Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
With just 18 games left, the Colorado Avalanche are in great shape to make the playoffs and perhaps make a lengthy run. Not trading for veteran leadership could end up hurting the team but Colorado’s brass rightfully valued young prospects and prime-aged players over veteran experience.
Even though the Avs are well positioned for the future, they should be aggressive in this summer’s free agency in order to seriously contend again next year. Let’s face it: with this defense, Colorado cannot win a Stanley Cup. Just wait until they butt heads with Chicago or Anaheim or St. Louis in a best of seven matchup; there’s no chance Colorado beats out any of these teams. Sadly, because the western conference is so much more talented than the eastern conference, Colorado will end the regular season as a top-five team in the NHL but will likely be a first or second round exit come playoff time.
That is why this summer needs to be a time for Joe Sakic and Mike Sherman to work the phones and actively pursue talent in an attempt to match up with the aforementioned western conference juggernauts. However, Colorado’s splash must be much greater than the one in 2010 when, after just making the playoffs the year before, the team signed no difference makers and lost multiple top-9 contributors on offense . This team has the chance to be something special, but only if Sakic and Sherman can scout the proper talent. For this reason, I am dedicating this article to Colorado’s top-three needs in the offseason.
NUMBER THREE: A left-handed offensive defenseman able to anchor the powerplay and capable of 40+ points yearly
Avalanche fans can agree that Tyson Barrie breaking out of his shell this season has been, to put it mildly, a pleasant surprise. What they also realize is that his shot is not a laser, not comparable to Nate Guenin’s or Erik Johnson’s. However, his ability to cycle the puck well usually allows him to wind up on the scorer’s sheet in the form of assists. In short, I recognize that Barrie will, at full potential, put up 40 points in a season.
So why am I calling this a need? Personally, I find that there are two different types of offensive defensemen. First, there are offensive defensemen who, like Barrie, have solid hands and are able to come across assists easily. Think of a Brent Seabrook, Ryan Suter, Tyson Barrie, or Morgan Reilly. They tend to be small, but their peak seasons, which are usually in the 25-35 assist range, tend to silence the naysayers.
On the other hand, there are offensive defensemen who can hit the puck like a rocket and tend to be one of the team’s more valuable powerplay specialists. Think of a Shea Weber, Eric Gelinas, Mike Green, or Duncan Keith. While these players tend to get most of their points on a powerplay, opposing teams must always be wary of deflections when these players come in.
As I’ve previously mentioned, Barrie fulfills the first role very well. However, it is the second type of offensive defenseman that Colorado needs (although one could make the case that Erik Johnson has started to play like this of late). Free agency is very kind this year to teams needing defense. In fact, Eric Gelinas, the rookie leader for powerplay points by a defenseman, could reach restricted free agency this summer. Ditto with Jake Gardiner, another offensive defenseman with a solid shot.
While this seems like a luxury, many teams in the NHL would not be as dynamic offensively without them, and they do tend to make a big difference. Think of the hit that Ottawa’s scoring took without Erik Karlsson. The same can be said for Pittsburgh sans Kris Letang.
Possible Candidate: Eric Gelinas, D, New Jersey Devils
NUMBER TWO: A gritty two-way winger who can take the body or crash the net
It took trading Steve Downie for Colorado to realize just how soft the top-nine forwards can be. Even with Max Talbot, the team has not showcased the same kind of physicality and grit since trading Downie. This must be addressed big time this summer. But what I find to be a great aspect of this is that power forwards and gritty, hard-nosed two-way forwards generally come cheaply.
Of course, Colorado could sign one or two of the league’s many brilliant two-way forwards that excel on both sides of the ice (think Loui Eriksson, Scott Hartnell or James Neal) on a more expensive deal. This would help draw attention away from forwards like Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon whose defensive play is laughable. This path does have its drawbacks, namely that the team’s total physicality would only change marginally. After all, nobody considers Pittsburgh to be a physical, gritty team even though Neal oftentimes embodies those two qualities.
Another enticing option for Colorado would be to revamp the third line with forechecking forwards that play physical hockey but aren’t much of a threat on offense. Indeed, these acquisitions would come cheaply. However, how would Colorado make up for that within the lineup? How is Joe Sakic going to manage the roster, knowing that each of these two-way forwards takes up a roster spot? It appears that welcoming these types of players, while beneficial to the physical aspect of the team, would hurt the team’s overall secondary scoring from players like Jamie McGinn, P.A. Parenteau, and Alex Tanguay (assuming he returns).
No matter what option Sakic pursues, he must realize that it will result in him making many difficult decisions to maintain scoring while upping physicality.
Possible Candidates: Steve Downie, LW, Philadelphia Flyers and Darroll Powe, LW, New York Rangers
NUMBER ONE: A right-handed two-way defenseman capable of manning the top pairing with Erik Johnson:
My least favorite part of this need is that Colorado would not even have to upgrade here if the front office wasn’t overzealous in 2008 by acquiring Erik Johnson in exchange for, among other assets, superstar American defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk. Truly he is one of the best all-around defensemen that the NHL offers in 2014. Of course, hindsight is 20’20 and, fortunately, Erik Johnson’s game has heated up greatly since October, but it would definitely fill a gaping hole.
Among this defensive corps, no individual really jumps out of the page per se. While that is not to say that Colorado is dying for defense, it is true that this corps needs a lot of work and that none of the current blue-liners, aside from Johnson, are worthy of the top pairing.
This summer presents a very unique opportunity for Colorado, dozens of big name defensive prospects will see themselves as restricted or unrestricted free agents this summer. Is now the time for Colorado to acquire a Jake Gardiner or Dmitry Kulikov-like talent and try to mold him into greatness across from Johnson?
Of all of Colorado’s needs, two-way defense is one that must be addressed via a trade at the NHL Draft or free agency, which looks to be very promising in terms of the prospect pool. Sakic better not disappoint the city of Denver. After all, he must remember how easy life was when Rob Blake was on defense and how difficult going up against a Scott Stevens or Nicklas Lidström in the playoffs could be. For Colorado to become a dynasty like Detroit and New Jersey were in the 1990s and early-2000s, Sakic must invest in the defense as the rock of this team.
Possible Candidate: Matt Niskanen, D, Pittsburgh Penguins
So what do you think, Avs fans? Does Colorado have an even greater need that I have overlooked? Sound off in the comments section with your thoughts. Thanks for reading!