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Colorado Avalanche facing potential franchise-changing summer

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May 23, 2016

 

Written by: Brandon Schneider

On April 9, before the final game of the 2015-16 Colorado Avalanche regular season was held, Executive Vice President and General Manager Joe Sakic held a press conference to discuss the team’s performance during the season. The message Sakic conveyed that day was this: there will be changes. However, despite the wishes from some of the fan base, not among those changes is the firing of Head Coach Patrick Roy, who Sakic firmly stated would be back.

“Yes he will,” he said.

“We’re in this thing together.  We’re all learning.  He’s got the passion, he’s a winner, he wants to win. The players know exactly what he wants. You don’t always look at the coach. For us right now, we have to look and see if the players are going to buy into what it takes to win.”

So, after another disappointing season which saw the Avalanche miss the playoffs for the second time while also attaining fewer points than the season before for the third year in a row, what is the solution? Sakic expressed disappointment in the team’s overall season performance, noting that the team left many points on the board all season long; however he also openly called into question the core of the team—mainly if the players they’ve identified as the “core” want to learn how to win.

With Sakic publicly stating that about the core, coupled with Roy’s comments throughout the season about the core needing to be the players who lead the team, it’s entirely fair to wonder just who is “safe”. Are the Avalanche a team that is built just to make the playoffs, or are they built to make the playoffs and do some damage?

Avalanche fans will remember earlier in the season, rumors that popular forward Matt Duchene might be available. This was just before the big road trip in November when the Avs struggled at the onset of the season to a 4-9-1 record before departing on a season-long 7 game road trip that began in Philadelphia. Adrian Dater had tweeted that the pending road trip would “determine everything” and that if it went well, it was likely nothing happens, but if it went poorly then there would be changes. That was on November 9.  On November 12, Darren Dreger of TSN had stated that Joe Sakic had reached out to the Ottawa Senators to gauge what they’d offer up in return for Matt Duchene.

Right there was the first sign that the Avalanche would consider trading core members of the team. Now, ultimately nothing came from that phone call, and the Avalanche used that road trip as a means to begin turning their season around and getting themselves back in the playoff picture (where they stayed up until they were officially eliminated with 2 games remaining).

If the Avalanche were to seriously consider trading Matt Duchene, they would have to do so with the mindset that it is very likely to alienate some of the fan base, so it would have to be a trade that would not require a lot of “selling” to the fan base. They love Matt Duchene, and by all accounts, he seems to love playing for them while wearing the Burgundy & Blue.  However, those same fans should not be so quick to discount the pro’s that could result in a Matt Duchene trade.

When you look at how current Cup-contending teams are constructed, more often than not you will find that one of the Top-2 Centers are of the “bigger bodied 2-way” type. With Nathan MacKinnon likely viewed as the #1 Center for the Avalanche, having Duchene as a #2 isn’t bad by any means, but could they make an effort to be better balanced? That’s the real question. If the Avalanche were to seriously explore a Matt Duchene trade, it would be in their best interest to seek a defenseman, and not just a “Top-4 Defenseman”; go out there and get a guy that you can put on your top pairing and will be with the team for the next several years.

Not long after the season there was talk coming from Bob Stauffer that perhaps a Matt Duchene-for-Justin Faulk trade could make sense. Carolina has their own question marks on the offensive side of the game, and they do have an abundance of under-25 defenseman (Faulk, Hanifin, Slavin, Pesce) that they could offer up to shore up their own holes. If there’s even the possibility of acquiring Justin Faulk for Matt Duchene, then the Avalanche should absolutely be making it happen.

Now, Dater had also mentioned Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog as another possible trade candidate, and while I do not believe anyone on the team, aside from Nathan MacKinnon and Erik Johnson are “safe” (and with Johnson it would be more because he just signed his new contract and more than likely has more value to the Avalanche than he would in a trade), it seems the talk on him cooled towards the end of the season when Roy made it a point to specifically mention Landeskog’s leadership qualities and their importance to the team.

I know there are members of the Avalanche fan base who believe he should be traded, but as it stands right now, he is also someone that likely has more value to the Avalanche than he would in a trade. Landeskog has also been exceptionally consistent, offensively speaking, since coming into the league. With the exception of the lockout-shortened season, he’s been a 50+ point player (with a career year of 65 points in 2013-14) and has scored 20+ goals in each of his seasons (again, save for the lockout-shortened year). While I believe he would have definite value in a trade, it’s just more likely he would return a “futures package” as opposed to more of a “hockey trade” where each team in the trade gets an NHL-caliber player (an example being the Ryan Johansen-for-Seth Jones trade).

Tyson Barrie has more recently found his name in the trade rumor mill, courtesy of Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet. On Friday May 13, while appearing on 630 CHED in Edmonton, Friedman got to talking about Barrie and had this to say:

“You know what, I do think Tyson Barrie is going to go. I did a game there where Montreal was in Denver. Don Meehan was there at the time with Craig Oster. They’re the Newport guys who handle Barrie. I just got the impression from everybody involved that they weren’t really even in the same ballpark. Knowing the way they finished their year, I’ve got to think it’s very likely he moves on.”

The prospect of trading Barrie is something that many Avs fans have serious reservations about, and for good reason. On top of that, if the Avalanche trade him solely because of (another) contract dispute with a Newport client, it won’t quiet those members of the fan base who wonder just what is going on at the Pepsi Center.

Barrie is looking more and more like a premier offensive-defenseman in the NHL. He amassed 38 points in 64 games during the 2013-14 season (which works out to an estimated 48 points over the course of an entire 82 game season), followed that up with 53 points in 2014-15, and then 49 points in 2015-16 (despite missing 3 games due to a suspension). He’s definitely shown to be in rare company, as since his 2013-14 breakout season, he is 13th in total points scored amongst defenseman in the NHL. That places him ahead of the likes of Drew Doughty, Justin Faulk, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Ryan Suter, just to name a few.

Now, not to get ahead of ourselves, that doesn’t mean he’s better overall than those defenseman, because those ones mentioned also bring other attributes to the table, but it does indicate Barrie has some definite trade value. A popular suggestion amongst some members of the Avalanche fan base is trading Barrie to Edmonton in a deal around the 4th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. It’s definitely a risk, but would be one the Avalanche might want to look in to, provided they have a plan in place to have someone other than Nick Holden taking up Barrie’s minutes.

The last thing the Avalanche really should be doing is trading away a piece like Barrie and not having a plan as to who, other than Holden, to take his playing time. Sakic has already indicated that Chris Bigras and Nikita Zadorov will be up in the NHL next season, but they’ll still need someone else in the Top-4. If the Avalanche could swing a deal with Edmonton around Tyson Barrie for the 4th Overall pick and Nail Yakupov, and bring in someone like a Jason Demers, then it would be something they should really look at. Not only could they bring in potential top-6 help with Yakupov, but they also get the 4th overall selection (possibly forward Pierre-Luc Dubois?) to go along with their 10th overall selection (possibly defenseman Mikhail Sergachev?) to help stock a pipeline that is in desperate need of quality talent.

While it’s no sure thing the Avalanche look to trade any of Duchene, Landeskog, or Barrie, but if they are looking to change up the core of the team, who else would be left? If I were a betting man, I’d look very strongly at Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov no doubt was the team’s MVP during the magical 2013-14 run that saw them win the Central Division with 112 points. The last two seasons though, have seen some up-and-down play from the exceptionally talented goaltender.  His save percentage went from .927 during the 13-14 season, to .921 during the 14-15 season, down to .914 this past season. His goals against average also went up going from 2.41, to 2.56, to 2.81.

The emergence of Calvin Pickard has perhaps provided the Avalanche with the option of trading Varlamov. There’s no doubt that the team would also enjoy the cap savings from the trade—perhaps in their pursuit of Alex Radulov, or reinvesting the money in other areas that need addressed. However, just like with the possibility of trading Matt Duchene, trading Varlamov would also be a gamble. The Avalanche would have to assess whether or not they believe they could be a better team going with Pickard + trade return for Varlamov + cap space reinvested into other areas of need + new backup goalie (with Reto Berra as a possibility or going into UFA pool), as opposed to going with a goalie tandem of Varlamov + Pickard.

There’s one team that looks like they’ll be poised to make a run at Varlamov, should the Avalanche decide to trade him—the Calgary Flames. The Avalanche and Flames are no strangers to trading with one another as the two teams have gotten together for many trades over the years. The Flames have a pressing need in goal and could decide to pay to get it filled so that they don’t waste some of the prime years of Sean Monahan, Jonny Gaudreau, TJ Brodie, and Mark Giordano.

Now, I expect members of the Calgary Flames fan base to not like the proposal, but if the Avalanche were to trade Varlamov, I’d be asking for Sam Bennett in exchange. Bennett would be a player that if he continues to develop as he is, he would be an excellent two-way center, and someone who would thrive in the playoffs. Even if Matt Duchene is still with the Avalanche, I would place Bennett on the 2nd line as the Center and move Duchene to the wing (where he showed some offensive flourish this past season).  It’s a move that makes the team more balanced for competing in the playoffs.

We don’t know yet what Sakic plans to do with his Avalanche team, but one thing is for certain:  the GM has said there will be changes, so Avalanche fans need to prepare for the possibility of a trade (or two) involving a popular core member of the team happening this off-season. With the right moves, the Avalanche can be in a position to not just be a playoff bubble team, but a team that can be better prepared to take on the rigors of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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