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The Avalanche Head to Free Agency

Yesterday, I looked at the Minnesota Wild, and the day before, it was the Calgary Flames. Both teams are in awkward positions right now. The teams are good enough to compete for the playoffs, but not good enough to compete for the Stanley Cup right now, and with a future that doesn't look all that bright. The other three teams in the Northwest division are as far from that situation as you can be. Today, I'll look at the Colorado Avalanche who are in the middle of a long rebuild.

What have they done so far?

Signed F Milan Hejduk to a one-year contract with a cap hit of $3,000,000 (with NMC) - This deal is a bargain, but that's what we've come to expect from Hejduk and the Avalanche. The Czech winger turned 35 in February, so he may not have many years left, but he was still playing at a high level last season. This season, he's very likely to become the fifth highest-scoring Czech player of all time, and if he plays in 2012-13, he'll likely get to 1,000 games for his career, all of which will have come with the Avalanche. Milan Hejduk might not make it into the Hall of Fame, but he will one day have his jersey retired in Colorado. Until then. the fans can just sit back and enjoy the one guy who's still around from happier times.

Signed F Joakim Lindstrom to a one-year contract with a cap hit of $600,000 - Lindstrom, age 27, has been able to score in every league he's ever played in except the NHL. After being drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2002, Lindstrom came across the pond and spent several seasons in the AHL, amassing 182 points in 200 career regular season games. In 2008-09, it seemed like he had finally started to get established, scoring 20 points in 44 games with Phoenix, but that off-season, Lindstrom jumped to the KHL where he scored 30 points in 55 games. Last season, Lindstrom went back home to Sweden and led the league in scoring with 60 points in 54 games. Now in the prime of his career, Lindstrom might just be able to play a role in the top nine of an NHL team. A nice low-risk bet by the Avalanche.

Signed F Ryan Stoa to a one-year two-way contract with a cap hit of $803,250 - Given the team's lack of depth up front, I was a bit surprised that a one-way deal wasn't on the table. Stoa was a pretty high pick by the Avalanche who had a pretty good career in the NCAA, and has brought quite a bit of offense with him to the AHL (0.72 points per game over 102 AHL games), but has struggled at the NHL level (just 0.19 points per game in 37 NHL games). It seems like this would be an ideal year to find out what you have with this player, and to so a little bit more cheaply by giving him some security in exchange for a bit of cash. 

Signed D David Liffiton to a one-year two-way contract with a cap hit of $525,000 - David Liffiton is an experienced AHL defender that the Avalanche brought in last season, but who has hurt for most of the year. Despite that, the Avalanche gave him a slight bump from $95,000 at the AHL level to $100,000, maybe because management liked what they saw in his four-game cup of coffee at the start of the year. A defensive defender who will make the prospects earn their ice time.

Signed F David Van der Gulik to a one-year two-way contract with a cap hit of $525,000 - Van der Gulik is a very good AHL player who can play in the NHL in a pinch, which he's done in two of the last three seasons. After another strong AHL season, Van der Gulik has now been either first or second on his team in +/- in each of the last five seasons, and his offense has improved substantially in the last two seasons going from 0.52 points per game in his first three years to 0.68 in his last two. He's too old to be a prospect, so he's not likely to get much time in Colorado, but he's probably a better player than a few guys who will. Very good depth signing.

Signed F Justin Mercier to a one-year two-way contract with a cap hit of $525,000 - Justin Mercier is not a particularly good hockey player. In 144 career AHL games, Mercier has scored 51 points. Last season, his -10 rating was the second-worst +/- on the Lake Erie Monsters. The Monsters list him at 5'11'' and 190 lbs., so it's not like the guy is a behemoth either. This signing looks to me like a wasted spot on the reserve list.

Signed F Patrick Bordeleau to a one-year two-way contract with a cap hit of $525,000 - He's every bit as bad as Mercier, except that he is a behemoth. The man is 6'6'' and 225 lbs. of punching power. He had 135 penalty minutes last season, but 85 of those came from his 17 fights. Enforcers are pretty worthless in terms of their impact on the game, so this is bad signing from that perspective, but I don't see anything that makes this particular enforcer worse than any other.

Signed D Matt Hunwick to a one-year contract with a cap hit of $1,550,000 - This is Hunwick's qualifying offer, so the Avalanche had to offer this much to retain the player, but even still, it seems like an awful lot for a team that's on a budget to spend on a third pairing defenseman. Then I came to the frightening realization that the Avalanche may have Hunwick penciled into their top four, which is a really bad idea. He was protected from the toughs last year and still got smoked in terms of possession even just by comparison to his teammates (his Relative Corsi was -4.1/60). If this club is playing Hunwick in the top four to start the year, they might just be an early favorite for the first overall pick in 2012.

Traded D John-Michael Liles to Toronto and received a 2nd round pick in the 2012 entry draft - A year ago, I didn't think Liles would've been moveable, but after a good season in 2010-11, Liles picked up some value. The Avalanche deployed him on the power play more than any other defenseman on the team, and in the offensive zone more than any other defenseman at even strength, which is a bit curious given the number of young hands, but it did play Liles to his strengths. Fortunately for the Avalanche, Liles delivered with 28 even strength points, which was tied for tenth in the NHL, and a -4 rating when the game was played five-on-five. If he could be counted on for that kind of performance, I'm sure the Avalanche would have been more hesitant to give him up, but given his poor performance in 2009-10, his $4.55M price tag, and the stage of Colorado's rebuild, taking the top fifty pick was just the right thing to do.

Signed F Greg Mauldin to a one-year two-way contract with a cap hit of $525,000 - Greg Mauldin has enough talent to be a good (though not great) AHL player, and yet he played in 29 games with the Avalanche last year, so it's no wonder he was happy to re-sign. But the Avalanche wanting him back was, to me, a little bit curious at first. You'd think that a team like the Avalanche who don't have much forward depth would be able to get a better player for $150,000 (Mauldin's AHL salary) than a player who, at 28, has never once cracked 0.85 points per game. But his play at the NHL level was actually quite good. His Corsi rating was the best on the team among forwards with at least twenty games played, despite the fact that his zone start was in the middle of the pack. His ten points isn't great, but a guy who can put up 25 or so EV points and hold his own from the third or fourth line has some value. I don't know whether or not the coach has developed a liking for him, but it seems to me that Mauldin has a real chance of making the team out of camp.

Signed F David Jones to a one-year contract with a cap hit of $2,500,000 - The Avalanche signed a one-year deal here in keeping with their pattern of having as many contracts as possible expire at the end of the 2011-12 season so that they can properly adjust to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. In this case, Jones had just one year left before unrestricted free agency so there may have been some temptation to go longer, but the short-term deal is probably the right strategy. 2010-11 was a break-out season for Jones. He scored 45 points in 77 games, which is impressive both because of the offensive output and because of the good health. But the player does have some warning signs. His shooting percentage last season was 17.6%, which is close to his career average of 17.0%, but that career average is based on just 276 shots. To put things in perspective, just two or three active players (it depends on whether or not you count Mark Parrish) have been able to sustain that percentage over the long haul, and while it's possible that Jones will be another, it's not all that likely. In addition, Jones has struggled with some pretty significant injuries over the last couple of seasons. It's unfortunate for the Avalanche that another strong season almost certainly takes Jones to a big payday (with someone else), but at this point, a long-term deal isn't worth the risk.

Looking ahead to 2011-12

Those who've read here before know that I like to use the chart below as a cap space guideline. Because it's based on percentages, we need to decide on a budget figure for each team, and for Colorado, I've decided to use a $45M, which is a slight increase on last year's budget and slightly below the salary cap floor, which means the team will likely look to acquire some assets with a higher cap hit than they have salary. For that reason, the numbers listed below will be salaries (including "achievable" bonuses) instead of cap hits. Here's the chart:

Top 3 Forwards - 27.5% or 12.38M
Middle 6 Forwards - 20.0% or 9.00M
Top 4 Defenders - 27.5% or 12.38M
Goaltending - 10.0% or 4.50M
Bottom 8 Players - 15.0% or 6.75M

And here it is again with the players that the Avalanche have signed:

Top 3 Forwards - Stastny, Duchene, Hejduk - 25.2% or 11.35M
Middle 6 Forwards - Jones, Mueller, McClement, McLeod, Winnik, O'Reilly - 21.3% or 9.60M
Top 4 Defenders - Quincey, Johnson, Hunwick, ??? - 17.3% or 7.80M
Goaltending - ???, ??? - 0.0% or 0.00M
Bottom 8 Players - Yip, Lindstrom, Preissing (BO), ???, ???, ???, ???, ???, ??? - 5.0% or 2.24M

Well, this team is clearly looking ahead to the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. The only player who has a contract that runs past this season is Paul Stastny, and I doubt that changes at all in unrestricted free agency or via trade, which means that this team isn't going to be a player in the next few days. Ideally, they would be able to pick up that last top four defender via trade for about $3M to give them a bit more money to spend filling out the lineup. The ideal player for them is Michal Roszival in Phoenix who's on the last year of his contract, and has a cap hit of $5M but a salary of just $3M. That deal would help them to get up to the floor and save them $2M in real dollars at the same time, but unfortunately, the Coyotes probably want to keep that deal for the exact same reason. Cory Sarich is another option, but he's a weaker player, makes more in real dollars ($3.3), and saves the team less money (his cap hit is $3.6M). Still, Calgary would be very happy indeed to move him, so the Avalanche might be able to get a draft pick alongside (something like a 3rd rounder and Sarich for a 7th rounder).

But the biggest cap-cheat contracts tend to be entry-level deals, so I expect Gabriel Landeskog to make this team out of camp so that the Avalanche can save themselves some money on the bonuses that he fails to achieve (it's not the best use of an entry-level contract, but at least they're getting something out of it). The goaltending and bottom of the roster players will probably be filled out with rookies and the dregs of the free agent market in August. The plan isn't sexy, but it's a lock to result in another top five pick and give them a tonne of flexibility when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement comes into effect. And when you look at this year's free agent market and how far the Avalanche are from becoming competitive, at this point, it really does seem like the best plan.