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Off-Season Game Plan: Colorado Avalanche

Scott Cullen
5/10/2013 3:46:18 PM
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The Colorado Avalanche were fortunate enough to win the NHL Draft Lottery, which should help the franchise turn a corner. They have stockpiled talent through the draft and it's time to take a step ahead, adding one more blue-chipper to the talent pool.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Colorado Avalanche and what they might do to move forward.

The Avalanche have missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, which cost head coach Joe Sacco his job, but the blame doesn't fall squarely on Sacco. The Avalanche have some skilled young players, but a shaky defence and subpar goaltending have proven to be issues that they haven't been able to overcome.

Colorado is aiming for a change in culture this offseason, moving franchise great Joe Sakic into a more prominent role as Executive VP of Hockey Operations, giving him final say on hockey decisions. Who knows if Sakic is going to be an astute judge of talent, but he seems like a thoughtful guy and he's taken his time to learn the business a bit before jumping into a position of responsibility.

"I really believe that Stan and Josh are committed to this franchise and want us to get back to where we used to be and compete for the Stanley Cup," said Sakic. "Because of their commitment, it's definitely the right time for me to take a more active role."

One of the first orders of business for the Avalanche will be to find a new coach. Lindy Ruff, Dave Tippett, Guy Boucher, Dean Chyoweth and Patrick Roy areamong those that might be possibilities to replace Sacco.

While consciously not mentioning any names, Sakic mentioned, at his introductory press conference, that he expected the new coach to be "very passionate."

With the management structure set and once a coach is in place, the Avalanche will get to make the first pick in the 2013 draft and make any other roster decisions with the knowledge that they have an emerging core of young talent around which to build. It becomes a matter of finding the right pieces to surround their recent top picks.

"Will we be adding payroll? I think that comes as players get older," said new Avalanche President Josh Kroenke.

The bottom line for the new regime is that the Avalanche have to turn the corner and start producing results. Better goaltending and improved defence have to be priorities, but there is reason for optimism, moreso than with most teams that are drafting first overall.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

GM/COACH
Greg Sherman/Vacant

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Matt Duchene 77.64 47 17 26 43 -12 $3.5M
PA Parenteau 74.35 48 18 25 43 -11 $4.0M
Ryan O'Reilly 70.56 29 6 14 20 -3 $5.0M
Gabriel Landeskog 69.13 36 9 8 17 -4 $3.575M
Paul Stastny 67.44 40 9 15 24 -7 $6.6M
John Mitchell 65.71 47 10 10 20 +5 $1.1M
Jamie McGinn 65.34 47 11 11 22 -13 $1.75M
Steve Downie 63.76 2 0 1 1 +1 $2.65M
Cody McLeod 61.19 48 8 4 12 +4 $1.15M
David Jones 58.16 33 3 6 9 -11 $4.0M
Mark Olver 56.40 32 4 2 6 -5 $600K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Aaron Palushaj 60.50 25 2 7 9 -2 RFA $600K
Chuck Kobasew 60.16 37 5 4 9 +6 UFA $1.25M
Milan Hejduk 58.60 29 4 7 11 -7 UFA $2.0M
Tomas Vincour 56.68 17 2 2 4 -1 RFA $800K
Brad Malone 54.56 13 1 1 2 -7 RFA $875K
Patrick Bordeleau 53.47 46 2 3 5 -7 UFA $525K

Avalanche Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

Coming off a down season in 2011-2012, Matt Duchene was given first-line ice time -- 4:38 per game more than the year before -- and responded with the best per-game production of his career. Duchene is just 22 and has the speed and skills to be a point-per-game scorer as he hits the prime years of his career.

When the Avalanche signed PA Parenteau as a free agent last summer, there was some question whether or not the late bloomer's production was a result of his time spent on John Tavares' wing while with the Islanders, but Parenteau dismissed that notion with the best per-game scoring rate of his career. The 30-year-old has puck skills and offensive instincts that make him a fine complement to a dynamic playmaker like Duchene.

A contentious contract negotiation that dragged into the season allowed time for a more in-depth examination of Ryan O'Reilly's career and while some might be caught up in his point totals -- which are actually quite good for his age -- O'Reilly's overall value, as a two-way player, is very high.

That his production didn't really improve from the previous season isn't a terrible indictment of the 22-year-old; he joined the season in progress after the Avalanche matched the offer sheet that O'Reilly signed with the Calgary Flames and, while he dominated in puck possession metrics, O'Reilly had some poor puck luck.

The question should no longer be whether or not O'Reilly is a very talented player, only what the Avalanche will do with him going forward. Whether they get him signed to an extension or trade him because, while O'Reilly's cap hit is $5-million for next season, his salary will be $6.5-million, which is then the base for his qualifying offer as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2014. The ideal will be to work out a long-term deal because O'Reilly is a player around which the Avalanche can build.

20-year-old team captain Gabriel Landeskog endured a rough second season, missing a dozen games with injuries, but he's a very good two-way player who has offensive upside, which makes him a good fit on a line with O'Reilly because they can face the opposition's best lines on a nightly basis.

With 77 points in 119 games over the last two seasons, Paul Stastny has fallen off the scoring pace that he established earlier in his career. He did play more of a two-way role this season, starting more shifts in the defensive zone than ever before, but Stastny isn't paid to be a good two-way player with decent offensive production.

At a $6.6-million cap hit, Stastny needs to score and, with one year left on his contract, it is conceivable that the Avalanche would consider moving the 27-year-old in hopes of maximizing return before he hits free agency next summer. However, if there is uncertainty over O'Reilly's future in Colorado, Stastny may provide insurance down the middle.

A checker who can play centre or wing, John Mitchell had the most productive year of his career, playing a career-high 16:45 per game, ranking third on the team in hits and second among forwards (behind Duchene) in blocked shots.

It would have been unreasonable to expect Jamie McGinn to pick up where he left off when he was acquired by the Avalanche in 2011-2012, finishing that season with eight goals and 13 points in 17 games, so his regression wasn't a surprise. Even so, the 24-year-old has good size, isn't afraid to use it, crashing in the corners and going to the net, so he can fit as a complementary piece in the top six, maybe top nine on a better team.

Steve Downie suffered a torn ACL in the second game of the season, and his absence was felt. There aren't a lot of players that can play like Downie, capable of contributing offensively, while also playing on (and sometimes over) the edge. From 2009-2010 through 2011-2012, there were three players who scored 40 goals and had at least 400 penalty minutes -- Downie, Steve Ott and Scott Hartnell (who, admittedly, scored 75 goals in that time). If Downie's aggression is channeled in the right direction, he's capable of playing on a scoring line.

After a couple of seasons with reduced ice time, Cody McLeod played a career-high 13:05 for the Avalanche. McLeod still led the Avalanche with seven fights, so he hasn't left that part of his game behind. He can play a regular shift, just maybe somewhere between last season's role and the year before, when he played a career-low 7:12 per game.

David Jones was signed to an ill-advised four-year, $16-million contract by the Avalanche last summer, and followed up with the least productive season of his career. He was one of 16 forwards to play at least 500 minutes and score three or fewer goals (one of 12 to score fewer than 10 points). That kind of production, with that contract, could make Jones a candidate for a compliance buyout, but the Avalanche haven't been a cap team, so that doesn't have as much benefit as it would for some other teams. It wouldn't be unreasonable to hope that the two-time 20-goal scorer could recapture some of that form, but that is a $4-million wager (ie. the potential savings of buying out the last three years and $12-million on his contract).

Mark Olver has been on the fringe of the Avalanche lineup for the last three years, accumulating 22 points in 74 career games, playing 11:00 per game. He's small, but quick and scrappy enough to fill an energy role for a bargain price.

Acquired off waivers from Montreal, Aaron Palushaj has 14 points in 66 career games, but got more of an opportunity with the Avalanche and is likely battling for a spot on the roster. He has good speed and decent skills; will it be enough for the 23-year-old to secure a regular NHL job?

22-year-old Tomas Vincour was picked up in a trade from Dallas, and while he has decent size with hopes of potentially being a scoring winger, Vincour has 16 points in 88 career games, so it remains to be seen if he can fulfill any of that potential.

Brad Malone's offensive upside is limited, but he might be a safer bet in a fourth-line checking role as he can play centre or wing and provides a physical dimension, which can be a prerequisite for a spot lower on the depth chart.

How the Avalanche shape their forward lines may depend on whether or not they keep Stastny. If they keep him, they're strong and deep down the middle, but if they're not likely to contend in 2013-2014, they might be better served to find out what assets the market will bring in return for the final year of Stastny's deal.

If they do hit the free agent market, the Avalanche could look for some improved depth on the wings, potentially a reasonably-priced option that could fit in the top nine. A couple of Chicago Blackhawks free agents, Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg, might be reasonable options to consider.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Ryan Wilson 68.57 12 0 3 3 +4 $2.25M
Tyson Barrie 67.47 32 2 11 13 -11 $900K
Jan Hejda 65.90 46 1 9 10 -3 $3.25M
Stefan Elliott 65.36 18 1 3 4 -3 $900K
Matt Hunwick 64.50 43 0 6 6 +4 $1.6M
Erik Johnson 64.06 31 0 4 4 -3 $3.75M
Shane O'Brien 63.04 28 0 4 4 0 $2.0M
Greg Zanon 62.65 44 0 6 6 -16 $2.25M

Avalanche Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

Defence is the primary area of need for the Avalanche, so it's fortuitous that they have landed the first pick in the draft when the consensus No. 1 pick is a defenceman. First, let's deal with those under contract for next season.

Ankle problems limited Ryan Wilson to only a dozen games, but the 26-year-old has proven to be a reliable pro. He's not flashy or physically imposing, but Wilson sacrifices to do the job and is a reliable part of the machine, so long as he's healthy, though that's a bit of an issue as he's never played more than 67 games in an NHL season.

Tyson Barrie is a dynamic young defenceman, capable of joining the rush and quarterbacking a power play, though he's still going through some of the growing pains that 21-year-old puck-moving defencemen tend to experience. Even with some mistakes along the way, and less than ideal size, Barrie looks like a keeper due to his strong puck skills and intelligent play.

34-year-old Jan Hedad is an unheralded performer, but a steadying influence and, with good size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds), he performs well in a shutdown defensive role.

After making a positive impression as a rookie pro in 2011-2012, 22-year-old Stefan Elliott might have taken a half step back last season, spending more time than expected in the American Hockey League, but Elliott finished the year in the NHL, getting a chance to audition for next year's team. He's not very physical and his defensive play could improve, but Elliott's ability to move the puck should give him a chance to stick.

Though he struggled in his first couple years with the Avalanche, Matt Hunwick emerged in a prominent role for Colorado last season, playing 21:31 per game, second only to Barrie (21:35) among Colorado defencemen. Hunwick is small, but a strong skater and seems to have established his place as a bona fide NHL defenceman.

It's hard to believe that Erik Johnson is only 25, but he's endured quite a bit since he was drafted first overall in 2006. Coming off an injury-plagued season in which he scored four points in 31 games, Johnson can still be a factor for the Avalanche, but it appears that he's not the No.1 franchise defenceman they were hoping they acquired when they dealt Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart to St. Louis.

While Hunwick moved up the Avalanche depth chart, Shane O'Brien went the other way, down from 19:13 per game in 2011-2012 to 15:30 last season, playing 28 of 48 games, even though he produced strong possession numbers when he did play. O'Brien has size and provides toughness, even if he's not as rambunctious as he was when he arrived in the league.

There aren't many in the league who put their bodies on the line the way that Greg Zanon has, ranking in the top three in blocked shots in four of the last five seasons, but he was also a career-worst minus-16 with poor possession numbers last season. With one year remaining on his contract, it's possible that Zanon would be relatively easy to move in order to clear a logjam of eight defencemen already signed for next season.

That logjam is an issue because, barring a surprise, the Avalanche will have the opportunity to draft Seth Jones with the first pick in the 2013 draft. Jones is an outstanding talent, with size and skills that give him a chance to be a franchise defenceman and he's good enough to start, and play significant minutes, in the NHL next season. If he's doing that in Colorado, then the Avalanche have to find room for the others on their blueline.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Jean-Sebastien Giguere 65.62 18 5 4 4 2.84 .908 $1.5M
Semyon Varlamov 61.26 35 11 21 3 .302 .903 $2.833M

35-year-old Jean-Sebastien Giguere got frustrated with his teammates as the season was going off the rails, publicly expressing concern about some players' commitment to the team (citing a season-end trip to Las Vegas as greater importance for some). That might not make him overly popular in the room, but he's played 575 NHL games, won a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy in different years, so he's got credibility as the senior citizen on this team. It also turns out that he's been a reliable goaltender for the Avs and is one of the better backup options in the league.

It hasn't been a smooth road for Semyon Varlamov, who played really well (1.74 GAA, .946 SV% in 16 GP) in the KHL during the lockout, but his play got progressively worse during the NHL season, leaving him with a career-worst .903 save percentage. Jonathan Quick and Ilya Bryzgalov were the only two other goaltenders to play at least 30 games and have an even-strength save percentage lower than Varlamov's .911 mark. Understandably, the Avalanche don't necessarily want to give up hope on 25-year-old Varlamov -- especially considering what's happened with former Avalanche goaltender Craig Anderson (or even Brian Elliott) in recent seasons -- but next season should be critical for Varlamov.

Should Varlamov struggle, the Avalanche may have an heir apparent in the organization. 21-year-old Calvin Pickard impressed in his first pro campaign and while there is no rush, if he plays well in the AHL next season, Pickard could emerge as an alternative if Varlamov doesn't perform better.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Duncan Siemens D Saskatoon (WHL) 3-29-32, +31, 70 GP
Calvin Pickard G Lake Erie (AHL) 20-19-5, 2.47 GAA, .918 SV%, 47 GP
Michael Sgarbossa C Lake Erie (AHL) 19-25-44, -11, 57 GP
Joey Hishon C Lake Erie (AHL) 1-5-6, +1, 9 GP
Mitchell Heard C/LW Lake Erie (AHL) 1-3-4, -5, 23 GP
Garrett Meurs C Plymouth (OHL) 32-33-65, +18, 68 GP
Andrew Agozzino LW Lake Erie (AHL) 20-32-52, +16, 76 GP
Sami Aittokallio G Lake Erie (AHL) 14-12-1, 3.00 GAA, .899 SV%, 27 GP
Colin Smith C Kamloops (WHL) 41-65-106, +33, 72 GP
Kieran Millan G Denver (CHL) 20-14-1, 2.60 GAA, .923 SV%, 35 GP

The 11th overall pick in 2011, Duncan Siemens is a tough defensive defenceman. He'll only be 20-years-old by the start of next season and the Avalanche have plenty of defencemen under contract already, so he can get some seasoning in the AHL where he can be groomed for a shutdown role when he arrives in the NHL.

Calvin Pickard was a second-round pick in 2010, and the 21-year-old has good size and a lot of experience. Between the WHL and AHL, Pickard has played 290 games over the past five seasons, so a starter's workload won't faze him. How soon will he be ready for his shot in the NHL?

Acquired in a trade from San Jose, Michael Sgarbossa made a nice transition in his first pro season, earning a six-game trial with the Avalanche. The 21-year-old could use another year in the AHL to round out his game and improve consistency, but he may not be too far off from contributing in the NHL.

Drafted 17th overall in 2010, Hishon suffered a concussion at the 2011 Memorial Cup and it kept him out of the lineup for the entire 2011-2012 season and all but nine games late in the 2012-2013 season. But, he's finally healthy and playing, ready to make up for lost time. He's a savvy playmaker who, ideally, could fill an offensive role at the next level.

A checking forward with size and toughness, Mitchell Heard was a second-round pick last summer and split the 2012-2013 season between the AHL and OHL and he wasted no time dropping the gloves in the AHL, trying to earn respect. His toughness may be the 21-year-old's calling card, but how he develops the rest of his skills will determine his ceiling as a pro.

A fifth-round pick in 2011, Garrett Meurs has impressed with his energy and work ethic. As he matures, and gets stronger, he'll have a chance to make the league as a checker, with perhaps a little offensive upside to boot.

Undrafted out of the OHL, Andrew Agozzino was the leading scorer for AHL affiliate Lake Erie, proving that he could be a productive pro and earning a contract from the Avalanche. He'll likely be in the AHL again next year but, if he's productive, the 22-year-old will be poised for recall.

Finnish goaltender Sami Aittokallio was a fourth-round pick in 2010, and the 20-year-old came to North America to play in Lake Erie last season. He's decidedly behind Pickard on the goaltending depth chart but with a couple of years to develop, Aittokallio could be a candidate for an NHL job too.

A seventh-round pick last summer, Colin Smith is on the small side, but his 106-point season in the WHL makes him an intriguing prospect. If he can get stronger as he develops in the AHL, Smith could turn out to be nice late-round addition.

Kieran Millan had a strong career at Boston University, but the Avalanche had four rookie pro goaltenders last season, so Millan ended up with Denver in the Central Hockey League. Millan can't stay at that level and develop for the NHL, but he performed all right; enough to keep hopes up for another season.

Paul Carey, who will be 25 by next season, and Troy Bourke, a third-rounder last summer, might also warrant consideration.

DRAFT
1st - Seth Jones, Nate MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Avalanche have approximately $55.2M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 21 players.

Check out my possible Avalanche lineup (without Stastny) for next season on Cap Geek here.

Check out my possible Avalanche lineup (with Stastny) for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: One top pair defenceman, depth forwards, starting goaltender.

What I said the Avalanche needed last year: Two top nine forwards, one top pair defenceman, another defenceman.

They added: PA Parenteau, John Mitchell, Patrick Bordeleau, Tyson Barrie, Greg Zanon.

TRADE MARKET
Paul Stastny, David Jones, Stefan Elliott, Matt Hunwick, Shane O'Brien, Greg Zanon, Semyon Varlamov.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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