ST PAUL, MN - JUNE 24: Second overall pick Gabriel Landeskog by the Colorado Avalanche (C) stands on the podium with members of the Colorado Avalanche organization for a photo during day one of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft at Xcel Energy Center on June 24, 2011 in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Note: This is the second of three articles explaining why I think the Avs will go after a big free agent this season. Initially, they were intended to be run together, but that story ended up being 3500 words long and took over 10 minutes to read. So, for everyone's sanity, I decided to split it up. If you missed part one, here's the link.
Sherman came into a bad situation in 2009. Not only was the team less than outstanding when it came to available talent, but the economy had taken a turn for the worse and fans had less money to spend on non-essentials like sports tickets. The team had also just lost its last "big name" player to retirement, so there was no one left to put butts in the seats on reputation alone. Instead, the club was left with a bunch of mediocre unknowns and virtually no prospect system. There were more holes on the roster than in a chunk of Swiss cheese, and it would have been impossible to trade for all the missing pieces (due to lack of quality tradebait) or bring them in via free-agency (due to the crappy economy and the Salary Cap). The only option he did have was to blow it up and start again.
However, the absolute last thing Sherman wanted was a long, drawn out rebuild. Rebuilding teams are inherently incomplete, so they're not exactly going to be the most successful clubs in the league. Fewer wins means fewer ticket sales, which means less income. In order to keep the team economically viable during that time, Sherman knew he had to cut costs while reconstructing the team. However, since there isn't much incentive for sports fans in Denver to keep spending money on a losing hockey club, he also knew that he had to finish the rebuild as quickly as possible so the team could go back to drawing crowds and generating profit.
So he turned to the draft. Each team is given 7 picks completely free of charge each year, so that alone makes it the most economical option for adding talent. Even though there still is some risk involved in choosing prospects, it's just about the only way you can acquire players good enough to build a franchise around without breaking the bank. It has another bonus as well: entry level contracts. This allowed the team to ice some young and exciting players while still keeping costs low. However, the viability of this method depends entirely on the quality of the team's scouting department. Luckily for the Avs, our scouts are amazing. Over the past three years, Pracey and Co. have not only managed to make the most out of his first round picks, but they've also made a killing in the second and third rounds. When a team can bring in 2+ good picks each year, it greatly speeds along the rebuilding process.
However, even with this boost from the later rounds, rebuilding through the draft takes a considerable amount of time. It also has another drawback in the fact that scouting staffs typically only choose the best player available. This works great if you're building a team from scratch, but if you're looking to fill a specific role, it could be years before a player fitting that description is chosen and even longer before they see NHL ice time. Since time is something this club didn't have, Sherman decided to speed up the rebuilding process by making some extremely gutsy trades.
Unlike some teams that seem content to "rebuild" through just acquiring talent and hoping it all comes together, the Avs had a clear plan in mind. Each trade acquisition was brought in to address one of the team's specific weaknesses and to play a role that our prospect system couldn't fill. All of our new players have been very young as well, which is far from a coincidence. For one, young players are easier to trade for. Since they're still developing, there's a risk they may not live up to their potential, so teams teams are willing to part with them for far less than what an established player would command. Their entry level or first contract salaries are fairly cheap as well, so they help keep costs low during the rebuild just like our drafted players do. On top of that, they're roughly the same age as everyone else on the team. Not only does that mean that all of them are going to hit their prime and start playing the best hockey of their careers at about the same time, but it also means that the entire young core of this team can stay together as a group for upwards of a decade. Talk about creating team chemistry.
Trades also serve another vital role: they get rid of unwanted players. Even the trades that we "lost" were used as a way to ship out players that didn't have the skill-sets or attitude that this organization felt was important. In many cases, addition through subtraction was as valuable as the players we got in return.
Some talent was also added via free agency, but Sherman has been extremely careful about it. Free agency is incredibly tempting - it provides players that can help make your team just a little better right now. However, keep in mind "free agent" is really just a fancy term for "reject". FAs were released by their previous team for some reason, be it skill, health, attitude, or monetary issues. Even though there are a few high quality players who find themselves on the market each year, they are typically looking for huge paydays and are usually overpriced. Chances are good that at some point, fans and teams alike will end up regretting something about a free agent, be it talent level, injury history, or a nasty contract. Fact is, free agents are never really "free" when you're a club looking to fill in a roster spot. Sometimes you get lucky and end up with a great player, but free agency is far from a sure way to build a team that can compete for a Cup, especially in the Cap era. With only a few (usually overpriced) exceptions, they should be used as compliments to a team's core, nothing more.
This risk is twice as high for rebuilding clubs. When you're a team built on drafting like the Avs, you want your young players to get tons of ice time. The more experience they get, the sooner they'll work through their issues and develop into high quality NHL players. However, free agents can end up taking roster spots and TOI that could otherwise be used to further this development. If they aren't handled correctly or too many are brought in, they can slow the rebuild's process to a crawl and critically damage it. The majority of free agents aren't going to improve a team all that much either. If you get lucky, they may bump you up a few spots in the standings, but if you're rebuilding, that could be just enough to cheat your team out of a really good draft pick without getting you a playoff berth. Also, when the majority of your future star players are due up for major raises in less than 3 years, the last thing you want to do is offer anyone that may not work out a lot of money for a lot of years. Free agents are good depth players, but counting on them to be anything more than that is a major gamble that teams struggling to get out of the basement are usually better off avoiding.
Part 3 (running tomorrow) will tie everything from Parts 1 and 2 together and explain why the Avs will probably end up signing a big name (or at least, a big-ish name) free agent or two.