Avalanche bubble watch: Which players will make the opening-night roster?

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — The Colorado Avalanche have only one preseason game left, and they’ve whittled their roster down to a mix of opening-night locks and bubble players.

Colorado has around two or three roster spots up for grabs with eight bubble players in the mix. More bubble players could make the roster if injuries pop up before the season opener on Oct. 11.

Coach Jared Bednar hasn’t decided exactly how many forwards and how many defensemen he’ll have on the roster. Players’ performances, which the coaches and front office members will break down going into and after Thursday’s preseason finale, will make those decisions.

“If a forward stands out more than a seventh D, then we can run with six D,” Bednar said. “We have guys regularly available with the (AHL) Eagles who we’ll call up if we need them.”

Let’s look into the bubble players who remain in camp and where each of them stands.

(Note: Alex Beaucage, Jean-Luc Foudy, Maros Jedlicka, Calum Ritchie, Jason Polin and Chris Wagner are still on the Avalanche roster while injured but don’t appear to be in contention for opening-night roster spots.)

Fredrik Olofsson, forward

After making his playoff debut for Dallas last spring, Olofsson had a strong camp and is the front-runner to start the season as the fourth-line center. He has three points in three games and has averaged more than two minutes a game on the penalty kill.

“He’s open to learning, sort of getting an understanding of how we play here and the two-way structure that the bottom six needs to play with,” said Logan O’Connor, who could start the year on a line with Olofsson. “He’s done a good job of adjusting. Being good on details is probably the biggest thing. He’s always trying to learn and work on different facets of his game.”

Olofsson didn’t play much center last season but did so previously in Sweden. He said the position has felt natural for him, though he’s needed to practice faceoffs.

Riley Tufte, forward

Tufte has shown as much as the Avalanche could’ve hoped for offensively, scoring a goal in all three games he’s played this preseason. Bednar experimented with him at center — the team wants extra options there — but the coach admitted that, at least during Tufte’s second preseason game, it didn’t work well. Bednar moved him to wing and has kept him there since.

At 6-foot-6, Tufte brings size to any lineup he’s in and is looking to put together the tools that led Dallas to select him 25th in the 2016 draft. He had his best professional season in 2022-23, scoring 19 goals in the AHL.

“I’m a big guy, long arms, long stick who can create some havoc on the forecheck,” he said. “I really tried to focus on that last year. That’s where a handful of my opportunities came from.” 

Bednar hasn’t used Tufte much on the penalty kill, playing him for only 2:07 of ice time in three preseason games. That could work against the winger as Colorado makes its final cuts. With J.T. Compher, Lars Eller, Matt Nieto and Darren Helm all gone from last season’s roster, the team needs forwards who can step up on the penalty kill.

Joel Kiviranta, forward 

Kiviranta is on a professional tryout. If a roster spot is between him and Tufte, it might come down to what role the Avalanche are looking to fill. If Colorado wants a penalty killer, Kiviranta might have an edge. In four preseason games, the wing has been on the ice for 8:00 short-handed. He has produced less offensively than Tufte, though, scoring only one goal with no assists. While Tufte played with Olofsson and O’Connor at skate Wednesday, Kiviranta was with Andrew Cogliano, who wore a red non-contact jersey, and Kurtis MacDermid.

The 27-year-old Finn is more experienced than many of the forwards he’s competing with. He’s played in 163 regular season games and 36 more in the playoffs, all with Dallas. In 2020, he had a Game 7 hat trick against Colorado and appeared in all six of the Stars’ Stanley Cup Final games.

“The guy plays with NHL pace,” said Olofsson, who played on the Stars with Kiviranta last season. “Even in Dallas when I was playing with him, he makes it easy for you with pushing D back. Explosiveness as a smaller guy. He’s quick to pucks. Quick decisions, too.”

Brandon Kozun, forward

The Avalanche have known of Kozun for years, Bednar said, and brought him in on a professional tryout. After emerging as a strong AHL player and earning a handful of NHL games with Toronto, the wing spent the past eight seasons playing in the KHL, where he found success. Bednar spoke highly of the 33-year-old’s camp, but Kozun jumping back to the NHL for the first time since 2014-15 feels a little far-fetched. If he’s interested, he could be a contributor on the Eagles, though.

“A good leader, a good scorer, get some high-end experience, skill in the American League,” Bednar said earlier in camp. “And as he kind of gets back into the North American game here, maybe he can come help us as well.”

The coach further addressed the Kozun and Kiviranta’s situation as PTOs on Wednesday.

“Both guys have played pretty good, so we’ll see,” he said. “We’re going to have some more discussions here today and some discussions again after tomorrow’s game, and then roster decisions have to be made. So we’ll see where they slot, what we can offer, where they fit in, if anything. We just go from there.” 

Ben Meyers, forward

Meyers is day to day with a lower-body injury, Bednar said. Even before the injury, Olofsson appears to have hopped Meyers for the 4C position, especially after Sunday’s preseason game. Meyers will almost surely get NHL time this season, especially because he plays center, but he seems likely to start in the AHL if Colorado’s roster is fully healthy.  The 24-year-old is waiver exempt until he plays 10 more NHL games, so Colorado can send him to the Eagles without fear of losing him.

Earlier in training camp, Bednar said he wanted to see Meyers show he’s quicker in both his pace and ability to make reads, and he wanted him to be able to create offense and contribute on special teams. Through three exhibition games played, Meyers has one point and has played 2:40 on the penalty kill. He’s shown elements of what Colorado wanted to see but doesn’t seem to have won the 4C competition with Olofsson.

Brad Hunt, defenseman

The Avalanche know what they have in Hunt. He has a wicked shot and can provide offense, and he made it through waivers at points last season. The always-chipper 35-year-old is the Eagles captain when he’s in the AHL. He could be in the mix for the seventh defenseman spot if Colorado wants to carry that many. Hunt started last season in the AHL and ended up playing 47 games with the Avalanche, logging 10 points.

Jack Ahcan, defenseman

Colorado signed Ahcan as a free agent this past offseason. He’s on the smaller side, standing at 5-foot-9, and comes from the Bruins organization, where he averaged 0.50 points per game or better each of the past three AHL seasons. The 26-year-old has nine NHL games to his name but seems likely to start the season in the minors.

Sam Malinski, defenseman 

Colorado signed Malinski out of Cornell last season. He probably has the most long-term potential with the organization of any of the three bubble defensemen still left. The 25-year-old was one of the top college free agents last spring and has gotten plenty of opportunity this camp, appearing in four preseason games and getting extended looks on both the power play and penalty kill. He’s a puck-moving defenseman who has shown promise, though he still seems to be getting used to the skill and speed of the NHL game.

Opening night projection

This prediction is subject to change based on performance, injury updates and other transactions in the coming days. 

Forwards (14) 

Nathan MacKinnon
Mikko Rantanen
Valeri Nichushkin
Artturi Lehkonen
Ryan Johansen
Ross Colton
Miles Wood
Tomas Tatar
Logan O’Connor
Kurtis MacDermid
Andrew Cogliano
Jonathan Drouin
Fredrik Olofsson
Joel Kiviranta

Defensemen (6)

Cale Makar
Samuel Girard
Josh Manson
Devon Toews
Bowen Byram
Jack Johnson

Goalies (2)

Alexandar Georgiev
Justus Annunen

Long-term injured reserve (2)

Gabriel Landeskog
Pavel Francouz

(Photo of Joel Kiviranta: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)

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