Avs Roll the Dice on Opening Day of Free Agency

July 1st, the opening day of NHL free agency, has been likened to ‘Christmas for hockey fans’ – and with a plethora of deals on the big day, this year it delivered big for hockey fans pretty much everywhere.

In Denver, Avs GM Greg Sherman signed big D man Jan Hejda to bolster a blue line which lost veteran Adam Foote to retirement, traded away puck-moving defenceman John-Michael Liles and was less than spectacular for large parts of the 2010/11 season even with those two on board!

So signing Hejda to a four year $13m deal is seen as a ‘good move’ by pretty much everyone. Equally news that Colorado added former Minnesota and Boston winger Chuck Kobasew on a 2 year deal worth $2.5m has been met with a warm reception.

Whilst both deals represent positive steps for the franchise in one sense or another, the real story was the Avs much talked about goaltending situation.

It was clear some time ago Peter Budaj would not be returning (he eventually joined Montreal) and the Avalanche also announced this week they would not offer RFA Brian Elliott a new deal, and so he also departed – Elliott will ply his trade in St Louis next season.

With Calvin Pickard, the Avs highly touted prospect, still several seasons away from being truly NHL ready; the Avs were left with…no one.

Ok, this wasn’t a totally unexpected situation for Avalanche fans – the entire hockey world knew well in advance that one thing on the teams radar was finding a new number 1 netminder.

With Craig Anderson’s relationship with the franchise ending on somewhat sour terms last season, and the Elliott/Budaj tandem struggling to get it done, eyes turned to the summer. A trade perhaps? Or a big move for one of the two star goalies heading for free agency – Ilya Bryzgalov and Thomas Vokoun.

As it transpired Philadelphia made their play for Bryzgalov; acquiring his rights from Phoenix and then getting a deal done. So surely Vokoun was almost a lock to be the Avs big play on July 1st?

Whilst news and reports of what actually went down are understandable murky, it seems contact was made, the veteran Czech’s demands were seen as too high and that was that.

So what was plan B? There had to be one given that there was always a chance they might not get Vokoun signed – nothing is guaranteed in sports after all.

Well it turned out plan B was indeed to make a trade – though not for the previously spoken of targets of Corey Schneider or Jonathan Bernier, it was a deal that caught many off guard.

Semyon Varlamov had made little secret that he was unhappy in Washington, but equally that he wanted to be an NHL starter. The Russian RFA even had KHL clubs lining up to throw millions of dollars on the table to get him.

So what exactly triggered the Avs to trade a 1st round pick AND a 2nd round pick for the young puck stopper?

At the time I gave a hesitant ‘Ok…’ with it all. The price seemed high, but I remember Varlamov’s hot streak a couple of years back that got Caps fans all hot under the collar. He is a talented, and agile goalie who can play to an elite level.

Then the question marks kicked in, and I got kind of angry. His upside is plain to see and I’ve alluded to that above. Problem is, there are also a few ‘negatives’ as well.

Is he healthy? We’ve seen plenty of guys get over injury problems via a change of scene. But playing less than 30 games for the past two seasons and having nagging groin problems has to go down as a ‘black mark’ for the time being.

He’s also still pretty raw at 23; and the Avs have skimped on the goalie coaching for too long now.

You’ve also given up a 1st round pick to get him. Now lets ‘ignore’ for the moment that Colorado could have made an offer sheet for him. The likely outcome of that IF he had signed would be that the Avs would give up a 2nd round pick…

See where I am going with that?

Greg Sherman, when challenged on this scenario, said he was sure Washington would have matched any offer sheet. And after all the Caps did say they were not interested in trading Varlamov not that long ago. So if the Avs wanted to get their man they had to find common ground with Washington.

But still, a 1st round pick?

Even at my most optimistic, as an Avs fan I cannot see the team rebounding that much next season. Sure a better performance should be expected but it would take a significant jump in the standings to lessen the impact. There is a fair chance it’ll be a top 10, or top 15 pick. If the team doesn’t rebound it could well be a lottery pick!!! That’s a pretty decent amount to give up for a talented but raw and perhaps fragile netminder.

What doubles the frustration is that the Avs only agreed to a two year deal with Varlamov – feels like a risky situation of its own right there. If Varlamov bombs, it’s a high 1st round pick gone. If he succeeds, and plays very well, he may walk in two years time to greener pastures…

Colorado did address one aspect of the situation by going after a veteran back up to support the young Russian, signing J-S Giguere to a 2-year deal as well.

Giguere has been to the Stanley Cup Finals twice, won a Conn Smythe and a Cup with the Ducks and showed his ability to play the kind of role the Avs need him in now when he supported James Riemer in Toronto last season.

Whilst the problem with Jiggy is he is also quite injury prone now, it does somewhat calm some of the fears I had of a raw talent being asked to take on 50 or 60 games without much support if it all goes ‘wrong’ – after all it’s a pretty big step from an Eastern offensive juggernaut to a Western (potentially)  bubble team

I’m not saying I am not happy with Varlamov, or Giguere – in fact part of me is quite excited by the prospect. Varlamov said he wanted a starting gig, he got it. He does have ability as I said higher up.

It just seems like a big risk by the Avs – and it’s hard not to agree with some others when they say Greg Sherman’s job may well be tied to this deal.

In short, the jury is still out but has a sour look on its face for the time being…


About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on July 2, 2011, in Colorado Avalanche, Hockey, NHL and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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