The Colorado Avalanche believes it found the long-term solution at a key position, but finding the right contract for Casey Mittelstadt could be tricky.

The Colorado Avalanche believes it found the long-term solution at a key position just before the 2024 NHL trade deadline. Figuring out how to lock in that player on the right contract is an integral part of this offseason.

Colorado paid a significant price for Casey Mittelstadt — namely Bowen Byram, the best young player in the organization. Backfilling Byram’s place in the lineup with Sean Walker, a pending unrestricted free agent the Avs aren’t likely to be able to retain, also cost a future first-round pick.

Early returns on Mittelstadt were very good. He is an excellent offensive player, particularly as a passer and someone who keeps possessions alive with slick work along the boards and in other tight spaces. His all-around game was better than advertised as well.

“He’s been unreal,” Nathan MacKinnon said during the playoff series against Winnipeg. “I just love his competitive level.”

That second sentence, coming from that source, carries a lot of weight. Mittelstadt has played only 29 games for Colorado, including the playoffs, but he quickly endeared himself to his new teammates.

Mittelstadt is at the end of a three-year contract that paid him $2.5 million per season, and it’s time for a raise. His past two seasons — 59 points in 82 games, 57 points in 80 games — have ensured he’s worth a lot more.

This is an interesting point in his career to be signing a new contract. He was the eighth pick in his draft class, but the early part of his career with the Buffalo Sabres didn’t go as planned — that’s partly how he ended up with a “bridge” contract. Young players coming off an entry-level contract typically sign longer deals that eat into unrestricted free-agent years when a team is ready to commit to them as a core piece.

Mittelstadt still has one more year as a restricted free agent. He has arbitration rights, which could come into play if the two sides can’t find a suitable long-term pact. A potentially contentious arbitration hearing doesn’t foster long-term harmony, though.

A short-term deal for less money could help Colorado’s current salary-cap squeeze but would also make Mittelstadt more likely to leave once he can hit the UFA open market. Can the Avs find a long-term deal for Mittelstadt and bring Jonathan Drouin back while still filling out the roster with limited cap space?

That could be tricky. Drouin was an incredible story this season. But if it comes to down to one or the other, the No. 2 center who turns 26 years old in November is likely the first priority.

Some players similar to Mittelstadt have signed a long-term contract in similar situations. The Avs haven’t had a lot of time with Mittelstadt compared to some of the other players on this list, but there are guys who fit a similar career path — flashes of promise with one team, then becoming a better player with the second club.

Player, team
2-yr goals/game^
2-yr points/game^
Cap hit

Casey Mittelstadt, COL

Pavel Zacha, BOS

Jared McCann, SEA

Oliver Bjorkstrand, CBJ

Pavel Buchnevich, STL

Dylan Strome, WAS

Joel Eriksson Ek, MIN

Anthony Cirelli, TBL

*Age on Feb. 1 in first year of new contract
^Two years before new contract was signed

We’ve got five guys who all signed pretty similar contracts. Zacha and Strome were also top-10 picks. Both found more success after leaving the club that drafted them.

McCann and Bjorkstrand both ended up in Seattle and have enjoyed their time with the Kraken. Buchnevich was traded to St. Louis and immediately flourished with a bigger opportunity, similar to Artturi Lehkonen’s move to Colorado.

There are also two guys in there who signed for the full eight years. Mittelstadt has had better offensive numbers leading up to the contract than both of them, but Anthony Cirelli and Joel Eriksson Ek are both elite defenders as well.

Every player on this list produced more during their current contracts than they did in the two years before. The Avs said they believe Mittelstadt has more in him after the trade. Some of that will come down to opportunity — he played more than two minutes less per game in Colorado as the clear No. 2C than in Buffalo where he had some top-line duty.

If the Avs had lots of cap space, they could sign both Mittelstadt and Drouin to contracts in the range of five years at $5 million per season and feel plenty comfortable with both deals. But the cap space is going to be an issue.

Colorado currently has about $77.9 million committed to 15 players — nine forwards, four defensemen and two goalies — per CapFriendly. That includes Nikolai Kovalenko on an entry-level deal, but it also includes Valeri Nichushkin’s $6.125 million cap hit.

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If the Mittelstadt and Drouin deals add up to $10 million, that puts Colorado right at the $88 million ceiling with only 10 active forwards (while Nichushkin is suspended) and four defensemen.

Nichushkin’s deal does not count against the cap while he’s out, so the Avs could sign those two deals, fill out the roster and easily be cap compliant on opening night. But assuming Nichushkin returns at some point after mid-November, the Avs would need to do something drastic to get back below the cap ceiling unless a key player is injured enough to be on long-term injured reserve.

Could the Avs find a way to get both Mittelstadt and Drouin signed for less than a combined $10 million? It’s possible. It’s also possible that if both are signed to new deals this offseason, someone who is currently an established player could be moved to eventually make the math work once Nichushkin is ready to play again.

If the Avs really believe in Mittelstadt as the long-term answer as the No. 2C, getting him locked in for years to come is the first puzzle piece of all this, and figuring out the rest comes after that.

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