The Colorado Avalanche just had one of the worst seasons by any NHL team in recent memory. They finished last in the league by 21 points, a larger margin than the one between 19th-place Philadelphia and 29th-place Vancouver. They got outscored by 112 goals, a figure no other team could come close to.
These are the kinds of things that would make most hockey teams try to change something. Maybe trade a star player, or sign a big name in free agency. Possibly both given how far the team was from being competitive. The one thing they couldn’t possibly do is nothing, right?
The Avalanche may be testing that assumption this summer.
We’re now into August, when the offseason tends to grind down to a slow crawl, and you can go take a look at the Avalanche’s transaction sheet for the summer. Here’s the full list:
- Bought out defenseman Francois Beauchemin
- Re-signed forwards Sven Andrighetto and Matt Nieto
- Added a new backup goalie in Jonathan Bernier
- Traded a third-round pick for Predators forward Colin Wilson
- Took a shot on Nail Yakupov
- Signed a bunch of depth players (Joe Cannata, Andrew Agozzino, David Warsofsky, Gabriel Bourque, Felix Girard, Duncan Siemens, Rocco Grimaldi, Jesse Graham) to one-year contracts
Not exactly earth-shattering stuff.
Making minor tweaks to a roster is what you usually see from teams that are already contenders, or teams that anticipate enough internal improvement not to go chasing free agents. The Avalanche, meanwhile, seem to be planning to roll with a similar group to the one that won 22 games last season.
Things aren’t hopeless for Colorado — SB Nation’s Avs blog, Mile High Hockey, supported the team’s conservative strategy — but it’s surprising that it has shown so little urgency in upgrading a roster that performed so poorly last season. Here’s a deeper look at the Avs’ odd offseason:
No trades involving key players
The most surprising part of the summer is the lack of action involving Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, or Tyson Barrie. GM Joe Sakic has reportedly been entertaining the possibility of moving one or more of those big names for over a year without pulling the trigger. Now given an entire offseason to weigh his options after a disastrous season, he still hasn’t found a deal to his liking.
Landeskog and Barrie are signed for a while, so there’s not as much urgency with those players, but Duchene only has two years left on his contract. His trade value will likely go down as he gets closer to unrestricted free agency, so the 2018 trade deadline may represent Colorado’s last, best chance at getting a worthy return for the speedy forward.
A deal could still happen before the season starts, but the Avalanche have been pushing along this boulder for a while now. Are these players part of the core, or not? Colorado needs answers at some point.
Nikita Zadorov talks drag on
The wait goes on for the Avalanche to re-sign defenseman Nikita Zadorov, who has used the threat of bolting to the KHL to make negotiations more difficult than they usually are with restricted free agents.
Zadorov apparently has a deal set in the KHL, but prefers a two-year bridge contract with the Avalanche. Colorado has over $11 million in cap space, per Cap Friendly, and in the end it will almost certainly budge and give the defenseman the money he’s asking for. But the Avs are dragging out that process when you consider they have just three other defensemen (Barrie, Erik Johnson, Mark Barberio) under contract for next season.
Overpaying Zadorov on a bridge deal would be a mistake, but it would be a bigger one to let him go for nothing.
Top prospect Will Butcher bolts
Maybe the reigning Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher, a 2013 fifth-round pick by the Avalanche, could’ve helped those problems on defense, but he’s informed the team he’s decided not to sign an entry-level deal before the August deadline. He’ll become an unrestricted free agent then, and most likely sign with a different NHL team.
This is a real loss for the Avalanche, who have watched Butcher star in their backyard at the University of Denver. He led the Pioneers to a national championship this year as a senior in addition to winning the Hobey Baker award as the top player in college hockey. With 37 points in 43 games, he dominated his senior year. The 22-year-old could be the real deal, and an immediate contributor in the NHL.
Colorado has glaring openings on the roster to offer Butcher, yet he’s spurning them in favor of taking offers from other teams. (It’s not about money, either, as he’ll be limited to entry-level contract rules.) That has to sting the Avalanche, who couldn’t even convince one of their own prospects to sign once the door opened for him to go elsewhere.
Vegas takes Calvin Pickard
The Avalanche were in a tough spot with the expansion draft. They ended up protecting 11 players, but it cost them a good piece in 24-year-old backup goaltender Calvin Pickard. He was one of their top prospects, and posted a .914 save percentage in 86 NHL games over the past three seasons.
Colorado had to leave Pickard exposed to the Golden Knights because he filled its goaltender requirement for the expansion draft. Each team needed to leave one goaltender available who was under contract for the 2017-18 season.
But the Avalanche probably could’ve gotten around this if they really wanted to. For example, they could’ve re-signed Joe Cannata in early June instead of July 1. He would’ve then been able to fill the goalie requirement for unprotected players, allowing the Avs to protect Pickard if they wanted.
This would’ve forced them to expose other players, but they could’ve protected Duchene, Landeskog, Barrie, Zadorov, Pickard, Nathan MacKinnon, Erik Johnson, and Semyon Varlamov. This would’ve left Nieto, Grimaldi, Andrighetto, and Blake Comeau exposed instead of Pickard.
Would all of that effort been worth retaining Pickard over one of those forwards, assuming one of them would’ve been the Golden Knights’ pick? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s another example of the Avs’ lack of aggressiveness this summer.
Not everything is terrible
None of this is to say that the Avalanche are hopeless. They have some very talented forwards in MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and 2016 first-round pick Tyson Jost. All is not lost with Duchene and Landeskog, who haven’t lived up to expectations but remain trade assets given their reasonable contracts.
There are ingredients that could lead to a much-improved offense next season. MacKinnon probably won’t shoot 6.4 percent again, and Jost will get a full-time shot after a brief stint at the end of last season. Rantanen shouldn’t be underestimated as potential scorer, either. J.T. Compher, Wilson, and Yakupov will provide extra depth.
The problem is somebody needs to get the puck up to these forwards, and the Avalanche have just three defensemen on the roster right now. One player who could help is Andrei Mironov, a 2015 fourth-round pick who signed his ELC in the spring.
Mironov played the past two seasons with the KHL’s Dynamo Moscow, and could play into a top-four role with the Avalanche in 2017-18. They also landed a potential impact defender in Cale Makar with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2017 draft.
Makar is a high-scoring, righty-shooting pure talent who overcomes a lack of size (5’11, 187 pounds) to be a potential franchise defenseman. His upside on the blue line is something this organization sorely lacked, even if it was a disappointment getting the No. 4 pick despite top lottery odds.
So it’s not like the Avalanche are entirely without interesting pieces to build upon.
But there wasn’t much urgency
Unless the Avalanche are just planning on tanking, it’s not clear what they expect to happen that’ll swing their fortunes so heavily in the other direction. Even if the top six pans out after imploding most of last season, you still need to figure out the defense and what’s going on with Varlamov.
So many things would need to go right for the Avalanche to go from 47 points to the 90-plus needed to contend for the playoffs that it’s surprising they didn’t make more moves. Maybe they couldn’t have wildly changed their talent level in one fell swoop, but they could’ve changed chemistry and tried a new mix.
There’s reason to believe that Duchene and Landeskog just aren’t a good fit together, for example. Maybe the Avalanche don’t want to trade these players coming off down seasons, which is an understandable stance, but it’s not clear what will change in 2017-18 with a similar roster and the same coaching staff. How will Landeskog turn around his downtrending stats surrounded by the same players as before?
This summer represented a chance for the Avalanche to shake things up in a meaningful way after a worst-case-scenario season, and they chose not to. They’re hoping a young roster that couldn’t find itself last season will discover an identity with some extra time to marinate.
Maybe Sakic’s patience will be rewarded when the forwards come out playing well, he gets huge value for Duchene and Landeskog in pre-deadline trades, and the Avalanche’s plan to build a winner around MacKinnon is given a big shot of energy.
But right now, it looks like a bad team just spent the summer fiddling its thumbs, and that’s an unexpected development.