It is the All-Star Break and the Avalanche sit in the final Western Conference playoff spot thanks to the recent 10-game win streak and some tiebreakers. The thought at the beginning of the season was generally that the club would flirt with the playoff bubble but ultimately end up clear sellers in late February. While that still could be the case it’s definitely not clear yet and this puts a little pressure on Joe Sakic and the staff to have several sets of plans ready depending on what happens over the next 10 games or so.
Ask any invested hockey fan what their team ought to do and immediately plans come forth in excited/sullen tones about building or tearing down. It’s one of the lifebloods of hockey chat. Before we can hazard a guess at what’s in Sakic’s and the other 30 GM’s minds, we need to take stock of the situation as a whole.
The playoff picture provides the road map to the transactions that occur over the next month. It determines not only the proper course of action but who might be suitable partners to make a deal. Right now the Avs are tied with 3 other teams with 57 points and hold the final spot thanks to having games in hand and an advantage in ROWs. It’s very tenuous.
The good news is that of the 13 games between now and February 26th, 6 are against teams that are flat out not going to make the playoffs (EDM, VAN, BUF) and you can make that 8 if you want to include Carolina and Montreal. 2 games are vs teams that are above them (SJS, CGY) so they can help their own case there. The remaining 3 are against tough divisional opponents in Winnipeg, who they’ve beaten twice, and St Louis, who they’ve lost to twice. Only 3 are at Pepsi Center so that makes it tougher but this should be a fairly easy schedule to take advantage of. The odds suggest they will probably be close to where they are right now, on the good side of the bubble.
It’s a horrifying thought but the temptation will be there for the Avs to become buyers at the deadline. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun already put this out in the wind after a conversation with Joe earlier this week, although I think he was projecting. Do the Avs need a scoring winger? Yeah, they could probably use one and there will be plenty available for rent at exorbitant prices. For my own sanity I’m going to choose to believe that Sakic stays true to his new philosophy and doesn’t go back to mortgaging the future at every opportunity.
Not saying the Avs are a perfect team but they don’t have a lot of holes or even one glaring one that needs to be patched. Looking soon after a 10 game win streak isn’t the best time to scan for deficiencies but they are the 5th best offense in the league right now at 3¼ goals per game so that’s not a huge concern. They could be better defensively but how do you upgrade that sensibly? If a long playoff run was the goal then that would be on the table but it shouldn’t be.
The needs here are more young talent, which doesn’t often move at this time of year, and roster space so players that can help the team a little now and more next season have the opportunity to improve. Despite little evidence in the past that the Avs desire large draft portfolios or worry about free agent contracts running to expiration, the only logical moves involve creating roster space by moving players for draft picks.
To get you have to give and while the Avs team in 2017-18 doesn’t have many holes, the organization still does and creating more by letting Free Agents leave without compensation isn’t wise. UFA are the currency of choice at the deadline so here are the guys the Avs have to make decisions on:
Blake Comeau – 7th on the team with 9G/12A, he’s also 7th in forward TOI and has played more shorthanded minutes than anyone other than Erik Johnson. Don’t fool yourself into thinking he’s easy to replace. If he wasn’t an expiring UFA there’s no way he gets moved.
Gabe Bourque – After spending most of last season in the AHL and half of this one in street clothes, he’s found a niche on the PK and as a benevolent grinder in the bottom 6. Depending on what happens with the roster over the next few weeks, he could be on the radar of more teams than you’d think.
Mark Barberio – Yes, he has the stigma of being a waiver pickup but he’s been a good one. A solid 13 points in 44 games and some puck-moving ability means he’ll have value if the Avs choose not to keep him around. Unfortunately he missed the last game with an injury with no guidance from the staff on severity.
Jonathan Bernier – It’s pretty much unthinkable to trade him away now that he’s the de facto starter along with the fact that goalies aren’t that highly in demand. So they pretty much have to re-sign him right?
Andrew Hammond – The staff have shown no desire to start him and the $1.35M cap hit isn’t attractive. Also not blocking Spencer Martin since he can be sent back to Belleville at any time if they care to look at a prospect.
RFAs that are in the same boat:
Matt Nieto – 10th in scoring and like Comeau a solid part of the PK. He’s 9th in forward TOI and 3rd in forward PK TOI. Whether he’s in the Avs long-term plans is anyone’s guess. He’s obviously someone that can be replaced pretty easily by someone younger at this point so keeping him around isn’t a given.
Nail Yakupov – A power play specialist that struggles at even strength, he’s a project that I’d call a limited success so far with the Avs. Success in that he’s a better player now than he was at the start of the season and limited in that he’s still a tough player to use beneficially. At the end of the day he’s taking a roster spot and minutes that someone with a future in the org might do more with.
Patrik Nemeth – Can help or hurt on a shift to shift basis. Has size that coaches love and skating/puck skills that drives fans crazy. Like Barbs and Nieto has the waiver stigma. With Bigras and Mironov fizzling he’s not blocking anyone like was perceived in the beginning of the season but that won’t be the case next year.
Rocco Grimaldi – He’s had 2 callups and 3 points in 6 games but that’s probably it for him in this org. I’m sure he’d love to get away from EV’s low-skill grind-o-rama in San Antonio and go somewhere that will give him a chance.
Chris Bigras – Just getting back to practicing in San Antonio after another injury, he could be a dark horse to move. He’ll be waiver-eligible next year and not close to being a strong candidate to stick in the NHL at this point. I hate to see a young talented D on ELC be a trade candidate but there are some red flags plus a good pedigree that mean he’s worth more externally.
There are some others in the mix like Colin Wilson, who teams like as a player but has an unfortunate contract, and the usual TradeBarrie® rumors.
Forming the plan
Wow, so that’s a lotta options. Joe’s going to clean up, right? Probably not, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With the fans returning to the Pepsi Center so quickly after last year’s disaster there isn’t a case for making lots of holes on the roster just for the sake of it. The Avs as built are competitive and entertaining to watch, which is all a fan can ask for, and that should be a priority for the rest of this season. That means that along with the standings situation and interest from other teams, the third driver of transactions will be the organization’s ability to replace anyone that leaves internally.
That means we have to rack the players above into 3 categories: Replaceable, Not Replaceable and Don’t Know.
Replaceable: Bourque, Hammond, Nieto, Yakupov, Grimaldi, Bigras
Not Replaceable: Bernier
Don’t Know: Comeau, Barberio, Nemeth
Since they are replaceable there won’t be tons of interest in the first group and losing Nieto & Bourque would be a blow the the PK especially if Comeau leaves. The game plan here is engineer some kind of like-for-like trade involving Rocco and push hard to see if someone can use Yak’s PP ability.
There is and will be lots of interest in Comeau. He’s well thought of around the league and is exactly what a playoff team wants to add for a big run. With him gone, the Avs need to find someone to step into top PKer role and other players to make up for the almost ½ point per game he produces. It’s probably doable with a committee approach. Trading any of the defensemen hinges on someone (Lindy/Miro/Bigras/Warsofsky/Duncan) proving they can play better than all the bottom pair guys have so far. That’s probably not going to happen.
What to watch
Standings: Any move, up or down, affects what’s on the table and what’s on the wish list
Injuries: Both players coming back and players lost to IR
New/Increased Roles: This is a fun area to nerd out. Someone’s getting 2 minutes more a night on the PP, what does it mean? What is Alexander Kerfoot doing on the PK? Why did they call this fellow up and not that one?
Scouts in Attendance: Everyone freaks out about these in February. Even though there’s a low correlation between scout frequency and trades, you can get some hindsight confirmation if you look hard enough.
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This will be a weekly feature from now through the end of next month. What say you dear reader? What are your tipoffs that a guy is about to be exchanged? How do you evaluate needs and assets?