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Avalanche analysis: Colorado better after two big trades, but play for another Stanley Cup comes at significant cost

The Colorado Avalanche is better today than it was yesterday, but at a significant cost.

Colorado made a pair of trades Wednesday morning to reshape the roster — one with the Philadelphia Flyers and one with the Buffalo Sabres — in the short term.

The Avs still could make further additions as well, as the arms race at the top of the Western Conference hits a fever pitch before the NHL trade deadline Friday afternoon. For now, Wednesday’s moves represent a significant effort to bolster their chances of winning a second Stanley Cup in three seasons.

The Avalanche added center Casey Mittelstadt, defenseman Sean Walker and a 2026 fifth-round pick. They subtracted defenseman Bo Byram, center Ryan Johansen and a 2025 first-round pick that would slide to 2026 if it were to somehow land in the top 10 next year.

“We’re always trying to improve,” Avs general manager Chris MacFarland said. “If this ends up being all that we do, we feel we’re better today than we were yesterday. But we’re going to leave no stone unturned and see what the next 48 hours holds with the deadline on Friday. But we’re breathing easier today than we were yesterday, that’s for sure.”

Mittelstadt had a breakout season in 2022-23 with 15 goals and 59 points for the Sabres, and has followed that up with 14 goals and 47 points in 62 games this year. He had excellent underlying offensive numbers last season, particularly as a pass-first guy. His playmaking numbers have dipped this season, but he’s finished at a higher rate while Buffalo has fallen back significantly after being one of the most exciting offensive teams in the league last year.

He is an upgrade for the Avalanche from Johansen, who had some moments in his first season with the club but overall was not a good fit, and the team’s apparent answer at center behind Nathan MacKinnon.

“It was huge,” MacFarland said. “When Joe (Sakic) and I and the staff look at it, it’s obviously a premier position in the middle of the ice. Where were we getting the next … our 2C? We do believe Calum Ritchie has that potential, but he’s still very young and we want him to cook and come when he’s ready to thrive not survive at the NHL level.

“So I think getting a player in this age bracket with the controllability was really important. Trading a Bo Byram, you’re not trading him unless you’re getting something that you’re really excited about in an important slot in your lineup. It was a hard decision but we feel it was the right one.”

Mittelstadt is a different type of player than the other centers who were also traded Wednesday and were potential options for the Avalanche. There might be a lower floor for how he works out in Colorado compared to Adam Henrique or Alex Wennberg, but unquestionably a higher ceiling as well.

Mittelstadt is a pending restricted free agent, the latest in a series of trades the Avs have made for players in a similar situation. Ross Colton, Artturi Lehkonen, Andre Burakovsky, Alexandar Georgiev and Philipp Grubauer were all either RFAs at the time Colorado traded for them or in the final season before becoming one.

Walker is in the middle of a really nice season for the Flyers. He’s playing more per game than he did in five seasons with the Los Angeles Kings. He’s been an impactful offensive player at even strength and done some strong work on the league’s top-rated penalty kill.

Another plus is that he is right-handed, which gives the Avs the ability to play three lefties and three righties together. His PK ability could also allow coach Jared Bednar to play Cale Makar less in that phase of the game.

“We feel as good as our back end was with Bo, we feel Sean Walker is going to come in and do a really good job,” MacFarland said. “He’s a really good player in his own right, and being able to put him in that mix and put Casey and solidify the second line and give the coaches and our players another weapon there, we felt was really important.”

Walker is having a better season than Byram, so assuming his assimilation is smooth there’s an argument Colorado’s defense corps is slightly better now that it was on Tuesday. But the long-term cost could be high, given Byram’s immense potential. Walker is also a pending UFA, while Byram was under contract next season at a team-friendly number ($3.85 million).

Another key aspect of these two moves: The Avalanche actually gained more salary-cap flexibility. Mittelstadt and Walker will both be more expensive on new contracts next season, but the Avs now have $4.929 million in long-term injury relief available.

Toss in the ability to get another team to retain half of a cap hit, and the Avs essentially have the flexibility to add anyone between now and Friday. They also still have a 2024 first-round pick and their top three prospects.

That’s a big deal, because all five of the other top contenders in the West — Dallas, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Edmonton and Vegas — have also made a trade for an impact player. Most of them still have plenty of flexibility to strike again, as well.

If the Avs are able to parlay the extra financial freedom into one more impact player, these two moves combined with that one could be a huge success. If Colorado wins the Stanley Cup in June, whatever Byram’s career after this becomes or whoever the Flyers take with that first-round pick will matter a lot less.

Just like two years ago, the Avalanche pushed some significant chips into the middle. It’s been a Cup-or-bust season since media day to kick off training camp. These trades just reaffirmed it.

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