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Toninato's free agency short-lived: Former UMD, East star signs with Avalanche

Dominic Toninato became an NHL free agent at midnight Wednesday. That status changed in a matter of hours for the former Minnesota Duluth captain, who signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Colorado Avalanche.

Toninato was selected in the fifth round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs — not long after his stellar prep career at Duluth East concluded — but after offering Toninato a two-way contract following his junior season with the Bulldogs, all the Leafs had available this summer was an American Hockey League deal. That would have restricted Toninato’s chances of playing in the NHL this winter.

The 23-year-old wasn’t interested, instead content to await free agency. Toninato said he and his agent, International Falls native Neil Sheehy, talked with several teams leading up to Wednesday in search of the best fit.

“Colorado was definitely top of the list,” Toninato said. “They have everything that I was looking for. It’s a great organization. They’re looking to rebuild, and I wanted to be part of that.”

The deal is worth $800,000 in the NHL, $70,000 in the minors, according to the Denver Post.

Toninato, the NCHC’s defensive forward of the year, tallied 16 goals and 13 assists while leading the Bulldogs to the national title game at the Frozen Four in Chicago, where they fell to Denver — now the city that Toninato hopes to call home.

“He is a big, responsible two-way center and represents a solid prospect for the future of our team,” Avalanche executive vice president and general manager Joe Sakic said in a story posted to the team’s website.

Colorado, indeed, is in the midst of a rebuilding project after finishing 22-56-4 in 2016-17, good for 48 points, the league’s lowest output in nearly two decades. That might not sound like a dream landing spot, but for a young guy such as Toninato, it spells opportunity. As the Avalanche infuse their roster with youth, more spots will come open for prospects.

“There’s a lot of opportunity there,” Toninato said. “If I can go out there and play my game and prove myself, hopefully I have a chance to be a part of that rebuild.”

Toninato was a Mr. Hockey finalist during a 73-point senior season for the Greyhounds. From there, he amassed 76 points in his lone United States Hockey League season, with the Fargo Force. He then arrived at Amsoil Arena and proceeded to help UMD go a combined 84-55-19 and reach three NCAA tournaments.

When he heads to Colorado’s training camp early next month, Toninato plans to display the skills that made him a college standout — 200-foot player, thrive in both the offensive and defensive zone and an ability to make his teammates better. He has spent this summer skating and training in the Twin Cities, and said he remained confident the free agency process would reach a successful conclusion.

“It’s definitely very exciting, but there’s still a lot of work that has to be done,” Toninato said. “You have to keep training and trying to get better every day.”