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The Avalanche In Free Agency

The Colorado Avalanche really surprised me. I thought that they had a plan. I thought that this year was going to be about going for a clean slate in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, that we'd see only one-year deals (Gabriel Landeskog excepted), and that the Avalanche would merrily limp (how's that for an image) toward a second consecutive lottery selection. And then they traded away that pick. And signed a couple guys to multi-year deals. And... then went right back to doing what I thought they'd do. Low budget, one-year deals that just fill in the roster while the team waits to get good. The end result is likely to be a very painful season for fans of the Colorado Avalanche.

What have they done since we last checked in?

Signed D Ryan O'Byrne to a two-year contract with a cap hit of $1,800,000 per year - It seems at first glance that the Avalanche have some problems on defense that are reminiscent of the Oilers' problems on defense, namely, more third pairing defenders than spots in the third pairing and no top-flight guys at the top of the order. Ryan O'Byrne would seem to be one of these third pairing defenders. He's played most of his career in Montreal as a third pairing guy who got about thirteen and a half minutes per night at evens and a minute or two on the PK with a few healthy scratches mixed in. After getting traded to Colorado in the middle of last season, O'Byrne stepped into a much larger role. He led the team's defenders in even strength ice time per game, and was second in PK ice time per game per game. He had a nasty zone-start and played mostly against the toughs. Ryan O'Byrne had suddenly been thrust into the role of shut-down defenseman. To my surprise, he did pretty well. His Corsi was respectable (-8.13/60 is pretty good in those circumstances) and his ZoneShift was excellent (42.3% of his end-zone starts in OZ and 51.2% of end-zone finishes in OZ handily beats expectations). At 6'5'' and 230 lbs., O'Byrne is also imposing physically. His team-leading 179 hits show that he's not afraid to use that size either. I don't know if this deal will end up working out, but if O'Byrne's performance last year was an indication of things to come, this is a contract that could provide excellent value.

Signed D Jan Hejda to a four-year contract with a cap hit of $3,250,000 per year - This is where things started going a little bit off the rails for me, mostly because of the four-year term. Hejda has been a pretty good shut-down defender in the past, but that's not how he was used last season, and he still struggled to have success (he was on the wrong side of the ledger in both +/- and Relative Corsi). He still led the Jackets' defense in EV ice time per game and was second in PK ice time per game, so that's a sure sign that he wasn't completely ineffective, and maybe the decision to play him a lot but not match him against the other team's best with a tonne of DZ starts - he had over 45% of his end-zone starts in the OZ for the first time since coming to Columbus and it ended up being 52.0% - was just the coach making a mistake. But that's an awful lot of money to pay a guy who just turned 33 and might be in decline. If the Avalanche were still in rebuilding mode, and looking to Hejda for a year or two, I could see it, but right now they're going to have a shut-down pairing with a young guy who's done it once and an old guy who's done it before, but might be slowing down. It could work really well, but it could also be a disaster. And I do mean disaster because...

Traded a first-round pick in 2012 and a conditional second-round pick in 2012 or 2013 to the Washington Capitals for G Semyon Varlamov; signed G Semyon Varlamov to a three-year contract with a cap hit of $2,833,333 - Sweet baby Jesus is this ever risky. Given the market for goaltenders, I'm surprised that the Capitals got a first-round pick at all, let alone a first-round pick from a team that might finish in the lottery, plus a second-round selection. Varlamov looks like he'll be a pretty good goaltender given his age and statistical performance - his EV Sv% since coming into the league is .928 on 1743 shots and his PK Sv% is .859 on 384 shots - but the young man has also struggled with injuries (knee, groin) in each of the last two seasons. And even though that save percentage looks impressive, he really hasn't faced that many shots. We can say that he's probably above average, but we certainly can't say he's going to be great. What makes this even more baffling is that the Avalanche had a very good goalie in Craig Anderson that they sent away for the most wonderful privilege of having Brian Elliott (what the hell St. Louis?) for a couple of months. Over the last four seasons, Anderson has an EV Sv% of .927 on 4338 shots and a PK Sv% of .890 on 1037 shots. The sample is a lot bigger, and the performance is actually a little bit better. Obivously he's older than Varlamov, but if you're a team that just finished in the lottery, would you rather pay Anderson an average of $3,187,500 over the next four years (the contract he ended up with in Ottawa, which I'd have to think he'd have been happy to sign with Colorado), or pay Varlamov $2,833,333 over the next three years at the cost of your next first-round pick? The Avalanche got this question wrong, and what I called a missed opportunity in February has ended up becoming a gargantuan loss in value for the organization.

Signed F Chuck Kobasew to a two-year contract with a cap hit of $1,250,000 per year - Kobasew is a transitional player for the Avalanche who may help to make the team marginally better, but it looks like they're projecting him as a top-nine forward, and that's not a good sign. Kobasew was a poor player for the Minnesota Wild over the last couple of years. He scored a total of 30 points in 105 games, and managed to spend most of the last season on the fourth line of a team that had a very difficult time scoring goals - he wasn't bringing much offense. He's never been considered a particularly good defensive player either, and even though the Wild started him a lot in the defensive zone, he had a hard time getting the puck going the right way. I think that Kobasew would probably have a tough time making a good team, so even though this contract is pretty small potatoes, I'm not a fan.

Signed G Jean-Sebastien Giguere to a two-year contract with a cap hit of $1,250,000 per year - Giguere is pretty clearly the back-up here, and he's gone through a pretty rough patch over the last three seasons. He lost the starting job in Anaheim, got traded to Toronto, and then never got established as the starter there, all of this largely because of his own poor performance. The other side of this is that he was fantastic in 2007-08, which pulls his four-year averages up to that of an average NHL netminder (.921 at EV and .866 on the PK). When goalies lose it, they can lose it hard, so the two-year term is risky for a 34 year-old goalie, but the club is likely hoping for average or slightly-above average performance at that price, and while it's a bet I probably wouldn't make, it's not terrible either.

Signed G Cedrick Desjardins to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $650,000 per year - Desjardins was signed to be the team's third goalie, and with Giguere and Varlamov ahead of him on the depth chart, there's a pretty good chance that he'll see some action in the NHL in 2011-12. He had his first taste last year with the Lightning, and he actually did very well in his two-game stint (two wins and just one goal against in each). His AHL performance over the last four years has been solid, and he's young enough (he turns 26 in September) that if he shows well, the Avalanche might have themselves a capable back-up going forward. I think Desjardins is an excellent choice as the team's third goalie.

Signed F Kevin Porter to a one-year contract with a cap hit of $850,000 per year - This is Porter's first one-way deal, and also represents a raise on his qualifying offer at the NHL level. In his two AHL seasons at 22 and 23, Porter wasn't able to crack the point-per-game barrier, and last season he managed just 25 points in 74 games with the Avalanche so I don't think there's a lot of offensive potential, but you never know. His possession metrics were about average for the Avalanche, but the Avalanche weren't very good in that area, so it's hard to see him as part of the solution going forward. In the context of what I expected the Avalanche to do, this deal still makes some sense. In the context of not having a first-round pick, having Porter as one of the players likely to be in the opening lineup is a bit worrisome.

Signed D Ryan Wilson to a one-year contract with a cap hit of $1,275,000 per year - This deal makes sense for the Avalanche no matter the long-term plan. Wilson has played well for the Avalanche in his first two seasons, and the team no doubt sees him as part of the future. He's gives the team a tremendous physical presence and he's pretty good at moving the puck too (he led the Avalanche defenders in EV points in 2009-10 with 21 and had a respectable 14 in 67 games in 2010-11). The money is small enough that they can keep him as a very good third pairing guy if he doesn't develop as hoped or keep the number on his next contract more reasonable if he does. A very good deal for the Avalanche.

Signed F Patrick Rissmiller to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $525,000 - Rissmiller has almost 200 games of NHL experience (including ten games last season), but the 32 year-old is probably being signed to play in Lake Erie, which is where he spent most of the 2010-11 season. In his last three AHL seasons, Rissmiller has scored 142 points in 190 games, so the guy has got some pop at that level, and should provide adequate shelter for the younger players on the farm. It's never a bad idea for guys like this to sign with a team like the Avalanche who don't have great forward depth, and it's never bad for a team like the Avalanche to get some tweeners so that the drop-off from their fourth-liners to their minor-leaguers is minimal. A solid AHL signing.

Signed F T.J. Galiardi to a one-year contract with a cap hit of $700,000 - Galiardi missed a tonne of time last year because of injuries to wrist, but injuries aside, he was having a pretty good season for the second consecutive year. The injury no doubt cost him substantial dollars, so it's no wonder he was happy to sign a short-term deal. If he can stay healthy, he should post pretty good numbers this year because it's very likely that he'll see top nine minutes all year long. This contract is a nice bargain for the Avalanche, and gives them some time to see whether or not Galiardi can stay healthy.

Signed D Shane O'Brien to a one-year contract with a cap hit of $1,100,000 - Last year was probably the best of O'Brien's career, and yet he ended up taking a $500,000 pay-cut, which goes to show just how crazy it was for Mike Gillis to give him a qualifying offer last summer. O'Brien has reduced the number of penalties from a completely obscene 2.51 minor penalties/60 in 2008-09 to 1.41 minors/60 in 2009-10 and 1.27 minors/60 in 2010-11. He's never played top four minutes consistently in his career so there's not much upside here, and the signing is odd since it basically pushes Kyle Cumiskey off the roster. I guess they're going for the physical defense, and O'Brien's definitely a fit there. Well... this team will be no fun to play against even if they aren't exactly "hard" to play against.


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 while a lot has changed in the Avalanche plan, one thing that hasn't is the budget. $45M is a slight increase on last year's budget and slightly below the salary cap floor, but it still looks like it's roughly where the Avalanche will end up. 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, Kobasew, Winnik, Galiardi - 21.0% or 9.45M
Top 4 Defenders - O'Byrne, Hejda, Quincey, Johnson - 24.7% or 11.10M
Goaltending - Varlamov, Giguere - 8.3% or 3.75M
Bottom 8 Players - McLeod, O'Reilly, Porter, Yip, Lindstrom, Hunwick, Wilson, O'Brien, Preissing (BO) - 20.3% or 9.14M

The Avalanche still have Kyle Cumiskey and Gabriel Landeskog to sign, but they look to be pretty much done. Even those two might be out of luck since the Avalanche roster is at 23, and only Matt Duchene and Ryan O`Reilly are on entry-level deals. I can't really see the Avalanche burying a contract in the minors, so this might just be it, and looking it over, there's just no way that I can see this club making the playoffs unless everything breaks right for them. In fact, it seems to be that the lottery is more likely than the playoffs.

The top forwards are obviously good players, but they're not any better than what everyone else has in the West, and some teams are a lot better. The middle six forwards look like they'll probably get beat up, especially since the top four defense is just adequate at best. The depth guys on "D" won't kill them, but this team will likely be doing a lot of penalty-killing because of the emphasis on physicality on defense. The goaltending has a chance to be very good, and that might be enough to save them. But only maybe. Yeah... I'll be surprised if Greg Sherman still has the GM job by this time next year.