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Off-Season Game Plan: Avalanche

Scott Cullen
6/10/2008 10:34:42 AM
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A resurgent Avalanche team, digging into the past for their stretch run, made it to the second round of the NHL playoffs before they were sent packing by the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at an Avalanche team in transition that could have massive turnover this summer.

Now that Tony Granato is returning behind the bench, it's up to general manager Francois Giguere to figure out which players Granato will have at his disposal.

The first order of business, in importance if not chronologically, is figuring out whether or not 38-year-old Joe Sakic is inclined to return following a season in which he played a career-low 44 games and had a career-low 40 points.

"I'll be the first one cheering," Giguere told the Rocky Mountain News about the possibility of Sakic returning. "Joe needs to take some time and see if that's the right thing for him and his family. He's been a great captain, a great ambassador for this organization and for this community."

As part of last year's turn-back-the-clock effort, the Avalanche also brought in Peter Forsberg and, while he had flashes of brilliance, his ever-present injury issues have to put his future in question.

"It's been a tough couple of years, not being at my best," Forsberg told reporters at season's end, while indicating that he didn't anticipate playing anywhere but Colorado. "I've got a couple months here to think about things more and we'll see from there."

The decisions of Sakic and Forsberg will have a huge impact on the direction of the franchise. If they return, the Avs have the kind of veteran team that has to play for an immediate shot at the title. If not, it's time to turn the page and give the prospects a more significant role.

No matter which direction the Avs go, Giguere is going to be busy with so many free agents to address.

"Our first priority will be to take care of our own people, and then we'll see what's available through free agency," Giguere told the Denver Post.

GM/COACH
Francois Giguere/Tony Granato

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Salary
Paul Stastny 77.92 $710K
Milan Hejduk 73.35 $4.0M
Ryan Smyth 71.95 $7.25M
Tyler Arnason 67.05 $1.75M
T.J. Hensick 64.26 $685K
Ben Guite 61.42 $475K
Ian Laperriere 59.62 $1.15M
David Jones 58.72 $550K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '07-'08 Salary
Joe Sakic 76.46 UFA $6.75M
Peter Forsberg 76.16 UFA $5.0M
Marek Svatos 74.66 RFA $1.2M
Wojtek Wolski 72.58 RFA $860K
Andrew Brunette 72.33 UFA $1.6M
Jaroslav Hlinka 62.77 UFA $600K
Brad Richardson 59.59 RFA $600K
Cody McCormick 59.30 UFA $475K
Cody McLeod 58.94 RFA $490K
Scott Parker 53.08 UFA $475K

Top Prospects: Chris Stewart, Denis Parshin, T.J. Galiardi

Paul Stastny picked up from his excellent rookie season and was even better in his second year, though a series of injuries (appendicitis, groin and knee) affected him at various points. Nevertheless, the 22-year-old is a rising star with top-shelf instincts.

Veteran sniper Milan Hejduk saw his production dip, but 29 goals and 54 points isn't all that bad. Now 32, the question is whether this could be the beginning of a slide that will continue as he heads towards his mid-30s.

A prized free agent signing last summer, Ryan Smyth ran into a number of injuries, with his 55 games played being the lowest in his career since he was a 19-year-old rookie in 1995-1996.

Though Tyler Arnason's 31 points represented a career-low, he provides solid depth down the middle and doesn't get as much quality ice when he's behind Stastny and Sakic.

Further depth down the middle came in the form of T.J. Hensick. A collegiate star at Michigan, Hensick dazzled in the pre-season before getting sent back to the AHL for seasoning. He made several appearances with the Avalanche and got better as time went on. If there is an exodus of veterans, Hensick is among those who will compete for a more significant role next season.

Ben Guite emerged as a reliable fourth-line centre who kills penalties and has the combination of size and speed to effectively pressure the opposition but he's overachieved to have even reached this point.

One of the league's biggest character players, Ian Laperriere peaked with 21 goals and 45 points a couple of years ago, but the 34-year-old is back to a marginal role.

David Jones is a big, strong winger who had a solid first pro season, split between Lake Erie and Colorado, showing enough responsibility to play in a checking role, but also showing enough offensive upside to think that a 20 goal season isn't out of the question for his future.

Marek Svatos had a bounceback season, showing the kind of scoring touch that is a hallmark of his game, yet he also showed the propensity for injury that, going back to junior, has only once seen him top 66 games in a season. Assuming he recovers from his torn ACL, Svatos should be a big part of the Avalanche offence.

Wojtek Wolski also figures to be a big part of Colorado's future, but his production dipped slightly in his second season as he went through a long midseason drought, scoring just a single goal in one 25-game span.

Despite spending more time in the AHL than at any time in his career, Brad Richardson was productive at that level (scoring 40 points in 38 games), giving an indication that the 23-year-old has the stuff to stick in the NHL if given the chance.

Scrappy winger Cody McLeod battled his way to the NHL and filled a niche role effectively when he arrived. Presumably, he'll be part of the fourth-line plans again next season.

Colorado's needs will depend almost entirely on the futures of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. The two future Hall of Famers could come back and the Avs would be loaded for bear up front. Without them, the Avs still have enough to form a respectable attack, but could use at least a couple of proven forwards to ease the pain.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Salary
Brett Clark 72.80 $3.5M
Ruslan Salei 70.90 $3.025K
Jordan Leopold 68.31 $1.5M
Scott Hannan 64.71 $4.5M
Kyle Cumiskey 60.98 $475K

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '07-'08 Salary
John-Michael Liles 72.58 UFA $725K
Jeff Finger 70.69 UFA $475K
Kurt Sauer 65.45 UFA $719K
Adam Foote 64.41 UFA $1.5M

Top Prospects: Kevin Shattenkirk, Nigel Williams, Colby Cohen

Brett Clark remains underrated in many respects, even though he plays more than 23 minutes per game, and his injury late in the season was critical to Colorado's playoff elimination. He gets by on smarts and savvy and should be solidly in the top four, if not top pair.

Another easy to overlook blueliner is Ruslan Salei. A physical defenceman who can handle the puck, Salei can be used in all situations and he's very durable, having played 82 games in four of the past six seasons.

On the other hand, Jordan Leopold has been incredibly unlucky since arriving in Colorado, playing only 58 games in two seasons. When healthy, Leopold is decent at both ends and can play in a top-four role, but it's difficult to count on him being healthy given his recent run of injuries.

Last summer's big free agent signing on the blueline, Scott Hannan is a durable workhorse who played 75 games or more in seven straight seasons and handled better than 22 minutes per game, but his minus-5 rating was the worst mark of his career.

Smooth-skating Kyle Cumiskey has shown bits of promise in his 47 career games and, with the potential for several free agent losses along the blueline, there may be more of an opportunity for the 21-year-old to get into a regular role.

If the youth movement is in full effect, a prospect like Nigel Williams could also push for playing time.

With four possible unrestricted free agents, the Avalanche are facing some serious overhaul, even if they can get a couple of them re-signed. The needs for next season will depend on which of those free agents return, but the biggest need could end up being for a quality puck-moving defenceman if John-Michael Liles departs.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Salary
Peter Budaj 66.03 $800K

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '07-'08 Salary
Jose Theodore 70.90 UFA $6.0M

Top Prospect: Trevor Cann

Seemingly out of nowhere, Jose Theodore recaptured the form of a number one goaltender in January and, while not up to teh standard set during his Hart Trophy days, he re-energized a career that looked like it was spiralling downward. As one of the few capable starters on the free agent market, Theodore should attract interest, but it appears that the Avalanche are interested in bringing him back.

Peter Budaj lost the starting job last season, though his numbers weren't all that different to what they had been the season before. While not a premier starter, he's certainly capable if the Avalanche can't get Theodore re-signed or find an upgrade through trade.

DRAFT
No first-round pick

FREE AGENCY
The Avalanche have approximately $30-million committed to salaries for next season.

 

Needs: Two top nine forwards, two defencemen

What I said the Avalanche needed last year: Two top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender

Who did they add? Ryan Smyth, Jaroslav Hlinka, Scott Hannan

TRADE MARKET
Tyler Arnason, Peter Budaj

Scott Cullen can be reached at scullen@tsn.ca 




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