed by a brief 63-point rebound in 2021-22. He fell again in 2022-23, with 28 points in 55 games, another season where he couldn’t stay healthy.
At 30, he has become a complementary piece rather than a player who can drive play on his own. Colorado clearly believes he can be more than that. One of the Avalanche’s biggest failings last season was center-ice production behind MacKinnon, never getting anyone to fill the void created by Kadri’s departure to Calgary.
Can Johansen do that?
He’s a better playmaker than a finisher, and if the Avalanche continue to play MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, Johansen could theoretically get a chance to play with one of the NHL’s most productive scorers — a 55- goal scorer last season.
But he needs to be a better, healthier, more committed version of the player Nashville sees fit to trade for 50 cents on the dollar.
And even if it was framed as a trade for Galchenyuk, that was a smokescreen. Galchenyuk, 29, is on an expiring league minimum contract of $750,000. He’s a UFA on July 1. It’s hard to imagine how much interest there will be after the year he’s had: zero points in 11 NHL games and 42 points in 42 AHL games. Perhaps Anaheim, where his minor league coach, Greg Cronin, is now the head coach, will take the opportunity.
If it also means the end of Compher with the Avalanche, you could convincingly argue that Johansen is a downgrade, not an upgrade.
Compher had 52 points in 82 games for the Avs last season and averaged 20:32 of ice time. To put Compher’s usage in context, he ranks 14th in ice time among forwards, ahead of — among others — Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk and Kyle Connor, as well as Avalanche teammates that Artturi Lehkonen and Val Nichushkin. In short, he is a quiet but important contributor for the Avs and will be hard to replace if he prices himself off the market.
Compher is a pending UFA in a thin crop of UFA centers. In Nashville, on the other hand, Johansen averaged 15:46 — not the kind of ice time you associate with a top-six forward.
However, sometimes, the weight of a contract affects a player’s confidence. Johansen will never justify an $8 million annual salary at this stage of his career. At $4 million, his price is more fair.
Maybe that allows him to play more freely, and if so, get his game back on track. For a long time, he looked like a player who needed a fresh start. He is only 30. There is time.
Avalanche grade: c
Predator grade: c
Goldman: Colorado has needed help in the middle since Kadri left as a free agent last summer. It seems the plan last year was to see how the high-end top-6 wings could balance out a more affordable option in the middle of that line. A season-long injury to Landeskog, which will also keep him out the following season, put a damper on that experiment.
So this is something the Avalanche will have to address this offseason, especially with Compher’s contract expiring in a few days. Colorado still has Alex Newhook (who is also up for grabs this summer, but as a restricted free agent), but they still need another middle-six pivot. That’s where Johansen came in.
There’s no question that Johansen has been trending in the wrong direction for a long time, and his 2021-22 bounceback looks more like an encouraging sign moving forward. His lackluster season in 2022-23 can’t be entirely attributed to roster issues around him or coaching; it’s hers too. A team with as much star power as Colorado, and some very smart coaching in Jared Bednar, might be able to maximize what’s left of his game even better. Betting that $4 million dollars isn’t a huge risk either – a cost the third line can handle if he doesn’t shake it up as the 2C. Considering this year’s free agent class and other trade options likely cost more than Galchenyuk’s rights, which are essentially next to nothing, this is a smart move.
On the other hand, the Predators bought themselves some space and flexibility. It takes away a retention slot for another two years, bringing Nashville down to one, but that should be OK for Trotz, considering who’s left on the roster and likely to be flipped. Should Nashville make this deal? If the plan is to make a long haul again, there really isn’t a need because the Predators can deal with Johansen being on the roster. But if they want a shot at being competitive while their core three — Roman Josi, Juuse Saros and Filip Forsberg — are in their prime years, it will have to be a faster process. So cap space is key, and finding out who is a part of the future sooner rather than later will obviously help the roster building process.
Avalanche grade: B+
Predator grade: B
(Photo by Ryan Johansen and JT Compher: Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today)