I'll be taking a look at each team in the Northwest division over the next few days, and decided to begin with the most active trading team in the NHL this season, the Colorado Avalanche. Yes, Greg Sherman has been the anti-Tambellini so far this season, seeing needs and trying to fill them cheaply.
It began on Remembrance Day when the Avalanche picked up Ryan O'Byrne from Montreal in exchange for prospect Michael Bournival, a solid deal that helped a defense corps struggling with injuries. Later in the month, they added Matt Hunwick from Boston for prospect Colby Cohen in a deal that helped give them (supposedly) enough defensive depth to deal Scott Hannan to Washington for Tomas Fleischmann. I didn't like that pair of deals at the time, but Fleischmann scored 21 points in 22 games in a top six role with the Avalanche before getting shut down because of a blood clot in his lung. The Avalanche then muddled along until Peter Forsberg began his comeback, at which point the Avalanche began to struggle (though a regression in the percentages, and not Forsberg, was the likely cause). Forsberg played his first game with the Avalanche in the midst of a five game losing streak, but only managed two games (both losses) before announcing his retirement. The Avalanche went on to lose spectacularly to Calgary and then to the Penguins in overtime before announcing two more deals in the last couple of days. The first sent last year's hero, Craig Anderson, to the Ottawa Senators for Brian Elliott in a deal that made a lot of sense for Ottawa and virtually none for the Avalanche. That was followed by the blockbuster that sent Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk to the Blues for Erik Johnson and Jay McClement. After the jump, I'll take a look at that trade, the situation the Avalanche are in at this year's deadline, and what their cap structure looks like for next season.
The St. Louis Blues trade Erik Johnson, Jay McClement, and a first round pick in 2011 or 2012 to the Colorado Avalanche for Chris Stewart, Kevin Shattenkirk, and a second round pick in 2011 or 2012. Both picks will be in 2012 if the Blues finish in the bottom ten this season, otherwise both picks will be in 2011.
Looking at the latest trade, I think the Avs have set themselves back a bit. The trade itself kind of tells you so right up front with the exchange of picks being in Colorado's favor. Both of the young defenders involved were in similar situations at even strength, playing against the low-end of NHL competition while starting a lot in the offensive zone. Neither player was dominant in that role, but both are young enough to expect some improvement, and both were already contributing on special teams. Shattenkirk played very well on the power play, whereas Johnson struggled, but Johnson was getting a regular shift on the penalty kill, whereas Shattenkirk sat on the bench. If forced to choose today, I'd bet on Johnson as the man more likely to become the better player, but I'm terribly confident in that assessment.
The trade turns for me in looking at the two forwards changing teams. Jay McClement is a terrific player. He's a tough minutes center who has done a commendable job against the best in the Western Conference while taking a load of defensive zone starts. He's quite good on the dot, and should provide ridiculous value on his contract. The problem is that he's not such a good fit with the Avalanche. McClement is an unrestricted free agent after next season, so it's unlikely that the Avalanche will be able to make good use of his value deal. There's no real incentive (beyond money) for McClement to stay, and Colorado has been grooming Ryan O'Reilly as a defensive center for the last two seasons, so it seems likely to me that they won't be prepared to blow McClement away financially.
Chris Stewart, on the other hand, hasn't yet proved he can handle tough sledding, but one thing he has been able to do is improve his play over the long haul. I watched a lot of Avalanche games last season, and Chris Stewart was pretty poor in a lot of them at the start of the season, but by the mid-way point had shown a lot of improvement. He's a huge man who can score, and not just on the power play. Last season, he was among the league's top twenty even strength scorers with 51 even strength points, and this season he's added another 22 points in 36 games with the Avalanche. Perhaps most importantly, he's under team control for another four seasons. While there might be a case to be made that McClement could provide more value against his contract than Stewart next season (McClement's cap hit is a paltry $1.45M), Stewart should be able to provide the Blues with much more value than McClement over the next several seasons, even if he doesn't show tremendous improvement.
At this stage, I'd say the Blues have made the much better gamble, but if Erik Johnson improves substantially and/or the Avalanche are able to sign McClement to a value deal in years that they're actually interested in winning, it's at least possible that Colorado will get good value here.
The Big Picture
The cap for next season will likely be over $60M, but that doesn't have much relevance for the Avalanche, who are more likely going to compete closer to the floor, which should be about $45M. Here's the chart I've used before for spending guidelines, including the numbers for a cap spending team ($60M) and for a floor spending team ($45M):
Top 3 Forwards - 27.5% or $16,500,000 / $12,375,000
Middle 6 Forwards - 20.0% or $12,000,000 / $9,000,000
Top 4 Defenders - 27.5% or $16,500,000 / $12,375,000
Goaltending - 10.0% or $6,000,000 / $4,500,000
Bottom 8 Players - 15.0% or $9,000,000 / $6,750,000
And here it is again with the players the Avalanche have signed in the 2011-12 season with the percentages reflecting the Avalanche spending to a $45M budget (for this reason, I've also used real dollars, including all bonuses, instead of cap hits):
Top 3 Forwards - Stastny, Duchene, ??? - 21.8% or $9,800,000
Middle 6 Forwards - Mueller, McClement, O'Reilly, ???, ???, ??? - 10.9% or $4,900,000
Top 4 Defenders - Johnson, Liles, Quincey, ??? - 24.0% or $10,800,000
Goaltending - ???, ??? - 0.0% or $0
Bottom 8 Players - (Preissing), McLeod, Winnik, Yip, ???, ???, ???, ???, ??? - 8.6% or $3,866,667
The Avalanche have a lot of flexibility with this lineup heading into the new CBA, which I imagine is the strategy going forward. The only player with a contract beyond next season is Stastny. A lot of the question marks in the lineup above will probably be filled by young restricted free agents on one-year contracts, players like T.J. Galiardi, Philippe Dupuis, Kyle Cumiskey, and Ryans Cumiskey, Wilson, and Jones. In theory, this team could add significant pieces in the summer, but it seems more likely that Operation Scorched Earth will continue until a new CBA is negotiated. As such, the Avalanche would no doubt like to sell to pick up some futures. The problem is that they have virtually nothing to sell. The only pending UFA's on the team are either terrible (Koci), have no-trade clauses (Hejduk, Foote), or are injured (Fleischmann). They would probably think about moving players like McClement, Quincey and Liles if a big enough package comes along, but I think the Avalanche will be pretty quiet for the next few days, and will be an awful team again in 2011-12.