We're just under three weeks away from the start of free agency, and the importance of this offseason can't be overstated. Will the Avalanche go from near miss to playoff contender? They've got the nucleus, they've got the cap room...now they just have to make the right moves.
For kicks, I'm putting on my fake GM hat today. I have no idea what a GM hat looks like, but I'm sure I'd know one if I saw one. At any rate, here's my version of what the Avs might do if I was running the team.
The 07-08 Cap hasn't officially been announced. It was $44 million last year. I've heard numbers ranging from $46 million to $52 million. For this exercise, I'm going with $46 million. I'm not going to count on any rookies, so no Hensik, no Stewart; if they crack the lineup, it will be a bonus. Of the guys who played for the Avs last year, 15 are under contract - 7 forward, 6 defensemen, 2 goalies - for a total cap hit of $29.6 million. I'm planning to field a team with an extra F and an extra D, so I have about $16 million to "buy" 6 forwards and 1 more defenseman. I won't be trading, as that would just make this too complicated. This experiment is all about free agency.
Step 1: The Goalies
This will be the easy part, as I'm not doing anything. Peter Budaj ($700,000) is the starter and Jose Theodore (*gulp* $5,333,000) is the backup. As much as I like Budaj, I'd prefer to upgrade here. Compared to the other goalies in the NW - Kipprusoff, Luongo, Roloson and Backstrom - this is not an area of strength for the Avs. But with a pencil-thin list of free agent goaltenders, I don't see much help on horizon unless it's via trade. Mathieu Garon is an intriguing option, but I suspect he's going to get a look to be the starter for a couple of goalie-poor teams (Florida, for example). Kevin Weekes is a possible option, but not a very good one. Reluctantly, I'm standing pat here and crossing my fingers that Budaj continues to grow, and Theodore continues to not make waves.
Step 2: Defense
I need to add one guy here, and I'm hoping it's going to be a top-flight guy. Last year, Brett Clark and Kurt Sauer finished the season as the #1 pairing. As much as I like both players, I think they'd do much better as the 2nd pair.
So, I'm saving a spot in the top pairing for Jordan Leopold ($1,500,000) and reserving the other spot for a free agent. Clark ($1,500,000) and Sauer ($719,250) move to the 2nd spot and John-Michael Liles ($1,325,000) and Karlis Skrastins ($2,400,000) are the 3rd pair, with Jeff Finger ($475,000) waiting in the wings as a 7th defenseman. Now, the Skrastins / Liles pairing has the potential to be disastrous in the defensive end, but I fully expect one of those guys to be moved before training camp. If that happens, I think Finger would work well with whoever remains with the team.
That leaves the one free agent. The popular choice seems to be a defensive-type player (aka Scott Hannan). I disagree a bit. Right now, we have just Liles, Clark and Leopold who can move the puck well. Skrastins, Sauer and Finger all seem ill-suited for the powerplay. Without another player with offensive skills, Joe Sakic will be looking at double duty with the man advantage again this year, and I think that's a lot to ask. So, I'm looking at a guy who can help both offensively and defensively. The "defensively" part rules out Sheldon Souray. Kimmo Timonen would be a terrific choice, but is probably going to be too expensive for my team (I'm budgeting about $4,000,000 here). Ditto Brad Stuart and Brian Rafalski. I'm targeting someone more towards the 2nd-tier, a guy who's underperformed lately.
The guy? Tom Poti. Poti has been a bit disappointing his last couple of years, but still has a good shot, good size (albeit underutilized), and good puck-moving skills. It's certainly a reach to slot him as a #1 guy, but he's only 30 and I believe could really flourish with the Avs. He played in all situations for the Islanders (leading the team in ice time). $4 million is a lot to pay him (he made $2,750,000 last year), but he'd help the team, and will be a bargain compared to what some of the other defensemen will get this year. I sign him, pair him with Leopold, and, I think, improve the team in the process. Poti had 44 points last year, equal to Lile's team-leading total.
Poti - Leopold
Sauer - Clark
Liles - Skrastins
Step 3: Cut a Hole in the Box
Ha Ha! Actually, step 3 is the forwards. I have about $12,000,000 to sign 6 players. I'd like to do a few things here. I want to increase the scoring. Yes, I know, 272 goals last year; you can never have too much offense, especially with a goalie tandem with some question marks. I want to be a little tougher, keep our existing cycling system and improve our performance on the faceoffs. That eliminates almost all the unsigned Colorado free agents. Sorry, Tyler. Farewell, Brett. Good guys, but they don't fit in my plans.
I think Ryan Smyth would look great in an Avalanche uniform, deflecting shots from the point past opposing goalies. But with the money he's reportedly turning down from the Islanders, I suspect he's going to priced a bit out of my reach. I'd love to have Drury, but I have a feeling that he isn't all that interested in coming back to Denver...and he too is going to make more money than I care to spend. Briere? Gomez? Kariya? Not quite the fit I'm looking for. Brendan Shanahan, if he were 10 years younger would be an interesting choice, but he's not 10 years younger, so scratch it.
Instead, I'm going to go with the semi-popular choice, and take a chance on Peter Forsberg. He would give us 3 great centers down the middle. He's a decent - not great - faceoff guy, which is certainly better than the 43% Arnason gave us. And he's terrific behind the net, which fits in splendidly with the team in place. Yes, the health is an issue. But, I would argue that, unlike in Philadelphia, he won't need to be counted on like a true #1. When he's in the lineup, he'll be sensational. When he isn't, we still will have two excellent lines to carry the load. I'm figuring is asking price to be about $5,000,000. Not cheap, but the potential is there for that to be a bargain. If it doesn't pan out, there's still a playoff caliber team in place.
If I'm signing Forsberg, I'm certainly bringing back RFA Marek Svatos (say $1,200,000). If Svatos was great with Pierre Turgeon feeding him the puck, how good would he be with Forsberg drawing pressure behind the net? Really good is what I'm thinking. On that line, I'm going to add another guy who would benifit from having a linemate like foppa to do the heavy lifting: Wojtek Wolski. This won't be the greatest defensive line ever, but it doesn't have to be.
Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk need a left wing, and I'm going to go with another popular "web-choice" for them: Scott Hartnell. Hartnell made $1,750,000 last year and I'll take a wild stab that he doubles his salary this summer. He's a 6'2" power forward who would look just dandy in a Colorado uniform. If my $3,500,000 estimate is on target, I'm signing him in a heartbeat.
That takes care of 2 of the top 3 lines. Up front, I'm keeping Sakic and Andrew Brunette together and adding Brad Richardson. Richie is approaching make-or-break status with the team. I felt he was misused last year on the 4th line, and looked good in limited duty on the scoring lines. First liner? Probably not, but good enough not to look out of place up there.
That leaves the 4th line. Ian Laperriere has played on all four lines in his tenure with the Avs. This season, I'm slating him on the 4th. In my world, his center is Ben Guite, the only Colorado FA that I'm asking back, with an offer of $575,000. He's great on faceoffs, the penalty kill, and had great tenacity during his rookie year last year. With two more slots to fill (going with 2 4th liners here) I looked at Ville Nieminen (too reckless), Wayne Primeau (too expensive) and Jeff Friesen (too fast? nah, just a great fit with the other grinders). Ultimately, I settled on two former Manchester Monarchs - Adam Mair ($850,000) and Tom Kostopoulos ($750,000). Both guys play a physical, defensive game and both can drop the gloves if needed to help take some of Lappy's workload.
The lines would be
Richardson - Sakic - Brunette
Wolski - Forsberg - Svatos
Hartnell - Stastny - Hejduk
Mair - Guite - Laperriere
To an existing payroll of $29,616,598 I've added the following contracts:
- Tom Poti, $4,000,000
- Peter Forsberg, $5,000,000
- Scott Hartnell, $3,500,000
- Marek Svatos, $1,200,000
- Ben Guite, $575,000
- Adam Mair, $850,000
- Tom Kostopoulous, $750,000
The additional $15,875,000 in salary puts me about $500,000 below my projected $46,000,000 cap ($45,491,598 is the final total).
I haven't improved the goaltending, and I haven't done much to improve the team defensively. However, I did add a blueliner capable of providing offense and taking some minutes away from Clark, who might have been a bit overextended. I've added a bunch of offensive firepower that should give the team three lines that could compete offensively with any team in the league. Forsberg is a major question mark (as is his new linemate, Marek Svatos), but even if his ankles don't hold up, the addition of Hartnell with the existing nucleus should make this a an exciting club. The team is tougher, better at faceoffs, a bit better defensively, and has even more scoring punch. At least to my eyes.