It’s time to prematurely prognosticate the NHL’s Northwest Division for 2011-12. I wanted to write this about as much as you want to read it, but if you bear with me, we should all come out on the other end a little bit smarter (and older).
Let’s take the title race off the table right now. There’s almost no combination of cosmic events that can lead to anything but a Vancouver Canucks division championship for the fourth straight year, and fifth in six seasons. And by saying “almost,” I’m accounting for the possibilities that war cancels the season, the Canucks’ plane crashes (sorry, that joke might never be acceptable), the Flames unite the deathly hallows, or that professor Brian Cox and the rest of the scientific world has woefully underestimated the life span of the universe, and entropy maxes out around the time of the all-star break, leaving the universe as a silent nothingness with no life or hockey arenas in which to finish the season. Of course, this last possibility wouldn’t really keep the Canucks from the division title anyway, since they should have the division locked up by the all-star break.
But each of the other four spots in the Northwest appear to be up for grabs, so let’s do what we do and take an early look at why things should shake out a certain way.
1st: Vancouver Canucks 2010-11: 117 points, 1st in conference
The only way the Canucks fail to win this division, outside of those examples listed above, is if they suffer a combination of injuries and a general emotional malaise that can follow a person or group of people when they work so hard and get so close to their goal, only to see it ripped away from them at the last minute. Vancouver didn’t lose the Stanley Cup in the last minute, but they did go into both Games 6 and 7 with the opportunity to hoist and parade for the first time in franchise history, only to lay two eggs and get comprehensively beaten by Boston. Even if there is a hang over, I still think the Canucks can be counted on to win this division and contend for the top seed in the conference.
The only real loss of consequence in the offseason was defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to Buffalo. The Canucks knew they couldn’t keep both Ehrhoff and Kevin Bieksa, and the franchise chose the guy that fit what they wanted their identity to be. Of course, they wouldn’t necessarily have had to choose one over the other if they weren’t on the hook for four more years with Keith Ballard, but we all make mistakes.
Even without Ehrhoff this year, the defense should be pretty good. Bieksa returns along with Dan Hamhuis, who was very noticeably absent from the Finals in June. Vancouver convinced Sami Salo to re-sign for another year, and the team also Alex Edler to play top-four minutes. Andrew Alberts, Aaron Rome and Chris Tanev are all back for the Canucks as well, which means that coach V has seven options before he even has to think about playing Ballard, the $4.2 million man. Losing Ehrhoff hurts, but if Edler, Alberts, Rome and Tanev are able to step their games up, they can fill the hole. Salo probably isn’t getting any better at his age, but he still can help the offensive side of the game, something that will need to be done after the loss of Ehrhoff.
Vancouver should have nothing to worry about in net. Everyone wants to pile on Roberto Luongo, and I admit that I’ve made fun of him and his mental makeup in the past, but the guy was a Vezina finalist on the backs of some really great numbers and he also backed it up in the playoffs by winning Game 7 against Chicago when few people thought the Canucks could stop their slide, and then scoring two 1-0 shutouts in the Finals in that losing effort against Boston. Sure, Luongo didn’t do enough in the four losses, but the Canucks scored a combined three goals in those four games. Two of those goals came in Game 6, which left two Canuck losses as shutouts. You can’t blame Luongo for losing games in which Vancouver scored zero goals.
As far as a tandem goes, Luongo said himself that he and Cory Schneider were the best tandem in the league, and it might be hard to argue against that point if it’s something that the two of them truly believe. Schneider must be chomping at the bit to become an NHL starter, but as long as the two of them can coexist and put team ahead of ego, they should be lights out again this year. The real question will be whether Vancouver keeps Schneider on the roster through the trade deadline. He is in the final year of his contract, but will only be a restricted free agent next summer, which pretty much means the Canucks will have the option as to whether or not Schneider stays on. If the Canucks somehow tank this year, then that could justify a Schneider trade, as having the great tandem only helps if you’re going to win the title, although you’d have to think a tanked season would mean little or no confidence in Luongo moving forward.
It should be noted that the Canucks also have goalie Eddie Lack in the fold, who they (and a lot of hockey people) are crazy about. He’s 6’5” tall, 23 years old, and had a great year in the AHL last year. After going undrafted in 2009, Lack spent the ’09-10 season backing up Florida Panthers’ uber-prospect and fellow Swede Jacob Markstrom with Brynas IF. Lack is also entering the final year of his entry-level deal, and like Schneider, is set to become RFA next summer. Vancouver has some decisions to make, but it must be nice being in a position to have to make them. Just ask Washington GM George McPhee (also a former BG Falcon).
Offensively, the Canucks will be fine again. The Sedin twins regularly lead the league in stuff (yes, that’s the scientific term). Last year, Daniel and Henrik placed first and fourth in overall point totals in the NHL. The year before, Henrik led the league and Daniel was on pace to tie Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin for second with 109 points, but Daniel’s season was interrupted due to injury and he only played 63 games (and still finished 11th in points). In 2010, Henrik won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Last year, Daniel won the Ted Lindsay Award (formerly Lester B. Pearson Award) as the MVP of the league as voted by the players. There’s not a whole lot to talk about with these guys. Haters say they’re soft, that they don’t rise to the occasion, etc. The Sedins are great hockey players, and without them the Canucks would be a team lost in the middle (and I mean middle, not just the annual 3 seed that loses in the second round, which somehow people have adopted to mean “middle”). In fact, without the Sedins, the Canucks would look and play a lot like the Minnesota Wild.
After the Sedins, Vancouver will rely on a couple of their scorers to return well from playoff injuries. Ryan Kesler was a shadow of his normal self after tearing his labrum in the final game against San Jose in the conference finals. He had no goals in the Finals, after scoring 41 in the regular season. Mikael Samuelsson is also coming back from injury, as he had sports hernia surgery following his unfortunate fall in Game 5 against Nashville. Samuelsson is best known for winning the 2008 Stanley Cup with Detroit, and also giving one of the greatest quotes of all-time in the lead up to the 2010 Olympics regarding being left off of Team Sweden’s roster. Samuelsson told the Canadian press just days after Christmas ’09, “I pretty much have one comment and maybe I’ll regret it. But they can go fuck themselves. That’s what I really think.” Brilliant.
The Canucks also must wait on winger Mason Raymond, who went ass first into the boards and fractured a vertebrae. Bruin defenseman Johnny Boychuk was on the giving end of the hit, although it looked more like a freak play given Raymond’s body positioning than a malicious play on Boychuk’s part.
Vancouver still has Alex Burrows, who scored timely goals, bit fingers and is responsible for the most-read post on this blog. On the bottom lines should be Manny Malhotra and Maxim Lapierre at center, and Jannik Hansen, Victor Oreskovich, Marco Sturm and Chris Higgins at wings. Raymond’s injury leaves one spot available, which could go to a number of players, including those who normally play center since Vancouver is set with their four in Henrik, Kesler, Lapierre and Malhotra.
All in all, too much firepower and not enough contention from the other four teams. Vancouver is the team in the Northwest that has the best combination of talent and maturity. Calgary may be very mature, and Edmonton appears to be extremely talented, but no team in the division can match the combination that Vancouver has right now.
2nd: Calgary Flames 2010-11: 94 points, 2nd in division
At first I thought picking Calgary to finish second in this division was an emotional response, but then I really looked at the other three teams behind them and it makes sense. I used the word “vomit” countless times early last season to describe the Flames’ skaters to my brother, and the twelve-and-six did very little to disprove my evaluation. But the team stepped its game up late in the season, and even saved face with a 10th place finish in the west (only 3 points behind 8th-place Chicago). I wanted to take Calgary second because I love Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, as well as the scene that is the Red Mile, but really this pick is justified by the lack of readiness of Edmonton and Colorado, as well as my perceived lack of improvement from Minnesota.
Despite the Flames suspect offense, the team has been able to depend on one man as much as any team can depend on any one player. Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff turned in another time card that saw a laughable amount of overtime. What’s funny is that while Kipper’s 71 starts were third in the NHL, that number was actually his fewest number of games since the lockout ended in 2005. Kiprusoff’s peripherals suffered a little bit last season, but he trended upward along with the results of the team. It has appeared for a while now that as Kip goes, so go the Flames. The only problem with this situation is that Kiprusoff will turn 35 early in the season. The positive is that he’s been a great bounce back goalie, and that’s what he’ll need to do from the outset in order to give the Flames a shot at a playoff spot. Henrik Karlsson is back as Kiprusoff’s backup, and provides some stability given his lack of playing time.
At forward, the Flames still look pretty limited. Iginla is a pure stud at right wing, but after him the list of Calgary’s forwards reads like a balance sheet from Enron. Six other forwards will count against the Flames for $3 million or more this year, five of them have some sort of no-trade clause, and none of them have really earned their money. Olli Jokinen tweeted this week that he’s really excited about the new season. Calgary fans may have tweeted back that they were really excited to trade him to the Rangers in 2010 and didn’t expect to see him back. In Jokinen’s defense, he’s a very talented player who appears to be upset at his lack of recent production, and so there’s at least hope for his resurgence. Alex Tanguay was solid last year, coming in second in team scoring ahead of Jokinen and behind Iginla. Calgary’s second line could consist of Curtis Glencross, Rene Bourque and Brendan Morrison. Daymond Langkow should also be back for the Flames after suffering a scary injury (puck to back of neck). He finally made it back on April Fools’ Day this year, and as far as I know is ready to continue playing after beating his “50/50 odds” of ever playing again.
The Flames also have forwards like Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman and other various players that look like they were born to play foot hockey on a cement rink. For a while these two were putting up actual numbers for Toronto, but I watched them play and their point totals didn’t make sense. Last year may have been more of the norm, as they went for 31 and 27 points, respectively. I must give a shout-out to Hagman, however, for scoring a huge $210 goal for me in the third period of a scoreless 2010 Olympic game against the Czech Republic while playing for his native Finland. Like most of Hagman’s goals, this one didn’t make sense, but I loved it.
Calgary’s blue line has never been the same since trading away Dion Phaneuf in one of the worst trades since the Lindros deal. The Flames sent Phaneuf, Keith Aulie and Fredrik Sjostrom to Toronto in exchange for Stajan, Hagman, Ian White and Jamal Mayers (only Stajan and Hagman remain from the deal). That was a bad one, but it was predicated upon the Flames’ belief that Jay Bouwmeester was interchangeable with Phaneuf. That belief was based on JayBo’s huge size and gifted hands and feet, but it didn’t take into account what many describe as a lack of passion to get to the top. I’m not going to criticize an NHL player’s desire, as it must always be tough to get to The Show. But Bouwmeester is almost 28 years old now, and it’s time to take the training wheels off. Most analysts think it’s a lost cause, and they’re probably right, but the Flames absolutely need Bouwmeester to figure out whatever it is that’s holding him back and just go out and play every game like it’s his last.
Aside from Bouwmeester, who at least gives the Flames 26 minutes of ice time a night, Calgary has a real stud in Mark Giordano. The idea of a grown Giordano playing with Phaneuf must give Flames fans a real case of conflicted emotions. But it wasn’t to be. The next defenseman on Calgary’s depth chart has to be Anton Babchuk, who the Flames re-signed in the offseason. The fourth spot is unclear to me, as it should probably be Cory Sarich based on both production and salary ($3.6 million this year). The Flames want to get T.J. Brodie up, but he may spend another season headlining the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat. If Brodie does not make the Flames this year, that probably means that two of Chris Butler, Brett Carson and Brendan Mikkelson do (or all three, with one being the scratch).
3rd: Minnesota Wild 2010-11: 86 points, 3rd place
A new coach, a new leading scorer, and a new top defenseman all total up to… I’m not sure. I think third place is the safest prediction for the Wild this year, and I think it’s the spot in which they will actually finish.
Minnesota traded leading scorer Martin Havlat to San Jose for Dany Heatley, who should instantly replace Havlat as the Wild’s top scorer this season. If Heatley has a bad enough season to not lead the Wild in goals this season, third place may be a little out of Minnesota’s league.
The reason I don’t like Minnesota to make the playoffs this year is that I don’t feel they adequately replaced their departing players in a way that makes them four spots better in the west. Aside from losing Havlat, the Wild also lost Andrew Brunette, who should play a key role in Chicago’s attempt to win another Stanley Cup, and also Brent Burns, who skated a smooth 25:03 per game last year while tying for third on the team last year in points and fourth in goals despite being a defenseman. In fact, Brunette was third on the Wild with 18 goals, and Burns came in just behind with 17. Replacing that scoring will need to be not only Heatley, but also the other former Shark, Devin Setoguchi, who has scored 20 or more in all three of his full seasons in the NHL.
At top-line center is Mikko Koivu, who is a really solid player all the way around. He wins a lot of faceoffs, has good size and speed and creates many of the Wild’s chances. Koivu could be flanked by the two former Sharks, although Pierre-Marc Bouchard may get the call at top-line right wing ahead of Setoguchi. Matt Cullen is also likely to be a top-six center, although he and Kyle Brodziak had similar point totals last season despite Cullen’s 2:15 of extra play per game. It’s unclear who the final winger will be on the Wild’s top two lines, but the argument could be made for moving Bouchard to second-line LW, which would allow Setoguchi and Cal Clutterbuck to be the two RWs. Clutterbuck perennially leads the league in hits, but was also second on the Wild with 19 goals last season. He fits the mold of a third-line player, but given the Wild’s roster and Clutterbuck’s inarguable production, it’s probably worth it to move the tough guy up.
Also at forward for the Wild are Guillaume Latendresse, Eric Nystrom, Darroll Powe and others. Gone are right wings Chuck Kobasew and Antti Miettinen, as well as center John Madden. Madden has been a great penalty killer his whole career, while Miettinen appears to be a decent scorer to those who don’t actually watch him play. The guy has had to be benched for long stretches during his career for basically pulling a Keith Ballard. Miettinen will continue his career in the KHL. Nystrom is not only a former captain of the Michigan Wolverines (2004-05), but is also the son of legendary New York Islander Bob Nystrom, who won four Stanley Cups in the ‘80s with the club and also has his number 23 retired by the team. The elder Nystrom had nicknames that included “Mr. Islander” and “Thor.” The younger Nystrom and I shared words in a hallway in early 2005 regarding the antics of Nystrom’s Wolverine teammate T.J. Hensick, who is currently a member of the St. Louis Blues organization.
The loss of Burns appears to cripple Minnesota’s blue line, but they had to at least think they had something with the youngsters on the club. Playing top-four minutes will probably be Marek Zidlicki, Nick Schultz and Greg Zanon. The fourth D man to join them could be Clayton Stoner, although the Wild have a trio of up-and-comers who may be ready to take the next step in Marco Scandella, Justin Falk and Tyler Cuma. To add some depth, the Wild also signed 24 year-old Mike Lundin, who played 69 regular season games for the Lightning last year before skating in all 18 playoff games. The squad should be alright, but whether the Burns deal was a good one this year will depend on the success of the top three and the progress of the young three.
In net, starter Niklas Backstrom will resume his regular duties, but without the backing up of Jose Theodore, who now looks like the starter in Florida. It is assumed that Josh Harding will once again be the Wild’s second stringer after missing the entire 2010-11 season with ACL and MCL tears in his right knee. Harding showed promise in 2008-09 before taking a step back the following year, which of course was followed by the injury that brings us to today. Expect Backstrom to go 65+ games if he can, although he’s only been able to top 60 games once in his career (2008-09).
4th: Edmonton Oilers 2010-11: 62 points, last in NHL
I don’t expect the Oilers to kill it right out of the gates this year, but by the end of the season I trust their 82-game body of work more than Colorado’s. Edmonton looks like one of the most talented teams in the league. Unfortunately, they’re not competing in the under-20 world championships against similarly-aged teams.
There are a lot of questions surrounding the Oilers this year, but one I’m interested to follow is whether this is the year the team finally anoints Devan Dubnyk as the starting goalie. The 6’6” native of Regina, Saskatchewan is now 25 years old, and outperformed starter Nikolai Khabibulin last season anyway. The Bulin Wall went 10-32-4 last year with a 3.40 GAA and .890 save percentage. Those numbers are amongst the worst of the modern era (since players stopped putting up ridiculous 2+ points-per-game figures fifteen years ago). Dubnyk, by contrast, sported a 12-13-8 record for the worst team in hockey. He had a much leaner by comparison 2.71 GAA and .916 save %. Those numbers were good for 29th and 17th in the league, which isn’t that bad when we remember that the guys in front of Dubnyk simply did not constitute an NHL squad last year.
But aside from the fact that Dubnyk probably gives the Oilers a better chance to win games now anyway, I think there’s another element at play that demands the ascension of the younger goalie. People often cite team chemistry as an important factor in winning, and can often look at a core of players that grew together as a team. The most comparable example to what Edmonton looks like now would be the Pittsburgh Penguins in the middle of the last decade. Not only did they draft Fleury, Malkin, Crosby, and Staal from 2003-06, but they actually let those guys play together from day one. Maybe the Pens would have made the Finals in 2008 had they sat Fleury in 2006 and ’07 the way the Oilers are doing to Dubnyk, but I don’t think they would have. On their album Oracular Spectacular, MGMT has a song called “The Youth,” in which they reveal that the title group is “starting to change, together, together, together, together…” Regarding the Oilers, what is the point of letting the skating youth change together, but leave their capable peer of a goalie on the sideline to pick his hangnails? There is no point, and although I love what The Wall has done in his career, it’s time for the Oilers to do what they need to do in their crease.
In front of Dubnyk and Khabibulin could be a surprisingly capable group of defensemen. I’m not saying “very good,” I’m saying “surprisingly capable.” The Oilers should get Ryan “Un-fit-ney” Whitney back this year, and in him a guy that is able to skate big minutes and help out offensively. Whitney had 27 points in 35 games with Edmonton last year before succumbing to a right ankle injury just before New Year’s. Alongside Whitney will be the best #1 defenseman that nobody knows / talks about, Tom Gilbert. I understand that nobody talks about Gilbert because he plays on a team that has not warranted discussion recently, but I’d like to see the silence on Gilbert stop this season. Like Whitney, Gilbert is 6’3”, but carries himself as if he is even bigger. Gilbert’s right-handed shot is a perfect compliment to Whitney’s more common left-handed stick. The two could combine to be one of the more difficult top pairings to play against from a standpoint of trying to score on big players and also trying to shut down Whitney’s offensive eye (and Gilbert’s isn’t awful either).
After the clear top two, Ladislav Smid awaits a second-line partner. Most assume it will be one of two newly-acquired bit hitters — Cam Barker or Andy Sutton. Barker’s upside is probably higher, but Sutton’s actual hockey game is probably just as good right now. For some reason Theo Peckham appears to have hit his ceiling on the third pairing, despite arguably playing better hockey than either Sutton or Barker last season. Perhaps he fights too much — Peckham had a cool 198 penalty minutes in 71 games last season for the Oilers. It will likely be Barker, the 3rd overall pick in the 2004 entry draft, who joins Smid on the second line. Sutton and Peckham should make for a meaty third pairing. None of this includes the possibility that Jeff Petry makes the club, but that is certainly a possibility. The Michigan State product played 35 games in his rookie season last year, and placed third on the team in average ice time. It is arguable that Petry can and should beat out one of the guys assumed to be part of the six Oiler defensemen.
The Oilers are something of a tale of two prototypes at forward. They have their young and extremely talented group, and they have their older, solid group that bleeds blue and orange but has a lower point ceiling than that of the kids’ futures. The top line will probably be made up of the latter group, as Shawn Horcoff should center the first line, and be flanked by Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth. The Oilers get Smyth back from Los Angeles, and he is a good one. Smyth was an Oiler from 1994 to 2007, and played a huge role in getting Edmonton to within one win of the Stanley Cup in 2006. He’s a physical power forward-type, but Smyth has some finesse to go with his bashing style. He’s been a 30-goal scorer four times in his career, and has scored at least 22 goals in each of the last three seasons. What’s more important is that he wants to be an Oiler. I can’t think of a more appropriate winger to teach the kids the ropes than Smyth, who captained Team Canada in the World Championships a record six times, winning gold in 2003 and ’04. Smyth also won Olympic gold in 2002, which leaves only the Stanley Cup to enter him into the Triple Gold Club. While he may never get the same chance that he had in 2006, it would be neat if his career came to a close right as the kids paralleled the title-ascending story of the Penguins.
Speaking of those kids, the second line should feature two sophomores in Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. It’s even possible that they are centered by rookie and 2011 top overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but that’s unlikely given that Sam Gagner has probably earned the right to be second-line center over a guy with zero professional experience. It’s assumed that if Nugent-Hopkins does not win the second-line center job that he will start his career in the AHL, as Edmonton is confident in Gilbert Brule and Eric Belanger as bottom-six NHL centers. Additionally, it may benefit the kid more to play a whole season on the top line in the AHL than to play lowered minutes and miscast as a third or fourth-line NHL center.
The lower-line left wingers for Edmonton should be sophomores Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Linus Omark. The last two right wings will likely be newly-signed 2010 Cup winner Ben Eager and 2008 Hobey Baker Award finalist Ryan Jones, whose legendary flow lost out to fellow CCHA star Kevin Porter of Michigan (Jones played all four years with Miami University, and ended the collegiate careers of my favorite class of Falcons in the 2008 CCHA playoffs).
The Oilers lineup will again be among the least experienced in the league, but not only will they have some sparse veteran leadership, they will also be able to continue to change. Together, together, together…
This is a team that is looking to grow, improve, and set themselves up for future seasons. I love coach Tom Renney and many of the players, but for the love of hockey, start Dubnyk in goal for at least 42 games (more than half).
5th: Colorado Avalanche 2010-11: 68 points, 4th in division
On paper, the Avalanche should not finish last in this division this year. On paper, they have two very good offensive centers, a bunch of huge defensemen, and two proven NHL goaltenders. The problem is that on paper they also have their management team. And while teams can overcome bad leadership on a year-to-year basis, I cannot believe the continued incompetence that’s been par for the course in Denver recently.
I know Joe Sakic’s on board now, and maybe he’ll have the same influence and success that his long-time rival, Steve Yzerman, did behind the scenes. But who can love what they’ve seen so far?
Colorado had the worst goals allowed number in the NHL last year by a staggering 19 goals (288 to Atlanta’s and Edmonton’s 269; no other gap between any two adjacent positions was even close to 19 (one was 10, the next largest was 5 GA)). They had a good goalie in Craig Anderson, but he intelligently didn’t want to be there and had all his dreams come true when he was dealt around the deadline to Ottawa, where he signed a big four-year extension. Backing up Anderson, and even inexplicably starting ahead of him for prolonged periods of time was Peter Budaj, who had numbers almost as bad as Khabibulin last year. Budaj, one of the better guys in the league, got an opportunity to continue his career as Carey Price’s backup in Montreal for the upcoming season. Brian Elliott started some games for Colorado after coming over in the Anderson trade, but really he was just an alright goalie who caught fire during a memorable winning streak for Ottawa in 2009-10.
To solve their goaltending mess, the Avalanche went out and traded for a solid young player who has charted in the top-five of peripheral categories while shouldering a smaller workload. Semyon Varlamov’s time with the Washington Capitals had clearly come to an end after they refused to play him for a single second of their embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Game 4 was the night after Game 3, and despite the quick turnaround and an 0-3 series deficit, Varlamov didn’t get a sniff. He was ready to continue his career in his native Russia until Colorado made the move for him. But it’s the price that the Avalanche paid that has everyone talking. They gave up a future first and second-round pick for the 23 year-old goalie, even though signing Varlamov to an offer sheet would have only cost them a second-round pick, and Washington almost certainly wasn’t going to match any offer sheet since they were ready to let him walk away to Russia for free. But, like I said, continued incompetence.
The Avalanche also got 2007 Stanley Cup champion and 2003 Conn Smythe winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere to join the club via free agency. Giguere and Varlamov make a very interesting 34 and 23 year-old tandem, although I’m not sure how much Varly will learn from the trophy winner. Additionally, it’s unclear as to whether Colorado even has a goalie coach, as a few in the know have reported that they do not, despite Varlamov’s belief in early July that longtime Canuck netminder Kirk McLean worked for the Avalanche. I’m not sure what to make of intra-organizational misinformation, but again, continued incompetence.
There are a couple of roster-related stats concerning the Avalanche that blew my mind. First, the team has 23 players signed to NHL contracts, but still remains nearly $3 million beneath the salary cap floor. Needless to say, Colorado stands right now as the team with the lowest payroll in the NHL. Additionally, 17 of the 23 players under contract have deals that expire at the end of the upcoming season. If this were a video game, the financial freedom would look enticing. But this is real life, and we know that the Avalanche aren’t going to score Zach Parise, Nicklas Lidstrom, Alex Semin and the rest of the 2012 free agent class like they might in a video game. So it would be interesting to know what exactly the plan is for the Avalanche moving forward. I foresee a repeat of the 2011 summer for the Florida Panthers, which is to say, sign a bunch of third-line players to laughably inflated deals in an effort to reach the cap floor because that’s what you need to do to convince players to go somewhere that cannot yield them a Stanley Cup.
Moving along, those big defenders who will skate in front of Varlamov and Giguere should be led by Ryan O’Byrne and Erik Johnson. O’Byrne has earned playing time with his efforts last season, but inevitably Johnson will be given the lion’s share of minutes due to his status as the 1st overall pick in the 2006 entry draft. Never mind the fact that the St. Louis Blues were doing jumping jacks when they were able to unload Johnson to get Av’s power forward Chris Stewart and defensive prospect Kevin Shattenkirk. Continued incompetence. In fact, that trade was so good that it prompted center Paul Stastny’s father, Peter (Hockey Hall of Famer) to weigh in on the continued incompetence of the Avalanche front office, saying they “destroyed the team.” Too bad his son is one of only six players signed beyond this year.
Along with Johnson and O’Byrne are Kyle Quincey and Ryan Wilson, who probably will be second or third-liners. Gone is John-Michael Liles, and in to replace his role is Jan Hejda from Columbus, who will skate in the top four with Johnson, O’Byrne and that fourth defenseman to be determined. Also on the roster are newcomer Shane O’Brien and Matt Hunwick, while Kyle Cumiskey continues to be a restricted free agent at this moment. The Avs have a couple young defensemen that they’d like to bring along in Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliott, but it doesn’t really look like the spots are open given that the team already has seven D men signed without Cumiskey.
The forwards are headlined by centers Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene. The latter is entering his third season in the big leagues, and has scored 55 and 67 points in his two seasons thus far. Duchene was the 3rd overall draft pick in 2009 and came straight to the big club afterward. His 67 points led the team in scoring last year. Coming in second in team scoring was Stastny, who had a disappointing 57 points. It could be that the guy sees things the way his father does, but I’m just speculating as to what is almost certainly true. Stastny could make a great trade deadline acquisition for a contender that needs a top-six center, but first he has to force his way out, which might not be his style. Before we feel too bad for Stastny, he is scheduled to receive $6.6 million for each of the next three seasons, before he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in 2014 at the age of 28. That could be the start of Stastny’s real hockey career, if he hasn’t depressed himself out of the league by then.
Surrounding Stastny and Duchene on the wings for Colorado will likely be David Jones, Peter Mueller, Milan Hejduk and “room for error.” I think Kevin Porter (remember from the Oilers’ section of this post that Porter won the ’08 Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player) should get the opportunity to play top-six minutes as a left wing, but we’ll see. Jones has been solid in his four seasons with Colorado’s organization. Last year was his first full season, and Jones scored 27 goals and 18 assists in 77 games. Hejduk is the other right wing, and he played a key role in the Avalanche’s 2001 Stanley Cup victory. Yeah that’s right, he’s still playing top-six minutes, and actually acquitting himself very nicely. Mueller would normally be on one of the top two lines, but he is returning from a concussion that sidelined him for all of last season, so you never really know how ready he’ll be to play big minutes.
Aside from the six mentioned, Colorado has wingers T.J. Galiardi (from St. Louis in the trade that “destroyed the team”), Cody McLeod, Daniel Winnik and newly-signed Chuck Kobasew from Minnesota. Right wingers Brandon Yip and Joakim Lindstrom could also see time for the Avs. At center, Colorado is rounded out by Jay McClement and Ryan O’Reilly.
Colorado has the players to make the playoffs. They have the combination of youth and experience that can yield just as much or more success than any team in this division outside of Vancouver. But I’ve followed and watched closely for the last couple of years, and I find myself more on board with Peter Stastny than Avalanche brass.