29 June 2010
Every year I go on record and talk about who the Avs should sign, and who the Avs should take a pass on. Believe it or not, this is my fourth season in doing this. The first year, I did this and advocated for Smyth and Hannan, then the Avs had a decent season and made the playoffs. The next season I advocated to give Budaj a starting shot, but sign Holmqvist or Valiquette as a solid backup to Budaj, Jeff Finger for cheap (before knowing Toronto would lose their minds) and Niklas Hagman and Brenden Morrison. Francois Giguere didn't listen to me, and the Avs went through their worst season since moving to Colorado and Giguere was fired. Last year Greg Sherman corrected this mistake, and listened to me. I called for the Avs to save cap room for this season, and sign Craig Anderson. That worked out pretty well.
Good job, so far Greg. Now Sherman has been coy with what he's going to do with free agency. Really, he's waiting for me to publish this list, because he knows the Avs season, and likely* his job, depends on my sage advice. This year the question essentially all comes down to: should the Avs push hard for Ilya Kovalchuk
*not actually likely.
More after the jump
The Avs are in a great position with their money situation, currently second in the league in cap space available. The Avs have 4 RFAs to sign, and I'll just go with Mile High Hockey's numbers for RFAs that haven't signed because they seem to be conservative, but reasonable, estimates.This post by Jewels from the Crown has an excellent write-up on who has the the cap space, and has the Avs at $26.7M. Take away $3.5M for Stewart, $3.2M for Quincey, $1M for Yip, $2.75M for Mueller and another $1.5M for Hendricks and Winnik combined. That takes the Avs down to just a hair under $14.25M in cap space for this season to toss at whoever they want. (give or take. I think Stoa's hit is in this number, but I don't have him on the roster. Possibly add another 850k.)
Also, the Avs actually need very little in terms of players. Almost everyone is signed. Right now the Avs lineup looks like:
???? - Stastny - Stewart
Mueller - Duchene - Hejduk
Galiardi - O'Reilly - Jones
McLeod - Hendricks - Yip
Hannan - Quincey
Foote - Liles
Wilson - Cumiskey
Scratches: Porter, Winnik
(projected signings in italics)
(I don't think Shattenkirk will be a scratch if he makes the club, the Avs will want him playing. But this is just for roster filling purposes not a completely projected lineup)
So a left wing (or possibly a center and move Duchene to LW) is the most obvious need for the Avs this season.The other goal the Avs need to have is to keep cap space open to sign these potential future UFAs who will eventually need a raise (like Anderson next season) in the future, and not end up needing an Atlanta bailout like Chicago got. So the Avs need to add a top line forward, and low and behold a very very good one is available in Ilya Kovalchuk. I anticipated the Avs signing him last season, so needless to say if the Avs don't even kick the tires on him this season it would be foolish. He's obviously the top target, it's not about whether they should sign him, it's about what the cap hit should be for him.
He immediately helps in the two places the Avs need most. The power play and top line. He's nearly a perfect fit playing wise. The Avs don't need him to be any kind of defensive player, they have great defensive forwards. They need a guy who can put the puck in the net, especially when Stastny gives it to him.
Here's a list of the top cap hits in the league. I don't think Kovi is as good as Rick Nash, but I think he'll get more because he's a UFA and he's the top one in a weak class. In fact, as for LW's it's gotta be Kovi or bust looking at this class. I think Kovi will get a long term back-loaded (or front loaded) deal that will put his cap hit somewhere between $7.5M (Heatly Gaborik) and $8.5M (between Eric Staal and Crosby).
Other options besides Kovi are: temporary 35+ year old LW (Kozlov, Whitney, Kariya if he didn't/doesn't retire), or risky middle-aged (Torres, Frolov, Tanguay). They could also go for a Center and play Duchene on the left, but the Center market isn't any better. They could try a RW and play him out of position (like Mueller is) but pickins are slim on that side too.
The Avs don't have a lot of talented wingers in the system (Stoa and that's about it. So signing Kovi long term won't hinder anyone's development. I realize they still see this as a rebuilding year, and I'm ok with that, but goal scoring talent like Kovalchuk doesn't come along every day. Even signing Kovi to a $8.5M contract (cap hit) will give the Avs a surplus (~$6M by my count), plus Hejduk and Hannan's contract come off the books next season. Liles comes off in two, conveniently the year Duchene is due an extension. Paying Kovalchuk top dollar shouldn't keep the Avs from re-signing any talent down the road, provided there's no more $3M dollar Salei and Clark deals on the horizon. Even if we did lose a guy or two, say Yip, Quincey, or Jones down the line, would you trade Kovalchuk for one of those guys right now? Hell Yes you would.
Signing Kovi also takes some of the pressure off of Paul Stastny, who is playing up to his contract but as the "highest paid player on the team" is expected to be a miracle worker.
So here's the situation; the Avs have the cap space, not just to sign an available top 15 forward that fills the Avs biggest holes, but to keep cap space for their young good players. The Avs have very little in the way of wings in the system (Ryan Stoa and that's about it) so no one's development will be stunted. And they have a good team and a bona fide 1st line center to feed this sniper passes.
Verdict: Opportunity isn't just knocking at the door, it's trying to kick that mother fucker down. Sign Kovi. 8-10 years, $8.25M cap hit.
If the Avs miss out on Kovi, well like I said the pickings are slim, but there's still some worth out there. I think if they lose out on Kovi (assuming they even try. Of course, Lacroix is still involved, and he still likes the big names, despite Sherman's very disciplined approach). Other targets I'd go after if Kovi can't be signed:
Back-up: Colby Armstrong, Lee Stempniak (whom I waffle on almost daily to be honest), Alexei Ponikarovsky, Fernando Pisani
Do not want: Alexander Frolov, Fedetenko, Matt Cook
The Avs defense, while set really doesn't look all that great to me. They don't have enough in the way of defensive defensemenin my opinion. I think the Sharks really exposed the Avs inability to truly shut people down (Andy shut down the Thornton line, not anyone on the D). The Avs have a bit of a balancing act to do on defense, as they have 6 NHL defensemen and prospects close to making an impact (Shattenkirk, Cohen, Guance, Holo/s). However the Avs don't truly have a true 1st line pair. Foote's slowing down considerably, Hannan-Quincey is almost the perfect 2nd paring. Liles, for all his improvements, still is below average in his own zone. Ditto Cumiskey. And Wilson is a 3rd pairing defenseman too.
If Kovi can't be signed, I think the Avs need to think long and hard about going after one of the top Free Agent defensemen. They have enough cap room to actually go after one even if they do sign Kovi, but would likely have some cap casualties down the road (which isn't necessarily a bad thing). It would require some trades to open up some roster space for them, but these six defensemen are not the future of the Avs defense. Cumiskey may have peaked as a player, Liles almost certainly has. Of the six on the roster, I only see Quincey on the roster 4 years from now.
So who should the Avs go after?
Well the targets would be Paul Martin, Anton Volchenkov, Willie Mitchell, Pavel Kubina, Zybnek Michalek,and Dan Hamhuis.
I like Martin, a lot, a defenseman who brings a lot to his own end and has a solid breakout pass. Frankly though, I'm just flummoxed on what to do for defensemen. Any of the above guys would help the Avs D.
Verdict: The Avs should go after Zybnek Michalek, regardless of signing Kovi. Michalek was a top-pairing guy on a Phoenix team that was pretty good at defense, with Ed Jovanowski. His Quality of Competition was 2nd highest on the Phoenix (barely behind Jovanowski) meaning he played the toughest competition, and his quality of teammates was atrocious. He was also stuck starting in his own zone, a lot. He's also only 28 years old, so he should be a quality player for a while. The best part is the Avs don't have much in their system like him, so he's not going to keep any of their prospects off the roster.
Michalek: 5 years $3.3M/season
Others: I like Martin a lot, but he may be over priced. Mitchell would be a great stop-ga, but he's 34.
No thanks: I like Hamhuis, but he's more like the players the Avs already have. Also a big hell no on Joe Corvo