Kenneth Ferguson The Hockey Writers
Colorado Avalanche on a Mission to Improve
The management of the Colorado Avalanche had a very successful few days leading up to the NHL entry draft and moving into the early hours of free agency. Every off-season, changes come to each NHL team and the Avalanche were no different. This off-season however several names joined and left the Avalanche and it seems all be part of a specific plan.
Just days before the NHL entry draft, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic said on a teleconference that Ryan O’Reilly was one of the teams core players and that extending the young forward was a priority for the organization. The day before the NHL draft however, the Avalanche made a trade. No, it did not involve O’Reilly, at least not directly. The Avalanche sent a sixth-round pick to the Boston Bruins for the rights to pending UFA Carl Soderberg.
The morning of the first round of the draft, the Avalanche announced they had signed Soderberg to a five-year contract paying him the average $5 million he was looking for. This added a center to the Avalanche roster that was already over populated down the middle.
That evening the expected announcement of an O’Reilly trade was made by commissioner Gary Bettman. The Avalanche had traded O”Reilly and Jamie McGinn to the Buffalo Sabres for several pieces in return.
The return to the Avalanche included forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and J.T Compher, the 31st overall pick in the draft and probably most importantly defenceman Nikita Zadorov. Not all of these players will make the Avalanche roster when the new season starts in October but this trade alone changed the roster quite a bit.
Zadorov Bolsters Blue Line
The Avalanche blue line was in desperate need of an upgrade and it was suspected the Avalanche would use O’Reilly to do it. With the addition of Nikita Zadorov the Avalanche blue line certainly has gotten better.
The 6′ 5″ tall defenseman was a first round pick of the Sabres in 2013 selected 16th overall. In the days that followed the draft, Sakic said Zadorov was a player they had looked at while doing their homework leading up to the draft. They felt familiar with Zadorov despite his limited NHL play in the eastern conference.
Along with his size, the largest up-side of Zadorov is the fact that he is only 20 years old. Sakic has also said the early plan is to have Zadorov in the Avalanche lineup for the next decade or so. O’Reilly also had most of his hockey career a head of him but even with his young age the Avalanche got younger with this trade.
Initially the belief was that Zadorov would be thrown right into the top defensive pair for the Avalanche playing alongside Erik Johnson. However on the first day of free agency the Avalanche signed a veteran player that they want next to Johnson instead.
Free Agency Additions
When the free agency period opened at noon eastern time on July 1 most people expected several quick signings and that is exactly what happened. At approximately 12:14 eastern the Avalanche announced the signing of veteran defenceman Francois Beauchemin. At 35 years old Beauchemin was looking for at least a three-year deal since he is a family man who did not want to have to move his wife and kids in the distant future.
The veteran signing brings another former Stanley Cup winner to the Avalanche roster that mostly features young players that have little to no playoff experience. The concern of this signing for most hockey analysts is the signing of a player who is already 35 years of age and will be 38 when the contract reaches its conclusion.
Most people believed the Avalanche would pursue Andrej Sekera who is younger and seems to be coming into the prime of his career but that did not happen. Sakic said they had talked to Sekera but, for reasons that will probably never be released, a deal could not be agreed upon.
The Avalanche showed how important improving the defence was given how quickly they signed Beauchemin but that was not the only player they added in the fist hour of free agency.
After losing McGinn as part of the trade with Buffalo the Avalanche had an open roster spot in the lower six of its line up. As a result about 3o minutes after signing Beauchemin the Avalanche announced the signing of veteran depth forward Blake Comeau.
Comeau has played in 483 NHL regular season games as a member four different NHL clubs. Comeau played with current Avalanche players Alex Tanguay and Jarome Iginla as members of the Calgary flames. Comeau said that both of these veteran players reached out to him leading up to July 1 and encouraged him to sign in Denver.
This is the second year in a row that the Avalanche set out to add veteran presence to its young locker room and this year was a success. If he is healthy Beauchemin will play in every game for the Avalanche next season and will do it against the opposing teams top line. Comeau may be a different story however. Last season Comeau played in only 61 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins and most the games he missed he was a healthy scratch.
The Avalanche spent most of last season with Daniel Briere as a healthy scratch despite being a veteran acquired via a trade with the Montreal Canadiens. The Avalanche are a long way away from announcing its opening day roster obviously but it will be interesting to see how Comeau fits into the roster game after game.
While the Avalanche added veteran players they also went a separate direction with several players like all NHL teams. The above mentioned Briere will not be a healthy scratch for the Avalanche this season as they did not offer the journeyman player a new contract. It is believed Briere will choose to retire unless he is offered a contract by the Philadelphia Flyers which is the hometown of his three sons.
Also after four seasons in the Avalanche lineup Jan Hejda is also currently a free agent looking for work after the Avalanche decided to not offer him an extension as well. Hejda is a bit older, similar to Beauchemin, but sometime change brings out the best in players. Hejda and Breire are both left to make decisions about their hockey future and what happens next.
After all of this action of adding and subtracting players, everybody seems to be asking the same question: are the Avalanche a better team now than they were two weeks ago? The answer to this question remains to be seen. At least on paper this Avalanche team is more level. Instead of being a team that has two outstanding top lines and a questionable defence they now have a level team across the roster.
Yes, O’Reilly is a great player especially with his play away from the puck, but a team can not pay every player top dollar like O’Reilly got from the Sabres. Moving forward, in games that feature the Avalanche and Sabres, O’Reilly will probably score against the Avalanche and it will make people question the trade but it does appear this trade has made the Avalanche a better team. For now February 14, 2016 will be the first time O’Reilly returns to Colorado after the trade.
Both with the trade and the free agent signings the Avalanche enforced its defensive corps and added players that will improve the teams depth. When you stand back and look at the past month as a whole it is clear the Avalanche had a plan for what they needed to improve its hockey club. On top of all these moves, another year of experience for its young corps also made the Avalanche better.
Yes – the Western Conference is a difficult conference to play in and the Avalanche will have to fight all season to make the playoffs but this is the case for any team. For now it appears the Avalanche are a better team and they have added players that will have an impact for at least the next three seasons. The current Avalanche is a better hockey team than the one that played last season, mission accomplished.
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