The Avalanche have a problem right now: three top-six centers to fill out only two top-six spots. A great problem to have, no doubt, and one that Avs fans haven’t experienced in quite some time, but a problem nonetheless.
Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, and Paul Stastny all have what it takes to play in the top six, not to mention number-one overall draft pick Nathan MacKinnon nipping at their heels to take that first- or second-line center spot.
Duchy has nothing to worry about; he proved himself to be a star-caliber player last season, leading the Avs in six different offensive categories and making himself into one of the most popular players in the league through both his on- and off-ice actions. Head coach Patrick Roy has made it abundantly clear that MacKinnon will be the third-line center out of the gate, so while he has plenty to worry about as the most highly-touted of rookies, he won’t have to worry about finding himself a place on opening night.
That leaves O’Reilly and Stastny as competitors for second-line center responsibilities, and at this point in the offseason it looks like Roy is putting Stas in the second slot while moving RoR to starting left wing, citing the move of Peter Forsberg to wing alongside Joe Sakic (they can only dream it works out that well). This fixes the logjam of offensive talent for the short-term, but by the end of the season it’s likely one or the other of them will no longer be in Denver.
Stastny’s over sized contract is up after this season, as is the contract O’Reilly signed last year which was the center of so much controversy. Both players are highly skilled playmakers with excellent defensive play and world-class hockey IQ, leading many to believe that Joe Sakic and company will attempt to trade one of them for a real starting-pair-caliber defenseman.
There are a lot of reasons why that may or may not work out, but with nothing else to speculate on, let’s take a look at both players to see what each of them is worth.
Paul Stastny: Pauly Walnuts has been one of the main faces of the franchise during it’s first real rebuilding phase since moving to Colorado.
Mentored by The Captain His Super-ness himself, Stastny had a rookie campaign that took the NHL by storm and followed it up by proving he deserved the hype. In recent years his numbers have been declining, and many wonder if he still has what it takes. This is mostly the result of factors outside his control (for instance, he spent last year trying to make David Jones look good). He has a mind-boggling defensive zone start ratio, handling the majority of penalty-killing and defensive responsibilities for the team, which will skew your stats downward when the highlight of your team’s season was beating the Blackhawks one particular night. He is without a doubt a better player than most of his detractors argue; he still handles the puck very well and has great vision and leadership skills, as a quick glance at his performance with Team USA at the most recent World Championships will show.
Still, he’s probably not as good as his proponents would argue either; he isn’t very large, which means he is and has been vulnerable to injury, and while he’s not old, he’s certainly not young anymore either. Those who are quick to point out his stellar international play frequently ignore the less-physical, more possession-based play of international hockey, which fit well into his strengths and hide the weaknesses that the NHL is quick to reveal; it also probably helped that he was playing with the best the US had to offer.
The truth to his value lies somewhere between the two most common arguments for or against him; he is a skilled two-way center who handles higher responsibilities than most NHLers do, but he doesn’t have the size necessary to compete with the speed offered by Duchy, MacKinnon, and RoR, and while he is approaching veteran-status, he was passed over for team captain for a kid in his sophomore season, which might lead some to question just how good of a leader he really is. He’ll almost definitely have a better season next year (barring injury), as he’ll be playing with Alex Tanguay and Gabriel Landeskog as well as trying to drive up his price come contract negotiations.
The question is will it be good enough to make paying for him worth it, or will he be shipped off for the defenseman this team needs?
Ryan O’Reilly: Two years ago Radar was the highlight of the Avalanche season. Drafted 33rd overall the same year Duchene went third, he surprised many people with his star-caliber defensive play, and has only improved since then. His contract negotiations weren’t as smooth as Duchene’s, as he held out for almost half of an already-shortened season, damaging his reputation and his team’s chances (he helped himself out somewhat by playing pretty well after his return).
Like Stas, Factor’s recent stats don’t exactly sparkle, but they are even less representative of his ability for the same reason as Stastny minus about twenty games. Many are still irritated with the way he conducted himself during his contract negotiations, and to these people I say grow up; his actions weren’t admirable but they weren’t despicable either, rather the result of the business of professional hockey. It’s pretty hard to argue against his talent; he has the kind of two-way offensive talent that would win him Selke trophies in a world without Jonathan Toews. He also is a valuable locker-room presence; the fact that he is still between “neutral” and “popular” among his teammates despite missing so many games last year speaks to his competitiveness and drive.
Personally, if the decision was mine (thank god it’s not), I would choose RoR over Stastny every time; he has comparable playmaking abilities, better defensive ability, a higher scoring potential, and many more years ahead of him. Yes he’s moving to wing, but he’s played there before (albeit not at the NHL level) and has had a whole summer to prepare for this move.
Obviously this will be a difficult decision for Joe & Co. Both O’Reilly and Stastny are almost sure to have improved years, as both will be playing with better linemates; look for O’Reilly to continue to deliver his lock-down defensive ability while raising his point output with Duchene and P.A. Parenteau, while Stastny makes an argument for his elite status (and more money) with Gabe Landeskog and Alex Tanguay.
Ultimately it will take until the trade deadline to know for sure what the best move is; there is simply not enough information yet. Maybe RoR transitions to wing flawlessly and reminds Avs fans of a certain Swede whose number is hanging in the Pepsi Center rafters. Maybe Stastny comes roaring back with his best season yet and earns another franchise contract. Or maybe one or both of them crashes and burns. Hopefully neither of them fails, as the better they perform the better the chances are of trading for a similarly-talented blueliner.
All of this assumes that there is a defenseman of equal value that is also for sale (my bet is “no”- franchise- or near-franchise-caliber defensemen are harder to come by than franchise forwards and aren’t often traded). It is entirely possible that both of them are re-signed due to a combination of their mutual successes and no valid trade partners. Of course that brings contract amounts into question, and what could happen if MacKinnon proves he should be in the top-six; who gets moved down in order to make room for him, etc. etc. etc…
The matter is a tangled one that will in all likelihood become more clear after a few months of actual play. All I can tell you for sure is I’m glad I don’t have to make this decision, but stay tuned, because as the season progresses and each makes their respective statements, I’ll be sure to keep you informed.