NHL free agency is entering day number five today. The Colorado Avalanche have re-signed a couple of players and added a few good players for their AHL club. But GM Greg Sherman has yet to sign one free agent for his big league club. There are still some significant names on the market other than Ilya Kovalchuk, but it is sounding more and more like potential useful additions like Willie Mitchell, Andy Sutton, Lee Stempniak or Raffi Torres will be passed by.
The party line is that the Avalanche are committed to building from within and want to make sure the team has cap space down the road to make sure the team can keep the core nucleus intact. But, could there be more to it than that? The skeptics out there - and I may be one of them - wonder if there might be something else at work here. Could this be about money?
Just over a year ago, the Avalanche jettisoned Ryan Smyth and his $6 million salary to the Los Angeles Kings for Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing and there were rumors that the Avalanche were trying to find takers for some of their other big contracts (Scott Hannan, for one). The team was coming off a money-losing season (maybe $10 million, says Adrian Dater) and there have been cutbacks behind the scenes. There were also claims that the failed Patrick Roy negotiations ultimately broke down over money. The Avalanche were very quiet on the free agent front last summer, signing "just" Craig Anderson and David Koci to cap-friendly deals. Ultimately, the Anderson signing was one of the best of the summer, but his $1.8 million deal is certainly wasn't a bank-breaker. And let's not forget that the couldn't pony up $1.2 million per year to retain the services of Ian Laperriere. I know I can't.
Last season, the Avalanche were surprising playoff contenders. Odd, then, that the Avs would trade Wojtek Wolski for Peter Mueller and Kevin Porter at the deadline, yes? At the time, Wolski had more than doubled Mueller's scoring output (47 points to 17). While it worked out wonderfully for both teams, it was speculated here that Wolski was moved because he would be commanding close to $4 million in salary this summer. We can question whether Wolski is worth that sort of money, but the bottom line is that the Colorado Avalanche are far enough under the salary cap that Wolski's contract would not have been an issue. It really boiled down to whether they wanted to pay him that kind of money, and the clear answer was that they did not.
And now we have the curious Tom Preissing situation. Preissing didn't play well for the Avalanche last year, certainly not well enough to warrant his $2.75 million price tag. But Preissing could have been safely tucked in Cleveland for the final year of his deal, as players in the AHL do not count against the salary cap. Instead, the Avalanche have reportedly bought out Preissing, a move that saves them about $900,000 in cash. Perhaps more significantly, the move adds that same amount in cap space this year and next year. The grassy knoll experts out there are wondering if the team is making this move solely to add enough dead cap space to get to the cap floor without increasing payroll. Sure, you can make an argument that buying out Preissing frees up playing time in Lake Erie for the bevy of young defensive prospects the Avs have in the system. You can also make an argument that Preissing's veteran presence would benefit those same players and he did score 31 points in 49 games to lead all Monsters defensemen last year.
On its own, the Preissing buyout would be a curious move - one that doesn't make sense capwise, but could be justified in other ways. When combined with all of the other cost-conscious moves above, the Avs' woeful attendance in recent years and, oh by the way, the team's uncertain ownership situation, it is troublesome. It makes you wonder just how important this young nucleus really is to them. Are the young guns valued for their future potential...or for their still-favorable cap numbers? Is Sherman really making sure there's money to pay Duchene and Stewart and O'Reilly in a few years...or will they eventually be low-balled out of town like Andrew Brunette, Ian Laperriere and, yes-I'll-go-there, Jose Theodore? A week ago, that thought was preposterous. Today, not so much. A week ago, we were all thinking about how great it would be to bring in someone like Ilya Kovalchuk. Today, I'm a little concerned we may already have a Kovalchuk on our roster - a star player who is allowed to depart to early because of money.
I really hope I'm wrong.