Monday, March 2nd, 2015 at 1 PM MT.
That, my friends, is the NHL's trade deadline. While the leadup to that date is probably uncomfortable for most players, I imagine that one member of the Avalanche is keeping closer than usual tabs on it this year. And yes, I'm talking about Ryan O'Reilly.
There's no denying O'Reilly is a good player. He made the league at 18 as a defensive 3rd line center, but has since (surprisingly) blossomed into a top line center/wing who flirted with the 30 goal mark last season. While it seems unlikely he'll repeat that number anytime soon, his entire career to this date has one long list of defied expectations. Normally, I'd say he's never going to be a franchise player, but I learned to stop making those types of predictions about him years ago.
However, I can say with confidence that he's not going to be a franchise player here in Colorado. With centers Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, and winger Captain Gabe Landeskog, O'Reilly is at best the 4th Musketeer. He has an incredible set of skills that compliment our core nicely, but he's never going to be "the guy". In a pre Cap era, that wouldn't be a problem - KSE has shown that they're okay with dedicating vast amounts money to this franchise if it helps bring wins - but in order to retain the other three forwards as well as Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, and Semyon Varlamov in this post-lockout landscape, the Avs have to keep an eye on the budget.
If the rumors that O'Reilly is looking for a $6.5-7 mil (or more) payday in summer 2016, that's a tough pill to swallow. Add in the fact that MacKinnon, Johnson, and Barrie are due for large raises at the same time, and it becomes even more complex. I'm sure there's a way to make it work, but with all the all the other areas on this team that need to be addressed, is committing that money to a 4th forward truly the best move for the long-term competitiveness of the club? There is also the real possibility that O'Reilly or the Avs might not want to renew the relationship in any case - business is business, but we don't know how personal the past contract disputes became behind closed doors. As much as I would love for O'Reilly to retire an Av, I can't help but think that his days in Colorado are numbered. His skills are important - but not critical - to the team, and a fresh start for both sides might be the best possible outcome.
After the Stastny fiasco last summer, I'd be shocked if the Avs allow O'Reilly to hit UFA while still wearing burgundy. Even the most well-respected names in the hockey journalism community are admitting that Sakic is making and taking calls concerning the soon-to-be 24 year-old forward. It doesn't sound like anything is imminent, and it's entirely possible that the Avs hold off until closer to the draft to make any moves. Perhaps they'll even give the long-term contract extension talks one more try. But with every team in the the league who even vaguely needs an upgrade at center salivating over the idea of acquiring O'Reilly, it's possible the right deal comes around before the March 2nd deadline.
So, what might this "right deal" look like? Word on the street is that the Avs are shopping for a defenseman. Since Roy has shown a preference for pairing right and left shots on the blueline, it's worth mentioning that the Avs' left side is devastatingly thin. Jan Hejda, our top-pairing defensive foundation, is set to become a 37-year-old UFA this summer. If he traded at the deadline or decides to retire/pursue employment elsewhere, the Avs are left with Nick Holden and Brad Stuart. While Stuart was brought in for a Top 4 role, experience has shown that playing him at anything above 3rd pairing minutes is statistical suicide, and Nick Holden has been a frequent scratch this year. The Avs have a slew of very promising lefty prospects, but it's unlikely that Duncan Siemens, Chris Bigras, Will Butcher, or Mason Geertsen will be ready for anything more than a sheltered role by the beginning of next season.
On the other hand, the Avs are actually fairly strong down the right side. All-Star Erik Johnson leads the way with Tyson Barrie close behind. Zach Redmond and AHL All-Star Stefan Elliott are other young options, and Nate Guenin is under contract for another year. That's not to say that the right can't be strengthened, but if the Avs are playing priorities, a 20-something left-handed defenseman is the team's greatest area of need.
Unfortunately, the forward corps needs to be considered as well. Even if the Big Three of Duchene, MacKinnon, and Landeskog stick around for another decade, Iginla and Tanguay won't. In the system, Joey Hishon, Connor Bleackley, Dennis Everberg, and Borna Rendulic are the only players who have even a chance at cracking an NHL Top 6, and even they're long-shots. Basically, if O'Reilly is traded, there isn't a clear successor on the way. While top forwards are easier to court in the free market than defensemen, it's still a classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. It also won't help salvage what's left of this season. If O'Reilly is moved for a defenseman, the loss of his offense could easily act as the final nail for this year's playoff dreams. Is Sakic willing to take that chance? And given the Avs prospect pool, does a forward for forward swap ultimately make more sense?
There's also O'Reilly's reputation to contend with. Throughout his RFA years, he's made a pattern of using what little leverage the CBA has provided to aid in salary discussions. Given this history, it's reasonable to assume that he'd like to test the free market in a year and a half, regardless of what city he calls home. As a GM, trading a core player for what could amount to fewer than 120 games of O'Reilly is likely a very concerning proposition. By the CBA, the earliest O'Reilly could sign an extension is this summer. With the Avs' permission, his agent is able to talk to suitors to reach a handshake agreement prior to that point, but it's not a legal guarantee. And at the end of the day, it is firmly within O'Reilly's rights to test the market, just as it was in his rights to hold out for an offer sheet. He doesn't have to agree to anything, even in principle, which could severely limit the Avs' trade options.
Even with that in mind, let's look at some potential trade targets.
ARI - Player for player, O'Reilly for Yandle would be a near perfect swap. Both are set to hit UFA on the same day, and both address the other team's needs. However, it appears the Coyotes are heading into full rebuild mode. O'Reilly is only 23, so age-wise, he'd still fit with a rebuilding plan. But are the desert dogs willing to pay his salary? And is he willing to commit long-term with a financially insecure and rebuilding team?
BUF - Unlike Arizona, Buffalo's rebuilding efforts are already well underway. They have a nice group of young prospects, and O'Reilly would likely find a home as a #2 center and mentor. While Tyler Myers seems like the perfect trade chip, he plays on the right-hand side. Given the question marks on the left, I'd rather see the Avs pursue someone like 19-year-old, 6'-5" rookie Nikita Zadorov.
TOR - I just know that someone over at Pension Plan Puppets is going to get word of this article and the comments will devolve into Bozak and a 2nd madness. But, since Kypreos specifically mentioned them, let's talk about the Leafs. I, for one, am not sold on Rielly or Gardiner. They're a lot like Barrie, which is good, but I'm not sure they address the Avs defensive needs. With Hejda possibly leaving, there'd be no one to shelter them, and that'd just be no bueno all the way around. Phaneuf's contract is straight lol no, and Cody Franson is a bit on the older side, a righty, and a UFA this summer. While O'Reilly would be an upgrade over THE Tyler Bozak, I'm not sure they're the right fit on the Avs end.
EDM - They're a bit of a dark horse, but man, Klefbom or Nurse could be a heck of a steal for the Avs. A defensively reliable center might not be a terrible upgrade for the Oilers either, and they have the cap space. Here's an article from the Edmonton Journal that discusses the idea in a bit more depth.
MTL - It appears Plekanec and Desharnais are the current 1-2 punch for the Habs. Even with Galchenyuk on the way, O'Reilly might make sense. Would they be willing to give up Emelin or Markov + a defensive prospect?