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Avalanche Free Agency Game Plan: Defensemen

Last week, we looked at the Avs’ potential free agency game plan for the goalies. It wasn’t all that complex, essentially boiling down to bringing in someone to man the fort down in Lake Erie. Today, we’re checking out the plan for the defense. And that area is, potentially, much more complicated.

Of the three positional groups, defense is the toughest area to predict. Although the Avs will likely lose Ruslan Salei and Brett Clark to free agency, they are still projected to have 6 defensemen capable of playing full-time in the NHL: Adam Foote, Scott Hannan, Kyle Quincey, John-Michael Liles, Kyle Cumiskey and Ryan Wilson. That’s the good news. The issue here though is that keeping all six would effectively represent a status quo and do we really want repeat performance from a squad that gave up a 25th-worst 32.1 shots per game and was one of 7 teams without a 40-point season from the blueline (2006-2007 was the last time an Avalanche defenseman hit 40)? We don’t. The Avalanche have money to spend (up to $15 million by our estimates), but can they bring in any new blood without moving one of the incumbents? At the same time, they need to be mindful of the prospects coming through the pipeline – Shattenkirk, Gaunce, Cohen, Holos, etc; those guys will need to have opportunities to play, but will also need a solid core in place so that they aren’t thrown to the wolves.

With that in mind, what Avalanche GM Greg Sherman does (or doesn’t do) with the defense in the next to weeks is going to be extremely interesting. Does he bring in a top-flight free agent, or maybe just stick with a depth move (think Ken Klee of a couple of years back)? Does he move one of the six incumbents in an effort to shake things up a bit or to create room? (As an added bit of complexity, three of the six have some sort of no trade clause in place). There’s no clear plan of attack here. Well, I’m sure Sherman has a plan in mind. We just don’t know what it is. Yet.

With that in mind, I’m going to look at some potential top-tier targets if the Avalanche go that route. Although it would be great to add some pop to the blueline, there’s just 5 potential free agents who scored more than Lile’s kind-oh-meh 31 points last year, and I think at least two of them - Carlo Colaiacovo and Kurtis Foster – will be extended before we get to July 1st. The Avalanche probably won’t upgrade their offensive pop with this group. Put it this way – Jordan Leopold is the 8th highest scoring pending UFA and Brett Clark is the 12th. Enough said? With that in mind, we’ll focus on guys who can help on the defensive side of things. Here’s ten big name free agents who could help the Avs (in no particular order) and one "depth" player to add on as well. *Note - clicking on the links to of each player takes them to their SBN player page which includes a scouting report *

Zbynek Michalek, 27, Phoenix. With the re-signing of Adrian Aucoin (who would have been on this list), it looks more and more likely that Michalek will become a free agent on July 1st. Michalek is a 6’2" guy with a ton of blocked shots (he led the league with 271 two years ago). Michalek is known more for his defense than his offense (17 points last year). He led the Coyote defensemen in ice time per game – as well as even strength and penalty killing – and is 5th among all UFA defensemen in that category. He’s coming off a deal that paid him $1.25 million, but this is his first time on the UFA market. He’ll no doubt be looking for a long-term deal that pays in the $4 million range. That price is steep – but not a deal-breaker. Much more than that, though, and the Avs should look elsewhere.

Dan Hamhuis, 27, Philadelphia. Hamhuis was probably going to be priced out of the Avs’ budget even before Nashville traded him to Philadelphia on Saturday. He’s a solid defenseman who is probably going to be overpaid heavily this summer…and it looks like the Flyers will be the team to do that. One scouting report on Hamhuis lists his flaws as "Isn't a physical defenseman, which somewhat limits his effectiveness against big NHL forwards. Is also a limited contributor in the offensive zone." We already have a Scott Hannan, thanks. Hamhuis would be a nice add in the $3 to $3.5 million range. I think he’ll be pushing 5 bills. Not worth it.

Willie Mitchell, 33, Vancouver. Mitchell is a bit of a question mark, as he’s coming off a serious concussion that had him speculating he may not return to hockey. Now, he says he’s healthy and training. He’s a shutdown defensemen and a leader on and off the ice. I’ve been a big Mitchell fan for years. While he doesn’t put up much in the way of offensive numbers (career high is 23 points), the thought of having Mitchell and Foote as a 1-2 shutdown punch next year and working with the youngsters is extremely tantalizing. Mitchell has played most of his career in the NW division, and the Avalanche should be very familiar with what he has to offer. He’s coming off a 4 year deal at $3.5 million a season. I think he would be an excellent fit for the Avs at a similar price.

Andy Sutton, 35, Ottawa. Sutton is an intriguing option. First of all, he’s huge: 6’6", 245. The Avalanche could certainly use that size on the blueline. He doesn’t have quite the defensive acumen that Willie Mitchell would provide, but his size, leadership and veteran presence would be welcome. He’s a big hitter too – tops among all UFA defensemen with 197 hits. Like mostly everyone on this list, he won’t score much. He made $3 million last year, which might be a little high (especially considering that his age would make his contract count against the cap no matter what happens). While he wouldn’t be my first choice, I wouldn’t mind seeing him on a 2-year deal paying $2-$2.5 million per year.

Pavel Kubina, 33, Atlanta. The good: In his last 3 seasons, the 6’4" Kubina has scored 40, 40 and 38 points respectively for generally awful teams. The not-so-good: He was paid $5 million each year to do that. Kubina would look to be one of the few offensive upgrades available to the Avalanche, but he has some question marks defensively and, of course, that price tag is hefty. As we’ve documented, the Avalanche have plenty of money to toss around…but this is probably not the guy they want to be in a bidding war for, especially now that he’s at an age where decline is imminent.

Paul Martin, 29, New Jersey. A lot of people are touting Martin as a great target for the Avalanche this summer, but I personally don’t see it. Martin is a mobile defensemen who plays a smart positional game. While I wouldn’t pass up a guy like that, the Avalanche seem to have a plethora of smallish, mobile defensemen already. If they are going to shell out money – and Martin is likely due a raise from his most recent $3.8 million per season deal – I think they’d want someone who could compliment Kevin Shattenkirk in the future, not echo his talents.

Anton Volchenkov, 28, Ottawa. This guy is a shot-blocking beast and an excellent defender. He’d be awesome with the Avs. He is going to get paid, though – probably over $5 million per year. As the saying goes, these are not the droids we’re looking for.

Kurtis Foster, 28, Tampa Bay. Foster scored 42 points for Tampa, a steal at his $600,000 salary. I’ve always been a fan of Foster’s booming shot. It doesn’t hurt that he’s from tiny Carp, Ontario – a town I lived in for a couple of years. I don’t think he’s going to be on the market on July 1st, but I would absolutely love to see him in an Avalanche uniform if he does find his way to free agency.

Henrik Tallinder, 31, Buffalo. Henrik’s been a shutdown guy in Buffalo and was paired this year with a certain Calder Trophy candidate in Tyler Myers. He’s coming off a deal that paid him $2.5 million per season in Buffalo, but the stingy Sabres may let him leave via free agency. The 6’3" Swede is a guy many think will fly under the radar this July, but I think he’s going to have plenty of suiters. He’ll probably come in around the $3.5 million range, and he’d be an excellent addition to the Avs.

Toni Lydman, 32, Buffalo. Lydman strikes me as kind of a poor-man’s Paul Martin – a steady, positionally sound defensemen. He probably will make $2 million less than Martin though, as he’s coming off a deal paying him $2.8 million. I still don’t feel this type of player is as good a fit for the Avs as some of the others on this list, that salary level is much more palatable.

John Scott, 27, Minnesota. I think it’s clear that I have a little crush on former Wild defensemen (see Foster and Mitchell above). John Scott isn’t a great player, but man I love this 6’8" beast. I’d love to see him stretching out an Avalanche unipron…for the league minimum, of course.

If I was GM, Mitchell, Sutton, Michalek, Tallinder, Foster and Lydman would be the five guys I’m most interested in on Canada Day. Volchenkov, Martin, Kubina and Hamhuis would be great additions…but probably not the best fits based on skill set and salary demands. And, of course, after we sign the big name we’ve got to add John Scott for depth. We don’t know what will happen on July 1st, but these 11 are the guys I’ll be watching as we approach the big day.