The summer is a very slow and sometimes depressing time for hockey fans. The season is over, as is most of the off-season fun. Now it's just waiting time. I thought there wasn't a better time to ask some beat writers around the league about how the off-season of the team they cover went, as well as the Avs' off-season and their future. The first up is Aaron Portzline.
Aaron (he insisted on me using his first name) is the Columbus Blue Jackets beat writer for The Columbus Dispatch and has covered the Blue Jackets ever since they came into the league. In my opinion he is one of the best in the game, offering great insight and having a wealth of knowledge about the players and teams around the league. Let's see what he had to say.
Columbus had a decently busy off-season. They signed Gregory Campbell and John Ramage in free agency, but their big splash was acquiring Brandon Saad from the Blackhawks for Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Corey Tropp, Jeremy Morin and a fourth round pick. Columbus then quickly extended Saad for a 6 year, $36 million contract. Given that they led the league with 508 man games lost last season, how competitive do you expect them to be in the East next year?
AP - I suspect they'll be very competitive, finishing somewhere in the 4-6 range and challenging for the Metropolitan Division. They have one of the better forwards groups in the league .But this prediction, like all others, requires an asterisk, and it stands for "if healthy." The injuries were absolutely devastating last season. It wasn't just the number of games, but the players missing them: Bobrovsky, Murray, Jenner, Dubinsky, Anisimov ... devastating. This is a very motivated team this season, and I think that back-against-the-wall mentality will serve them well, especially at the start. They've had horrible starts now the last few seasons. Have to avoid that.
Before free agency, the Avalanche acquired Carl Soderberg's rights from the Boston Bruins for a 6th round pick in a move that seemed to be the final nail in the coffin of the Ryan O'Reilly trade. They then extended him for 5 years, $23.75 million. What are your thoughts on the trade, and the extension?
AP - It made sense for the Avs to trade for Soderberg. As you say, they covered their back end in advance of the O'Reilly trade, which is a lot smarter than trying to fill the hole once it's empty. Soderberg is an interesting player, but he has a relatively short NHL track record. He'll be 30 years old shortly after the season opens, but with only two full seasons on his resume. He's a 15-30-45 guy, right? Nothing wrong with that. But I'm in "like him" mode, not "love him" mode. That contract seems steep to me for a 2-3 center.
Much like Columbus, the Avs' big splash this off-season came in the form of a trade when they dealt Ryan O'Reilly at the draft along with Jamie McGinn for Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, J.T. Compher and the 31st overall draft pick. What was your initial reaction to the trade?
AP - I love Zadorov. It takes big defensemen a while to get it, so last season would have been a huge learning curve. He may still be 2-3 years away from establishing the player he can be. Grigorenko is a horse, too. The Avs became more physically imposing, but I'm not sure what you'll get out of these guys right away. Patience is the key. Heard good things about Compher, too. To me, this is a "tomorrow" trade for the Avs, in that they might not see the benefits right away. But in five years, I think they'll really like this trade.
During free agency, the Avs signed Francois Beauchemin for 3 years, $13.5 million. What are your thoughts on the contract and his fit with the team?
- I think the Avs desperately needed to upgrade their defense, and Beauchemin gives them big presence back there. Solid all around player. And, as mentioned, I like Zadorov. They won't get pushed around as much now, but I wonder about their ability to move the puck. Beauchemin is 35 years old, and he's played a heavy game for a long time now. Not sure what he'll be like at the end of this deal.
During free agency, the Avs also signed Blake Comeau, who played 70 games for the Blue Jackets, for 3 years, $7.2 million. What can you tell us about Comeau and what are your thoughts on the signing?
AP - I like Comeau and this signing quite a bit. Seems obvious that new Avs asst. GM Chris MacFarland would have played a heavy role in this signing after seeing what Comeau brought to the Blue Jackets only a couple of seasons ago. Comeau plays a physical style and can score goals, can play on a third or fourth line. Could even fit on a second line if it needs a physical presence. He can keep up. One thing you see over time with Comeau ... he pushes the pace at practice, often to the point of frustration for teammates. He had a couple of skirmishes in his time with the Blue Jackets, not because he wasn't well liked in the room -- he was -- but because he pisses off guys who don't want to go that hard in practice.
Looking forward, how do you think the Avs look compared to a year from now?
- My hunch is the Avs wanted to get more physical, become more difficult to play against. They've done that. How much difference it will make, I'm not sure. They finished last in the Central last season, but, god, they had 90 points, so they aren't that far away. But the division is a bear. I think the Blues and Blackhawks are definitely better teams. But I think Nashville, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Dallas and Colorado are all in a pretty tight cluster that could go either way.
Thanks to Aaron Portzline for taking the time to answer these questions. If you want to follow him on twitter, he can be found at @Aportzline.
If you have any beat writers around the league that you'd like to see participate in this, please let me know!