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The NHL’s off-season moves at a breakneck pace with the Stanley Cup being awarded one week, the NHL Draft happening the next, and then free agency setting teams up for next season the week after that. With Chicago having won yet another Stanley Cup and the NHL Draft completed last weekend, it means it’s time for free agency to start.
As the Colorado Avalanche approach free agency, their roster looks quite a bit different than it did last week. The trade of Ryan O’Reilly and addition of forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and Carl Soderberg changes the dynamic of the forwards as the slight tilt towards offense has left the team needing a classic defensive stopper. Currently, the team has nobody to fill whole left by O’Reilly’s departure to take the tough defensive assignments he handled so well.
While the Avs could target some of the more high profile forwards as they look to replace Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay long-term, the expectation is if the Avs target a forward it will be a third line player who provides the team additional depth to guard against the possibility of injuries decimating the lineup like they did last year.
The post-O’Reilly Avs have just under $17 million in salary cap space to play with and could absolutely pursue a higher profile forward if they so choose. Let’s take a look at the players who might be the best fits for the Avalanche.
1. Eric Fehr, Center
Not a prolific point-producer, Fehr is a player who takes tough assignments for the Washington Capitals and plays a great defensive game while still managing to chip in a healthy number of points. The kind of big forward Head Coach Patrick Roy loves, Fehr would be an immediate plug-and-play center for the Avalanche on their third line, giving them the kind of lineup flexibility that top teams have.
Fehr isn’t a dominant player by any means but considering his usage by the Caps last year, his numbers show that he’s a third line player capable of producing at second line rates. His HERO chart shows this in a neat package and while some of his scoring rates are the result of some inflated shooting percentages, the bottom line is Fehr scored 33 points while starting just 43.9% of his shifts in the offensive zone, an impressive number for a player who only averaged 13:16 of even strength time on ice.
While Fehr wasn’t one of Washington’s main penalty killers, he still averaged over 1 minute of short-handed time on ice per game and would without a doubt be an upgrade over the Marc-Andre Cliche/Cody McLeod forward combination that Roy was so fond of last season. Fehr would also help take some of the minutes left by O’Reilly, who was Colorado’s third most used forward on the penalty kill last season (second after Max Talbot was traded to Boston).
While he cost the Caps just a $1.5M cap hit last season, it’s likely the 29-year old is seeking something more substantial. With a shade under $17 million in cap space, Colorado could afford to overpay Fehr just a bit to acquire his services over the next couple of years. Of all the forwards on the market, he’s the best fit for what Colorado likes, needs, and can afford.
2. Joel Ward, Right Wing
While nowhere near the perfect set-and-forget fit that Fehr is, Joel Ward is an intriguing player in his own right. A productive player who would be a third line winger in Colorado, Ward is likely looking to either match or exceed his previous contract, which saw him making $3 million a year spread across four years. Already 34, Ward might have a tough time matching the term but should find that money from a team who is set in their top 6 but desperately needs quality depth players.
One of those teams that matches up well is Colorado, who has struggled to ice quality right wingers for years. Ward certainly fits the bill and is the kind of big body that Roy is looking for from his forward corps. He plays a heavy style and throws his body around more effectively than often and was a key component to Washington’s primary shutdown line last year as he and Brooks Laich consistently faced the toughest opposition. While he didn’t dominate in that role, he played it well enough to believe he could thrive in a similar role in Denver.
Ward, like Fehr, is also very quietly capable of putting up a solid 30-40 points in such a limited role. He also was 4th among Caps forwards in short-handed time on ice and could help fill the O’Reilly void while also pushing down Cliche and McLeod the lineup.
Ward also has the history of succeeding in the postseason as he’s a .66 points-per-game player in the playoffs, up from the .42 PPG he scores during the regular season. A throwback “gamer” who elevates his game come playoffs is sure to be a guy Patrick Roy loves. He may not be a slam dunk perfect fit like Fehr is but he still profiles as a potentially very useful player in Colorado.
3. Shawn Matthias, Center
One of the more interesting names on the market that fans have latched themselves on to is Shawn Matthias, center for the Vancouver Canucks. He scored an impressive 18 goals this past season but did so on 13.6% shooting, a number sustainable only by the best of the best.
His appeal to Colorado may lie in the combination of his age and size as 27-year old centers who are 6’4″ and 220 pounds aren’t exactly common and Roy’s preference for size may be the driving force if this does become a July 1 match. When you dig into some of the underlying numbers on Matthias, though, the appeal starts to drop pretty quickly.
Unlike Fehr and Ward above, Matthias doesn’t have anything better than the 27-point season he just put up this past season so you’re not likely getting a guy who is going to give a lot more than he has, especially if his career-high in points was largely driven by a shooting percentage that he’s unlikely to repeat.
Matthias also didn’t play particularly tough minutes in Vancouver and he didn’t crush the minutes he did play, either. Beyond being big, not old, and having a high shooting percentage, I’m struggling to be convinced he’s a significant improvement over what the Avs already have.
If he were to come to Denver, it would make far more sense for him to be given a shorter deal, say two years, and not have the money exceed $2 million. Does that make sense for Matthias? Probably not but with Colorado’s system boasting approximately 3458751 young centers Matthias on a longer deal would only serve as a road block rather than a legitimate upgrade.
4. Viktor Tikhonov, Center/Right Wing
The ultimate darkhorse pick, Viktor Tikhonov is a player who could have potentially ruled the Avalanche out (if they’re even pursuing him in the first place) by the time this post publishes but he’s a player with very little noise about him who could be a great fit for the Avalanche.
A former first round pick who has been playing in the KHL the last couple of years, the 27-year old Tikhonov has the kind of position versatility that would make him a great fit in Colorado’s forward corps. He’s an equally effective right wing or center and his point production in Russia suggests he’s not a guy who is going to demand top line minutes.
He’s also a very strong defensive player, making him a very intriguing swiss army knife type of player. Were the Avs to experience a rash of forward injuries like last season, Tikhonov could play in the top 6 reasonably well or he could remain in the bottom 6 and slide between right wing and center to fill vacated positions.
Previously, I never would have imagined Tikhonov would be a target for Colorado but their recent foray into Europe for both free agents and draft picks show the stark change in direction since Roy and Joe Sakic took control of the front office. Speaking of draft picks, the Avs had an up close look at Tikhonov while scouting their eventual 4th round pick Andrei Mironov as Tikhonov’s SKA team toppled Mironov’s Dynamo team 4 games to 1 in the conference finals.
In terms of contract demands, I’ve not seen anything that suggests the kind of money he is looking for but given Colorado’s abundance of cap space, he could be easily slotted in to fit the team’s salary structure without crippling them and his versatility would make him a very valuable player.