Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Avalanche Warning: Back to the Future

As those who don't live under rocks (or south of the 49th parallel) assuredly know already, Tuesday was the NHL trade deadline. They should go ahead and declare it a national holiday already: it makes much more sense than "Family Day", and everyone knows no self-respecting Canadian actually got any work done during the day(particularly because TSN streamed their trade deadline coverage online and got over a million streaming viewers). In fact, James Duthie referred to the day as "Canada's Unofficial National Holiday." Anyways, plenty of interesting deadline deals went down. Far better minds than I, including Stephen Brunt, Tim Wharnsby and James Mirtle, have extensively analyzed what went down. There's one team that I thought deserved special attention for their moves, though: the always-dangerous Colorado Avalanche, who added Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote and Ruslan Salei, but didn't even make Wharnsby's list of deadline winners.

The Forsberg signing wasn't technically a trade, and also wasn't technically at the deadline because it happened yesterday: it still represents an important shift in the Western Conference balance of power. In many ways, this one might have been responsible for kickstarting the flood of talent from East to West, which would go on to reach pre-Berlin Wall proportions (or NBA-esque proportions, if you prefer). Colorado goes from on the margins to make the playoffs to likely to squeeze in, and very few teams would like to face them in the first round. This lineup has offensive firepower to spare, as facing the likes of Sakic, Forsberg, Smyth, Hejduk and Stasny would give most netminders nightmares. They're weaker on the defensive side, but still have some good talent there in the likes of John-Michael Liles (aside: I was definitely expecting Jean-Michel from Quebec when I first heard of this guy, not John-Michael from Indiana), Scott Hannan and Jordan Leopold. The questions surrounding this team are defensive depth and goaltending. They did a bit to address the first question by reclaiming Adam Foote from Columbus, and thus launching the "Avalanche Reunion Tour: Remember When They Were Good?". Too bad Rob Blake and Alex Tanguay didn't get the memo (to say nothing of St. Patrick himself).

Rusty Salei also isn't a bad pickup: I wasn't a big fan of this deal at first, as I like Karlis Skrastins quite a bit: however, the always-insightful Eric Duhatschek reminds us that Salei's a good defensive defenceman who has been chewing up the minutes in Florida and was a key component in Anaheim's 2003 run to the finals. However, goaltending is what's going to hurt this team: in my mind, neither Peter Budaj or Jose Theodore is good enough to get the Avs too far. Tampa Bay proved that you can win with just sheer offense though, so there's always the chance Colorado can sing from that particular hymmnal.

I was watching the new-look Avalanche last night against the Canucks, and I was pretty impressed by what I saw. Foote brings a lot more to this team than many give him credit for: he's a great defensive defenseman who's been toiling in obscurity in Columbus, and those are the toughest type of player to recognize by the regular stats alone (plus/minus, the only common stat that even addresses defensive play, is heavily dependent on teammates and goaltending). He clearly wants to be in Colorado, too, which is always a bonus: he not only waived his no-trade clause, but jumped a quick flight to Calgary Tuesday and joined the Avalanche midway through the first period. Despite his first shift starting at 16:07 of the frame, he went on to eat up 18:30 of ice time, and helped lead the team to a crucial overtime win against a division rival. That's impressive when a 36-year old defenceman can play that much in just over two minutes, despite arriving late. He brings an energy and an enthusiasm this team can surely use.

Foote and Salei were both quite effective last night against the Canucks as well, and the Avalanche were impressive all night long. They played good defense as a whole, tested Roberto Luongo early and often, and Theodore showed flashes of his old brilliance at times. They didn't panic after Alex Burrows gave Vancouver the lead with only two minutes to go, and Burnaby Joe came through in the clutch, scoring the tying marker with only 15 seconds left (with an assist from Salei). Once they get Forsberg back, they'll be a serious playoff contender, and the Canucks will undoubtably be battling them down the stretch. It would be perfect if the Avalanche finish seventh or eighth, setting up another epic post-season clash with Detroit: the NHL could sorely use a rekindled rivalry of that sort, made even more epic by the addition of players like Foote and Forsberg who were there for the old battles. No matter where they finish, no one will want to play them in the first round.

Related: Alanah has a great post on how the old-look Avalanche have rekindled interest in Northwest Division hockey, especially among Canucks fans. Also, apparently the reason Forsberg didn't play last night was immigration issues: those border types need to start recognizing the importance of hockey!

One other note on a trade the Canucks should have made and tried to make, but couldn't pull off:

Dallas snags Richards

This is a big move. Dallas, which looked to be in tough in the playoffs against Western powerhouses Detroit and Anaheim, all of a sudden gets a huge offensive upgrade in Brad Richards. Sure, he's been inconsistent this season, but he's also been playing with some pretty terrible wingers on Tampa's second line: as a top-line centre, he should improve dramatically. Dallas' defense and goaltending will also help cover for his defensive mistakes. The Stars didn't lose that much in this deal either: Mike Smith looks to be a pretty good goalie, but they have a better one in Turco, and snagging Johan Holmqvist from the Lightning should give them a capable backup. Jussi Jokinen is a good two-way player and a great shootout specialist, but there aren't any shootouts in the playoffs. Losing Jeff Halpern isn't too significant in my mind either. The nice thing about this one is they didn't give up too much of their future in terms of can't-miss prospects or draft picks. Sure, Dallas will be on the hook for Richards' massive salary, but if the cap keeps rising, it might not look so bad (also, if Thomas Vanek, Daniel Briere and Mike Richards can make similar numbers in this new market, Richards doesn't seem as horrendously overpaid anymore). I bet the Canucks wish they made this deal, but they just didn't have the pieces: Tampa GM Jay Feaster seems to have wanted a goalie with NHL experience, and Vancouver didn't have any to offer (except maybe Curtis Sanford). Apparently, Nonis put in quite a hefty offer for Richards though, which is certainly interesting.

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