The unfortunate truth of sitting 30th in the NHL as the March 1st Trade Deadline looms is that the trade rumors are unavoidable. The Avalanche’s core players – Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabe Landeskog, Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, and Semyon Varlamov – have found themselves particularly hard hit by the storm.
Even though most of the team’s issues stem from a lack of depth, there are some concerns about whether or not the styles, positions, and ages of the core players mesh well with GM Joe Sakic‘s view of the future. With dysfunction mounting and attendance and tv viewership falling, it seems a blockbuster trade is simply a matter of time.
As it turns out, there are even more reasons why patience with the core is a better option.
For one, every single member of the core is signed to a cap-friendly deal through the summer of 2019. Even the upcoming players – Mikko Rantanen, Tyson Jost, A.J. Greer, J.T. Compher, Nikita Zadorov, Chris Bigras, Calvin Pickard, and others – will all still be cost-controlled restricted free agents well past that date.
That means that every deal, every rumored core trade has at least a 2-year window before a decision must be made. This is not a Ryan O’Reilly situation where he intended to leave in free agency that coming summer. The Avs are at near-zero risk of losing these players for quite some time, so there is absolutely no rush on pulling the trigger of a big deal.
Besides, it’s not like the core players have values that are going to drop off before the start of next year. Even the oldest core players – Johnson and Varlamov – are only 28, which still leaves two years at minimum before age becomes a concern. If anything, the core’s value will probably rise next season once prospects and new depth signings add much-needed skill to the lineup.
Everyone’s poor numbers this season will only give ammo to other GMs trying to drive down their price. Any moves made this year could easily result in selling low on assets, which is, needless to say, not a good way to build a successful hockey team.
The impact of the bizarre events of this summer can’t be overlooked either. After the draft, after free agency, and after all the big-name coaches had been hired, Patrick Roy decided to leave the team mere weeks before training camp. New selection Jared Bednar had no time to hire his own staff or have much input on the roster.
The results have been a half Roy-style, half Bednar-style mess. Many of the players that Roy favored in his more grinding style simply cannot play Bednar’s upbeat systems, leading to a mishmash of tempos on the ice. Two of the assistants on the bench, Tim Army and Dave Farrish, are holdovers from Roy’s staff. Their adjustments have not gone well, leaving the Avs in the bottom five in both special teams categories.
To make matters worse, four of the six Avs core players have missed significant time due to injury. The three skaters – Duchene, Landeskog, and Johnson – have missed a combined 31 man-games and counting. While all teams have to deal with injuries, for a club as thin on high-end talent as the Avs, there is no doubt that their losses pack more of punch to overall team performance.
(Solid bars indicate games missed to injury. Faded bar indicates their presence in the 10-game rolling average)
Two other relatively healthy core players have had unexpectedly poor seasons. Tyson Barrie‘s offense has run dry for large stretches of the year, and his shooting percentage is still well below his average. He’s also been on the ice for far more ugly goals against than expected this year. However, the biggest under-achiever has been Semyon Varlamov, who is currently sporting by far the worst save percentage and goals against average numbers of his career. The same can be said for his backup, Calvin Pickard.
Add in a healthy dose of team-wide bad luck – only one team since ’07-08 has finished the season with a combined save/shooting % (PDO) lower than the Avs current 97.04 – and this year has been a painful statistical outlier on just about every front.
Luckily, the chances of remaining this far below norms for long are very, very slim. The Avs also have at least 10 depth players with expiring contracts this summer, which means Bednar will likely get a roster far more tailored to his needs. There will be ample time to sort out personnel issues, and the projected top 4 pick and influx of likely NHL-ready prospects (such as Greer, Compher, and Bigras) will help the overall talent on the roster.
Even without a big trade, it is almost impossible for the team not to rebound next season. Holding off a year on any core-player deal gives them a chance to evaluate not only how well the current six mesh with the future of the franchise, but also how well the prospects can fill into those core spots in the event of a trade.
Gaining this certainty costs very little, so why would the Avs front office not take advantage? Even if the core does need to be reset, the timing of the move makes far more sense a year from now than it does at the present.
While there’s a possibility another general manager offers up a deal too great to refuse, making a big trade for the sake of making a trade is destined to end poorly for the Avalanche. As long as Sakic works on clearing out the Roy-style depth players through February and into the summer, sweeping the rest of the conclusions drawn from this awful, fluky year into the trash bin is the most logical and sound course of action.
Emotions are high right now – no one likes losing. Yet if even half as many things go right next year as went wrong this season, the turn around in Denver could come sooner than many think.
Leave the core be. Wipe the slate clean this summer. Reassess next year. Then, and only then, is it time to make the course-correcting trades.
Patience won’t sell tickets, and it won’t sell hope. But it just might salvage this “rebuild” and keep Sakic from making a career-defining mistake.