As preseason draws to a close and teams around the NHL start making their most difficult roster cuts, the Colorado Avalanche will have first dibs to poach talent from the rest of the league via the waiver wire. In recent days, the waivers list has transformed from a who’s who to a “who’s that?"
Just yesterday your average GM could take the emotional roller coaster ride from Frank Corrado (Isn’t he that healthy scratch the guy those stats guys say is so good?), to Hunter Shinkaruk (Didn’t that guy tear up the WHL once upon a time?), to Bryan Flynn, Jordan Nolan, and Andre Benoit (Hey! I’ve heard of them).
It is, in truth, a time of year where the occasional quality player gets demoted as a team tries to sneak them down to the minor leagues in the midst of preseason chaos. Last season’s 30th place finish affords the Avalanche the right of first refusal on the NHL waiver wire until November 1, and while Joe Sakic was frank earlier in the summer about his intention to use the team’s waiver priority to add talent, the Avs don’t need to go dumpster diving this time around. With solid camps from their developing prospects, the Avs’ kids have earned the right to those spots.
That’s not to say that you can’t make treasure from someone else’s trash. Sitting at the bottom of the standings and the top of the waiver wire last season, the Avalanche made good use of NHL waivers to bolster their last place roster. Midway through the season and searching for a spark, the Avs snagged Mark Barberio and Matt Nieto off waivers. Both played quality hockey for Colorado down the stretch and are set to make the NHL roster this year, with Barberio projected to play a significant role on Colorado’s blueline. Even Colorado’s trade deadline day acquisition Sven Andrighetto, who was extremely productive down the stretch, spent time on waivers last season before the Avalanche acquired him.
Waivers were kind to the Avalanche in 2017. For a team with nothing to lose in the standings and limited talent ready to graduate from the AHL, the waiver wire presented Sakic with an opportunity to add something for nothing, and that’s always good. Right?
Not exactly. The Avs still needs to add plenty of talent in the short and long term as they begin their climb back towards the league’s competitive ranks, but picking up a player on waivers isn’t so free anymore. For the first time in years, the Avalanche have established a pipeline of young talent leading up from their AHL team and into the NHL, and while claiming another Matt Nieto on waivers might not cost the Avs a draft pick, the opportunity cost is growing by the day. Now if the Avalanche makes a waiver claim, it's forced to bury a useful NHL prospect.
Take the Avs’ defense for example. After the last round of cuts, the Avalanche are still in the thick of a brutal battle for defensive playing time. With Erik Johnson, Nikita Zadorov, Tyson Barrie, and Mark Barberio locked into the roster, that leaves five contracted players, plus try-out Jared Cowen in competition for just three spots on the active roster.
Duncan Siemens and David Warsofsky have played uneven hockey, and Jared Cowen does not look capable of helping an NHL team after his hip surgeries, but Anton Lindholm, Andrei Mironov, and Chris Bigras have all shown well in the early days of this season. Those prospects have done what’s been asked of them. They’ve developed. They’ve earned a shot at NHL ice time, and with Cale Makar, Nicolas Meloche and Conor Timmins following close behind, the time is now.
It might sound appealing on paper to claim another Barberio off waivers, or to take advantage of Las Vegas’ bloated 10-man blue-line by trading for one of the expansion team's rearguards or simply waiting for them to appear on waivers, but unless someone truly out of the ordinary hits the waiver wire, it would mean little more than spinning their wheels in Colorado. The Avalanche are built this year for development.
Their young defensemen have paid their dues in the AHL and need to spread their wings at the next level now. In a season like that, what the team loses in development and player evaluation for a prospect like Chris Bigras is not worth whatever on ice production they get from the free, replacement level NHLer they might grab off waivers. It’s certainly not a worthy tradeoff to give that spot to a below replacement level veteran like Jared Cowen.
Meanwhile, the battle for an NHL roster spot at forward has all but wrapped up. Assuming Joe Colborne, who remains on the shelf with a back injury, starts the season on injured reserve, and the Avalanche do not add any forwards to the roster, that leaves the Avs with just one or two cuts to make in their forward group.
Former Harvard center Alexander Kerfoot has more than earned a spot on the opening night roster thanks to an impressive rookie camp and preseason, while players like Blake Comeau and Matt Nieto did just enough to protect their veteran status. That leaves rookie A.J. Greer and tweener Gabriel Bourque as the most likely pair to head back to San Antonio for the start of the year.
Those cuts will sting. Both Greer and Bourque have shown NHL upside and the NHL coaching staff has got to love the unique skill-sets and attitude that both bring to the roster. The disappointment in demoting a player like Greer is tempered by the idea that, when injuries inevitably strike, the AHL All-Star and training camp standout will have an opportunity to earn a more permanent spot.
Adding more low ceiling waiver fodder to the forward corps may patch some immediate holes and earn the Avalanche one or two more wins over the course of the season, but what do four standings points matter in a development year anyway?
Every warm body the Avs pluck from the waiver wire this season is another shovel full of dirt, burying players like Bigras, Greer, or Kerfoot. Sakic has told fans all summer that he wants the Avalanche to be younger and faster this year, and he’s done a good job of bringing new faces into the fold that fit that vision. That identity is starting to emerge on paper, but if those players are meant to be a part of Colorado’s future, well, the future is now. No more band-aids, no more stop gaps. It’s time for the front office to loosen the reigns and just let the kids lead.