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The Economics of Rebuilding, Part 3: The Finishing Touches

Future Av?  I hope so.
Future Av? I hope so.

Note: This is the last 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 (I edited this part, so this number is now up to around 5000) words long and took over 10 minutes far, far to long to read. So, for everyone's sanity (especially my own), I decided to split it up. Here are the links to part one and two if you missed them.

For the past three years, this club has been locked into a rebuilding mentality. It's been a rough ride, and the team has definitely had its shares of ups and downs. But you know what? It's been worth it. Our front office and scouting staff has manged to put together a roster that is extremely young and built to compete for a long time. We finally have a future, and man, is it bright.

Look at our roster - what do we have left to fix? We're set down the middle with Duchene, Stastny, O'Reilly and McClement. For the first time since Roy left, our goaltending situation is completely under control, and we even have a gaggle of goalie prospects that will hopefully be ready to step up when Giguere chooses to retire. Our defense for the most part is solid - if anything, we have too many good options - and with the deadline acquisitions of McGinn and Downie, our winger depth looks much, much better.

Really, all we need is a #2 defenseman for EJ and one more elite scoring winger to finish out our Top 9.

We might be able to use either Hishon or Sgarbossa as the wing next year, but that's a long shot. Neither of them are natural wingers, and besides, it's probably best if they have a little time to ease into the world of professional hockey via the Monsters. Hejduk may also come back and have a resurgence, but unfortunately, I'm not crossing my fingers. Our options at D are just as sketchy. Maybe Elliott, Barrie, or Siemens will become a true #2 someday, but it certainly looks like they just aren't quite ready to handle that responsibly yet. If we want to switch into "win now" mode, our best bet is probably to look outside of the organization.

Yes, doing so may end up costing a bit of money. However, given the economic climate of Denver, the desire of our ownership to turn a profit, and the fact we have only two holes in our roster left to address, why wouldn't we do whatever it takes to complete the team when we're this close to getting back to winning?

For the first time in quite a while, completing this team via the draft isn't such a good option either. Since our positional need are so specific and we're looking to win now, relying on a system that chooses the best player available regardless of position or the time it's going to take him to reach the NHL probably isn't the smartest move. That's not to say drafting isn't important - if anything, this exercise in rebuilding should have taught us how stupid neglecting your farm team is - but it's just not the best way to finish out our team.

Trading is becoming less and less of an option as well. You have to give up something to get something back, but when all of your quality pieces are players you're not exactly keen on parting with, it severely limits your options. We still may end up trading a few defenseman and goalie prospects just to alleviate the log-jam at those positions, but none of them right now are good enough to bring back a top defenseman or forward. Unless Sherman and Pracey can work some serious magic or are willing to move a member of the core, I doubt that trading and drafting are the best ways to fill in these missing pieces.

However, free agency has become a little less scary for us now that we're nearing the end of the rebild. Up until this point, we couldn't afford to sacrifice our cap flexibility because we didn't know what economic or talent demands the team would end up having in the future. But since most of our team is now set and we'll be re-signing the majority of our young core this summer, we won't have to worry about keeping a ton of cap space open for raises anymore. That opens up a ton of money we can use to bring in the two high quality players that will complete our roster - we won't be forced to settle for stopgaps for economic reasons anymore.

Even though players like Parise, Semins, Suter or Carle may end up being overpriced, just think about the return they'll bring. First of all, what a statement they'd make! If the Avs brought one of them in, it would show the rest of the league that the Colorado Avalanche are back and ready to compete once more. On top of that, if the free agents mesh well with our core, the Ws are really going to start coming during the regular season. That is going to draw some attention in Denver, especially after Payton Manning's the Bronco's season is over. The increased ticket sales before April will probably be enough to justify a big contract or two, but if we make the playoffs? That's just gravy. It appears as if teams average about $1mil in profit for every home playoff game. We bring in Parise and make it to the third round? Well, that contract just paid for itself.

But we still have to be careful about the types of players we target. While signing veterans would provide this young team with guidance and experience, their playing days are limited and their production could easily fall off the cliff at any time. When they retire in a few years, we'd be forced to look for an alternative that could prove either very risky if we must rely on drafting/trading or very costly due to salary inflation if we have to turn to the market again. On the other hand, a free agent in the 27 to 30-year-old range wouldn't just become an accessory to the core, but a vital part of it. Paying them a lot of money for a long time is more justified because they still have quite a few years of strong play left. Not only would they alleviate a lot of hassles and potential massive costs later, but they'd also be given the chance to develop a lasting chemistry with members of the team and be a major factor in our success for years to come. Besides, the Avs have already shown that they're willing to sacrifice a little more to bring in these younger players - they did so this summer when they chose Varly over Vokoun. It's not too unreasonable to assume that they'd do so again.

Unfortunately, even though it makes sense for our team to attempt to bring in a free agent, it takes two to tango. Successfully courting a FA means that you have to make your club the most desirable option available. The big name players are the "big names" because there are going to be multiple teams going after them. If Parise hits the market, there's probably going to be close to 29 clubs giving his agent a call. It becomes not just a question of should the Avs sign a big name, but can they?

I firmly believe that our chances are very good if we play our cards right. Most Free Agents tend to be looking for a few things: a team's ability to win a Cup, quality of life in the new city, and money/job security. Luckily, the Avs can appeal to FAs on all three.

Even though we may not be a "Cup Contender" yet, our young core is poised to become a threat in the NHL within the next season or two. We have a scary amount of potential, and our 20 point jump in the standings and late season push this year probably helped our case. Since the FAs we're trying to attract are still fairly young, they probably have 5-10 years of solid hockey left ahead of them. If everything progresses like it has, our team will almost certainly be competitive during that time whereas certain current Cup contenders (like Detroit) have an aging core that may not last that long. If you're a free agent, choosing a team where you may only have 3-4 seasons to win a Cup before being stuck in the middle of a rebuild is probably a less desirable option than going somewhere where you'll have 10+ years and multiple chances to get the job done. This playoff season has already proven that "Cup Contenders" don't always get the chance to compete for the Cup, so maximizing one's chances to hoist Hockey's Holy Grail (and possibly setting yourself up to lift it more than once) is probably a very wise move.

The Avs also have other draws when it comes to pursuing the Cup. This team has a strong history, and many of the people that were involved in the 1996 and 2001 Cups are still here. The man who constructed those teams, former GM Pierre Lacroix, is now our President, and we even have this guy named Joe Sakic in our front office now. If you were a kid playing hockey in the 90's (like most of the target FAs were), you know all about Super Joe and will probably listen to him if he calls you up and tells you why the Avs are going to be good again. Also, our current management has proven over the past few years that they're willing to make the moves that will strengthen the team. If nothing else, our recent trade deadline acquisitions have shown that Greg Sherman knows what he's doing, so if a FA signs with a contract with a NMC, he'll know that the front office will do their best to get him the players he needs to succeed. Honestly, the only major knock against the management right now is their seeming unwillingness to spend, but if they bring in said FA, then that point becomes moot.

On top of that, Denver's far from the worst place to be when it comes to quality of life. Even last year, Giguere cited the family-friendly environment as part of the reason why he chose to come here. For players looking to settle down, that could be a major draw. The weather here is also glorious, the mountains are amazing, we have plenty to do that's not hockey related (especially outside in the summer), crime is fairly low in comparison to many of the other NHL cities, the people are fairly friendly, and heck, we even have good parks! Overall, it's a nice place to live. Add in the fact that there's a large number of fans that will come cheer you on when the team is doing well, and it becomes a fairly desirable location.

Many of the major free agents also have buddies already on the team. Parise and Suter both played with Stastny and EJ at the last Olympics - Parise was even on Stastny's line and knows exactly what sort of an amazing playmaker he is. Stastny also knows Matt Carle - they won the NCAA Championship together with DU in 2005. And Semin and Varly know each other from their time spent in Washington. Besides, this is a team filled with players close to their age or mature-beyond-their-years younger players. If the FA is committed to being here and willing to work (which of course they will be - there's no way this team will offer anyone that type of contract unless they meet the "Skill, Character and Compete" criteria), they should have absolutely no trouble fitting in.

However, the biggest draw we have? Money. As mentioned above, the Avs can support a fairly large contract, especially if the player in question is able to bring back at least that much in additional revenue. However, I doubt Sherman will agree to a Kovalchuk-like contract for anyone. Tying ourselves to a player for such a long time and for such a large cap hit isn't wise when our management has proven that they have a knack for finding players that can thrive in our system for much less. But even if the league does drive the price of certain free agents too high, there will still be a lot of very good options in the $5-7 mil range for 6 or so years. That offer should be enough to ensure most FAs the salary and job security he's looking for while still allowing us to obtain the high quality player that we need without putting our team's future at risk.

The FA in question can also take comfort in the fact that it's practically impossible for our owner to go bankrupt, the team is guaranteed to stay in Denver until 2025, and our management's smart money decisions up until this point have provided and environment where this team's talent is going to stay together for a long time. This is no Chicago with a one-and-done Cup run. This team is built like a cap friendly version of the old Avalanche - the team that found a way to make it to near the top of the league every year for almost a decade. Good things are happening in Denver. For a player looking to make a fresh start (and get a nice payday), it's a desirable option.

Now that all of that background information is out of the way, here's my actual argument:

Due to the smart economic decisions and hard work of Sherman, Pracey, and the rest of our front office during the years of the rebuild, the Avs have assembled a very talented and well-balanced roster that is built to compete for years to come and currently has very few holes left and a lot of flexibility within the cap system. Due to the inherent drawbacks of drafting and trading, turning to the free market becomes our best option to complete our team. Luckily, we have a business-minded owner with deep pockets who is motivated by return on investment, so the gate-driven income model of the NHL and Denver's large general sports crowd provides a very strong intensive to ice a competitive team as quickly as possible. He has entrusted the running of this club to those that know it best, so it's highly likely that our GM - a man who is fluent in both hockey and money and knows how to negotiate - can convince him of the economic value of signing a young free agent who will become a critical part of our core. On top of that, the long-term viablilty of this club is now becoming apparent, and due to team's bright future, storied past, confident and competent management, desirable location, inviting lockerroom, and ability to provide economic security and a stable home, it's becoming a place where a big name free agent would choose to sign. The stars are aligning in such a way that bringing in a high quality free agent finally makes sense and is economically the wisest option available to us.

And that, my friends, is why the Avs will spend this summer.