To trade or not to trade?
It’s the question that grips fans every year right around the end of the All Star Break, no matter their team or tanking position. Even the best teams find themselves preoccupied with the questions; if you aren’t looking to trade away players, you’re looking to trade FOR them.
The Avalanche, of course, are in a bit of a unique position.
The team put their 2016-17 season behind them after putting up a performance that ranked them as one of the worst teams in modern NHL history, and the expectation was that they were in a perfect position to slowly — emphasis on slowly — climb their way back to prominence.
It can hardly be considered a bad thing that they accelerated their rebuild last year, especially given how they did it. They earned a playoff berth and picked up a lottery-protected first round pick for their troubles anyway, watching as Ottawa’s managerial incompetence all but guaranteed they’ll select in the top five this year anyway.
They’re still a bubble team, though, thick in the throes of the turtle race for the two Wild Card spots in the Western Conference.
And while that doesn’t affect their draft position with their coveted first rounder from the Matt Duchene trade, it does put them in a tight spot when it comes to one of their most important trade deadline decisions — what to do with Semyon Varlamov.
The Avalanche have dealt with goaltending woes for years now, made all the more painful when looking back at what Patrick Roy used to be able to offer the fans.
Their best hope at consistency and skill has been Russian-born net minder Semyon Varlamov, who has been their starter since the team acquired him from the Washington Capitals in July of 2011.
Since then, he’s won 176 games, second to only Patrick Roy in Colorado franchise history. He’s made just one playoff appearance in Denver — a seven-game stretch during the 2014 postseason — but has amassed a collective .916 save percentage in all situations and put up 20 of his 24 career shutouts in the process.
He’s not all good, though, and it’s the bad — namely, his injury history — that makes it tough for the team to justify keeping him around in hopes of a definitive contract extension this summer. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent, likely wants a decently-sized salary to remain a starter, and may not be the answer given how many games he’s missed in recent years for various ailments related to lower-body issues.
Most teams, when they know they’re likely going to lose a player to free agency, have a few clear-cut options.
If they player is good and the team is contending for a playoff spot, they hold on to the player in hopes that they help them over the hump. They may even try to lock them down to an extension ahead of time, so the spectre of that potential free agency loss doesn’t loom over everyone’s heads.
If the player is on the decline and the team is in a playoff spot, they may use them as part of a package with picks to get a younger, fresher asset for the postseason from another team. If the player is good but the team itself is on the decline, they sell them off as a rental.
The Avalanche are in a sticky spot because, well, they aren’t sure where they are. They’re thick in the playoff race, but a miserable stretch in January and a tightly-fought Wild Card position leave them without a guarantee that holding Varlamov for a playoff run will pay off.
If they keep him and the team misses the playoffs, they’ve missed out on a good selling point for an asset. If they sell him and the team ends up fighting for the postseason, they’ve lost a valuable weapon; while Philipp Grubauer is supposed to be the future, he’s been struggling.
The trade deadline this year is still 26 days away, and the Avalanche will play 12 more games before then, not counting the Deadline Day matchup against the Florida Panthers coming after 5pm.
Right now, the team sits in a tightly-fought battle of mediocrity for the Wild Card spots, but 12 games could either put them well ahead of the pack or well behind it. Even with the bye weeks skewing games played at the moment, there’s a good chance that mid-February will provide Colorado with a much clearer picture of what their spring is going to look like; they’ll either be ready for a foray into the postseason or preparing for a pair of lottery picks.
Depending on where they sit in the standings, there’s a case to be made for both keeping and dealing away Varlamov.
If the team looks like they’re in a playoff position — or at the very least could be by April — dealing Varlamov will cost them dearly. For a team that wants to gain valuable playoff experience, they need consistency in net. Even though Varlamov hasn’t been the picture of a Vezina candidate, he’s been a much better option for their playoff hopes than his tandem partner in Philipp Grubauer.
If the Arizona Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks, or St. Louis Blues start to really heat up, though, and Colorado continues to struggle with losses that push them down the standings, a deal to send their long-time number one to a contender is likely their best option. A handful of teams have been dealing with goaltending injuries of their own, and could be willing to pay a premium for a deadline rental that could shore them up for a push. Even Arizona, in theory, could be willing to send them something; if they’re looking like a playoff team, expect Sakic to at least test the waters.
The key thing to consider, though, will be how much another team is willing to pay.
Over the summer, the rights to negotiate with Varlamov could be high on someone’s list of priorities. So if the Avalanche are still in a playoff hunt and deals are looking to be mediocre in regards to their return, there’s little reason not to wait for the summer to get a similarly-mediocre fetched price.
If a team is willing to put up a high cost, though, it’s worth risking a tandem of Grubauer and Francouz.