Colorado needs to determine the road ahead for its franchise. The unexpected plummet to the 4th overall pick in the draft lottery did not help matters, to be sure, but the Avalanche need more than a Nolan Patrick to catapult them back into contention. The team has lacked identity for years and a team philosophy is hard to isolate. The team finished a league worst 22 wins, good for an embarrassingly bad 48 points. They were not expected to be serious cup contenders coming into the year, but this is a team that had veteran scorers and a decent goaltending duo to back up their young forward core. Yet they finished in dead last in both offensive and defensive categories – 1.74 goals for per 60, and 2.93 goals against. With such an incredible disparity it’s actually impressive they won as many contests as they did.
GM Joe Sakic needs to determine which pieces of his core (if any) are worth keeping. It seems probable that the team could consider trading away its captain in Gabriel Landeskog, and the case for doing so is strong. He potted only 18 goals and 15 assists this season, his 5th full campaign – at the exorbitant price of $5.5 MM (which will become $6 MM next season). The center has never developed into the offensive threat the franchise had hoped when he was selected 2nd overall in 2011. His point totals have dropped for the second season in a row. However, his Corsi For % was actually his career best at 52.8, and on a team that bled goals and chances, he performed admirably in his own end. Whether he is worth his deal is certainly a less pressing issue than stopping the bleeding. Unless an over-payment comes along the Avalanche would be wise to stick out at least another season with the still-promising left wing.
Speedy forward Matt Duchene is two years older, and fared only marginally better, with 18 goals and 23 assists. Duchene is not physically imposing a 5’11”, and he is more effective on the rush. His speed and versatility are his greatest assets. Duchene’s skating can burn defenders and his skating is among the tops in the league. When considering that the quick and fleet-footed Nathan MacKinnon is also on the team, it seems that Colorado might want to double down on the speed aspect of their negligible identity. Duchene would almost certainly draw more interest than Landeskog, as the forward did pot 30 goals just the previous season. Although the talk seems distant now, there was considerable conversation following the 2009 draft that the Islanders would have done better to draft Duchene than John Tavares. This is a player who can make a meaningful difference on the playmaking side of things, but saw a drastic drop off in play. Trading Duchene seems the most logical option, but his departure will only leave the center ice position more lackluster.
The Avalanche could toy with moving RFA center Mikhail Grigorenko, or RFA defenseman Patrick Wiercioch, but the returns after last season would be marginal at best. One can only assume that Sakicc attempted to unload forwards like Blake Comeau ($2.5 MM), and now UFA defenseman Fedor Tyutin to no avail. Thankfully the well-worn Jarome Iginla was shipped off to Los Angeles and there are indeed older players coming off the books. The 35 year-old Rene Bourque and 32 year-old John Mitchell will both be UFAs and will have difficulty finding work next season in the league.
Ultimately, the problem for the Avalanche wasn’t that their stars didn’t produce, although that certainly didn’t help their goal totals. Their team was filled with washed-up veterans and outside of the big 3 on offense there was really no threat to score. On the backend, once Erik Johnson went down, the rest of the defense was not nearly good enough to keep up. Tyson Barrie is the only player who should feel remotely safe, and the young RFA Nikita Zadorov is likely to hang around. Francois Beauchemin is not the defender he was even two seasons ago, and if he could somehow be traded it would help performance substantially.
Trading away the #4 selection is usually an unthinkable notion with a team at this stage of a rebuild, but if they can move it for substantial help on defense or on the wing, it should be considered. Especially considering how mediocre this draft class is, it might turn out to be a prudent maneuver. One of Landeskog or Duchene seems likely to depart, but without a king’s ransom coming back, it’s not likely to alter long-term prospects for the franchise. Colorado simply needs to draft better, develop better, and find a coach with the structure that a young, struggling squad will need. If they could make a serious pitch to Karl Alzner this off-season, or perhaps even Thomas Vanek on the wing, they would be in a better position to compete on a nightly basis. Their offensive stars are unlikely to be quite as dreadful in points production yet again. Perhaps the most positive aspect of the upcoming season will be the infusion of youth from the minor leagues, and the ditching of dead weight up and down the lineup. Sakic will need to provide stability for the franchise and perhaps even display some patience rather than dumping a slumping offensive talent for a lackluster package. Although fans may wish for change at any cost, ditching their core players for scraps is not likely the best way forward. Whatever course Colorado decides to take, fans around the league will be watching with interest this summer.