The Colorado Avalanche are at a bit of a crossroads, one that could play out in a number of different ways. As of this date in late July, the Avs only have 35 players locked into organizational contracts, with only 3 RFAs left to sign. Those players are Matt Nieto (who filed for arbitration, scheduled on July 31), Nikita Zadorov, and Rocco Grimaldi. Assuming they do sign all three, they are 12 players beneath the maximum 50 allowable contracts. For a team that completely lost the rails last season in the worst post-lockout season yet, this might be a cause for alarm. But it’s also an opportunity.
GM Joe Sakic has drawn lots of fire from around the league on his handling of the Matt Duchene trade sweepstakes. Many believe he has asked for too much in return or has been unrealistic about the player’s worth. That said, he still has a highly dynamic center on a reasonable contract who has every possibility of recouping some of his value come September. Ultimately, however, we might judge Sakic by his reluctance to re-sign aging players and to move on from veteran names. Although scoring will almost certainly take a hit, when in the midst of a dismal rebuild, it’s generally unwise to block roster positions from prospects.
Sakic let Francois Beauchemin (37), Rene Bourque (35), Fedor Tyutin (34), and John Mitchell (32) all walk, in addition to 8 other players. He unloaded Jarome Iginla (40) at the trade deadline for a pick, and sniped up David Warsofsky, Jonathan Bernier, and Nail Yakupov to relatively cheap deals this off-season. While none of these moves is particularly shocking, it shows that management is on the correct page when it comes to getting younger and embracing the inevitable tank. It will undoubtedly be a tough season again in Denver, but there does seem to be a plan starting to finally coalesce.
Perhaps what is most imperative from here forward, is that after figuratively clearing the deck, the organization fills the gaps with players that make long-term sense. Sakic should make a serious endeavor to fill remaining roster contracts to players on the right side of 30, preferably those who will provide solid production at the AHL level, who might have some chance of eventually becoming contributors. If he’s particularly sensible, Sakic would seek out as many young, undrafted college and overseas players with upside as he can. Conor Sheary type players are difficult to find, but every season it seems one or two players comes out of nowhere. Sakic should be beating the bushes for unknown quantities to fill out San Antonio. The Rampage finished with only 27 wins last season, which only made the defeated fanbase’s outlook bleaker. With the Avalanche looking primed to find themselves in the Central’s basement once again, it would be wise to build a competent squad down in the minors and hope that a winning mindset floats upward.
Notably, the Avalanche are thin on defense. They’ll need to rely upon unproven youngsters on the bottom pairing, as Zadorov, Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, and Mark Barberio, and Warsofsky are the only players with over 100 NHL games played. None inspires a ton of confidence. Anton Lindholm has 12 games experience, Duncan Siemens has 4, and Chris Bigras has 31. Andrei Mironov, 22 and coming over from Dynamo Moscow, will have a solid crack at a spot, but it’s too early to tell how well he’ll adapt to the North American game. If Sakic were to add another NHL body, it would almost surely be on the left side.
An important component of any franchise which can go unnoticed is the depth signings at the AHL level, in addition to drafting and scouting. Sakic has given himself the leeway to build a supporting cast as he sees fit, and now we will merely need to wait and see what path he decides to take.