Avalanche Thoughts – Free Agency Preview

Thoughts on what the Colorado Avalanche will do in free agency.

NHL Free Agency starts on July 1st and, like most hockey fans, I can’t wait to sit in front of my computer and refresh twitter all day to see who signs where.

Unfortunately for most NHL teams, this free agent class isn’t very deep. Outside of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, everyone else available to be swooped up via signing are second tier guys. As a Colorado Avalanche fan though, I’m fine with second tier guys. As I previously wrote, I like this Avalanche team. Would it be nice to add Parise? Of course, but I also have to be realistic. The Avs aren’t in on the Parise or Suter sweepstakes, so we should turn our attention to the lesser players and try to snatch them up while other teams are focussed on the big prizes.

As it stands, the Avs are going to lose Peter Mueller, Kevin Porter, and Jay McClemment to free agency. McClemment will easily be replaced by 2010 first round pick Joey Hishon or this years second round pick Mitchell Heard. Porter was in and out of the line-up last year and can easily be replaced by an incoming rookie like Luke Walker, Michael Sgarbossa, Brad Malone, or any other of the top prospects in the system.

Mueller is the sort of surprising release. When he was on the ice, he was usually productive on the scoresheet. The problem was, he couldn’t stay healthy. And even when he was healthy, he sometimes found himself as a scratch because Joe Sacco doesn’t believe in winning games. I liked Mueller, but I also recognized his flaws. He wasn’t a great skater, and despite being a psychically big guy, he never used his size to his advantage. He also wasn’t great defensively and became a liability playing the point on the power player. I’m not disappointed that the Avs are cutting ties with Mueller, because I do think there are better options on the market.

Who are those options? Well, I’m glad I asked myself. I’d love it if the Avs added Shane Doan or Ray Whitney. Neither guy fits in with the youth movement, but youth isn’t always everything. Sometimes you need a veteran guy who has been there and can change the mentality of a young team who, besides Milan Hejduk and Jean-Sebastian Giguere, doesn’t have much playoff experience. How great would Doan be as a mentor to Landeskog? They play a very similar game and Doan has proven that he can play the same game for a long period of time, stay healthy, and be successful. I think Doan ends up staying in Phoenix though, despite the fact that their ownership is a mess right now.

Whitney seems like a much more likely option. I know he’s 40 years old, but he put up 77 points last year and is still a great passer. He also plays left wing, which is a need that the Avs have. Can you imagine Whitney on the left side with Matt Duchene and Hejduk? Maybe Whitney helps Hejduk regain his scoring touch and makes life easier for Duchene as well.

Jiri Hudler has been linked to the team and he seems like the type of guy that the Avs would sign at this point. He’s only 28, he has playoff experience being with the Red Wings, and he’s a scoring forward who can play multiple positions. He plays defense about as much as Mueller, but he’s much more consistent offensively and overall a more reliable player. Like Whitney, Hudler could really help Duchene and Hejduk have bounce back seasons.

P.A. Parenteau is another option, but I have a feeling that a lot of teams are going to be looking at Parenteau. He had back-to-back good seasons and given the weak class, he’s bound to be overpaid by some team. I don’t think the Avs are going to be that team and with good reasons. Parenteau is one year older than Hudler and has less NHL experience. I have much more faith in Hudler producing in Denver than I do Parenteau.

If the Avs can’t get one of those three (four if you count Doan) locked up, then they’ll have to dig even deeper to find a replacement for Mueller, and that’s when they run the risk of getting another Chuck Kobasew. Travis Moen and Brandon Prust aren’t bad options, but they’re not guys who can put the puck in the net and play alongside Duchene.

That’s the key for the Avs come July 1st: appeasing Duchene. Ryan O’Reilly will center Landeskog and Steve Downie. Paul Stastny will center David Jones and Jamie McGinn. Duchene will center Hejduk and someone else. That someone else has to be able to keep up with Duchene’s pace and creativity, otherwise it’s going to be another frustrating year for #9. It would also help if coach Sacco kept the lines together and didn’t re-arrange them after every scoreless period. The lines I laid out are the Avs best options and that was proven during the second-half of the season, until of course the Avs lost a game, and Sacco panicked and wanted to change things around.

Besides adding a left winger to replace Mueller, there isn’t a huge need for the Avs. The defense is set with Erik Johnson, Jan Hejda, Shane O’Brien, Ryan O’Bryne, Ryan Wilson, and Matt Hunwick, plus Stefan Elliot, Tyson Barrie, and other promising young defensemen who will start the season in the AHL. And the goaltending situation is set with Semyon Varlamov and Giguere. Maybe the Avs make a few minor signings just to add some depth, but again, besides getting a forward who they know can step into the line up and play a good number of minutes, I’m not expecting much out of the Avs come July 1st.

Unless they enter the trade market. Paul Stastny’s name always comes up in trade rumors and I expect his name to be floated again next week. We know that the big prizes on the market are Roberto Luongo, Rick Nash, and Bobby Ryan, but there’s always a name or two who you don’t suspect that ends up getting moved. Given Greg Sherman’s willingness to make trades, I wouldn’t be shocked if Stastny ends up getting moved and the Avs going with Duchene and O’Reilly as their top two centers. Of course if Stastny does get moved, Sherman will get something good in return, and that something could affect who the Avs target in free agency. Instead of someone to play alongside Duchene, they’ll likely look for a third line center.

I’m excited for July 1st because the landscape of the league always changes, even if it’s just slightly, on that day and the following days. But I don’t expect much from my Avs this summer. The core of this team is in place and management won’t spend a ton of money on free agents. And given this crop of free agents, that’s probably a good thing.

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