Fair or not, Chris MacFarland’s first full season as the GM of the Colorado Avalanche had fans a little worried. After taking over for Joe Sakic, he failed to make any appreciable upgrades to the team throughout the season. His “big” trade deadline move was giving up a 2nd round draft pick for Lars Eller, a trade that didn’t really pay off down the stretch.
This move should make fans feel a little bit better.
On Saturday morning, MacFarland made his first big splash of the off-season, acquiring veteran center Ryan Johansen in exchange for the rights of Alex Galchenyuk. The key to the trade, however, is that the Predators are retaining 50% of Johansen’s contract, meaning the Avalanche are only stuck with a $4 million cap hit over the final two seasons of Johansen’s deal. Considering Galchenyuk is set to hit free agency in a week, MacFarland essentially grabbed Johansen for nothing.
You could almost look at it as a free agent signing by Colorado. They get Johansen for two more years at a total of $8 million, and give up nothing in return.
Not too bad, especially for a team with little to no valuable assets to throw around. And if Johansen was available in this very weak free agent class this summer, he could easily have gotten a similar contract.
Is their risk involved? Absolutely. Johansen is coming off a skate blade cut to his ankle (it did not impact his achilles tendon) that required surgery. In April, he gave an update on where he’s at with his recovery.
“I should be out of this boot in a couple of weeks,” he told reporters on April 17. “And then I might have to wear a little ankle brace for a little bit, but I think I’ll be fully good-to-go by mid-May, start skating and all that stuff again.”
Johansen was never the fastest skater to begin with, so there is some concern that an injury like this could slow him down some more. And considering the Avalanche like to play fast, that could be an issue.
The bigger concern, however, would be his declining production. Outside of a big campaign in 2021/22, his numbers have been declining for a few years now.
Since 2018, his points-per-60 at even strength has looked like this: 2.21, 1.57, 1.3, 1.85, 1.42. So yes, that 2021/22 campaign sticks out as a bit of an outlier for a player whose best years might be behind him. He turns 31 this summer, so he’s not getting any younger.
Is he a true second line center at this point? That’s the big question, and remains to be seen. Judging by MacFarland’s comments, they anticipate him being a top six forward.
“Ryan is a talented, veteran center who helps our top six,” MacFarland said in the press release after the trade was announced.
Would it be a surprise to see him bounce back with a guy like Mikko Rantanen on his wing? Absolutely not, especially for someone whose been more of a playmaker than a goal scorer in his career.
I asked Nashville Hockey Now beat writer Michael Gallagher for his thoughts on Johansen.
“He’s still a really solid player. I wouldn’t be surprised if he puts up 50-60 points for the Avs next season,” he told me. “I think his biggest issue was he didn’t score as much in Nashville as he did in Columbus and a lot of fans here questioned if he was really a No. 1 center or just the best center the Predators could get at the time.”
But even if he isn’t a 2C, he can still provide value for the team. With Johansen on the ice, the Predators controlled 51.44% of the shot attempts at even strength last year. Only Nino Niederreiter had better on-ice numbers, and no other Nashville forward finished above 50%. In addition, he won nearly 60% of his face-offs last season, and has not finished below 51% in the face-off circle since 2013. That’s a big upgrade on any center the Avalanche have.
And $4 million for a third-line center is hardly poor value.
You can’t say the Avalanche don’t know the player. MacFarland was the assistant GM in Columbus when they drafted Johansen 4th overall in 2010, and Jared Bednar coached him briefly in the AHL during the 2012/13 season. They obviously know what type of player he is on the ice, but perhaps more importantly, they know him off of it as well. This is an organization that places a great importance on the type of people they bring in, so they wouldn’t make a move like this if they didn’t feel like Johansen would be a fit both on and off the ice.
Gallagher had nothing but good things to say about Johansen off the ice.
“As a person, he’s first-class,” he said.
Trade Grade: B+
Is this a slam dunk for the Avalanche? Not at all. They’re taking a chance that Johansen can bounce back in their system with some more talent around him. There’s a fair bit of risk involved. But considering they gave up nothing to get him, and still are holding on to all their assets heading into the draft, this is a win. Johansen will have to show he still has what it takes to be a top six center in the NHL, but even if he isn’t the player he used to be, he can still provide value for the team.
For a team with very few assets to move, this is the type of risk you take. He’s not a long-term solution, but if it works out, the Avalanche solved their 2C issue for absolutely nothing.