It’s no secret that many people expect the Colorado Avalanche to be the worst team in the NHL again next year. Those who don’t generally put them just ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights, and fighting to be better than an expansion team in their inaugural season is not exactly a great spot for a franchise. However, there was not really much that GM Joe Sakic and the Avs could do this off-season, with so few veteran players on their roster who would have value on the trade market and an understandable reluctance to trade away young talent. In a weak free agent and trade market, no one could have drastically turned the team around either. The rebuild is ongoing in Colorado and they need to take their time with it an do it right so that a 48-point season never happens again.
With that said, it still doesn’t hurt, even for a rebuilding team, to try to be more competitive by adding a veteran player or two. Sakic understands that. He has gone out and added Jonathan Bernier, one of top goalies available, to back up Semyon Varlamov following the expansion selection of Calvin Pickard. He then traded for forward Colin Wilson from the Nashville Predators for a fourth-round pick, a relative bargain but a draft pick from a rebuilding team all the same. If the team had decided to tank this season, and accept everyone’s expectations of them, they could have just handed those jobs to underwhelming prospects Spencer Martin and Rocco Grimaldi.
Why then does the Avalanche blue line look the way it does then? Even assuming that restricted free agent defenseman Nikita Zadorov re-signs with Colorado as anticipated, that would still give the team just four defenseman on one-way contracts. Zadorov, a 6’5″, 230-lb. behemoth, is just 22 and the centerpiece of the Avs defense, while Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson are talented veterans on long-term contracts. Yet, Johnson is injury-prone and Barrie often struggles in his own end. The fourth man is Mark Barberio, who was claimed off of waivers from the Montreal Canadiens last season and is penciled into a top-four role next season despite regularly playing bottom-pair minutes before arriving in Colorado. Beyond those four, not the most inspiring blue line corps in the NHL by any means, the bottom pair would likely be occupied by AHL veterans Anton Lindholm and Duncan Siemens, who were -10 with zero points in a combined 15 games last year. Other options include Chris Bigras, who has just one NHL game under his belt, first-year pro Andrei Mironov, and free agent addition David Warsofsky.
Sakic was willing to solidify his net and his forward corps and needs to do the same for his blue line. Zadorov, Barrie, and Johnson are fine for a top three, though each have their issues, and Barberio is a suitable starter. No one will blame the Avs for moving on from aging and ineffective veterans Francois Beauchemin and Fedor Tyutin, but might the team at least look into bringing back one of Eric Gelinas or Cody Goloubef, who both remain unsigned? Even that may not be enough. The obvious top choice would have to be Cody Franson, the top free agent defenseman left on the market. Franson may be a right-handed shot like Barrie and Johnson, but no doubt could help this team and play a major role. Franson could be especially helpful in re-booting an Avs power play that ranked dead last in 2016-17. Another player who could help in that department and with moving the puck could be Dennis Wideman. The veteran rearguard was once a prominent possession defenseman like Barrie and could give a boost to a Colorado offense that is often stagnant. If the Avalanche are shying away from older players like Wideman, they could take a chance on the oft-injured, but talented Simon Despres or on the unproven Jyrki Jokipakka instead. A big move that could be in play if they wanted to take the risk: an offer sheet to young New Jersey Devils puck-mover Damon Severson. Severson had a breakout year last season and looks to be a bona fide top-four offensive defenseman. The Devils are in a similarly rough shape on their blue line and would likely match any deal offered, but it could be worth a shot for the Avalanche, who could desperately use a promising young defender, even with future star Cale Makar coming down the road.
There are many options open to Sakic and the Avalanche and hopefully they find an avenue they like and take it. No one is expecting a rebuilding team to sell off pieces for a premiere defenseman, but they do expect Colorado to at least make an effort to field an NHL-caliber defense. At this point in time, the Avs don’t have that. No one wants to see another 48-point season in Denver. It’s time for Sakic to take action.