It's been two weeks since the NHL free agent signing period began, and the Avalanche look much different than they did prior to the frenzy.
They have new goaltenders, a revamped blue line, and new role players who will hopefully compliment the team's stars.
But how much better did the Avs actually get?
This installment will address the team's biggest need coming into free agency: goaltending.
Ten days before last season's trade deadline, Colorado sent kindergartner Craig Anderson packing to Ottawa for beleaguered starter Brian Elliott. Many fans hoped Elliott could regain his form from the season before when he lead the Senators to the playoffs, but Elliott was simply atrocious finishing the season with the Avalanche, going 2-8-1 with a 3.83 GAA and .891 SV%.
After the season ended, it became inherently clear that Colorado was trying to make it with two sub-par backups. It then became GM Greg Sherman's and Joe Sakic's mission to address this need. In the weeks leading up to free agency, the cards seemed to play out perfectly in Colorado's favor.
The limited number of teams that needed a number one goalie got smaller and smaller, with Philadelphia trading for and signing Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix signing Mike Smith, Tampa Bay signing Dwayne Roloson, and Florida signing Jose Theodore. The stars seemed to align for the Avalanche to sign veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun has always been considered one of the top-tier goalies in the league, but has always played on mediocre teams.
To be honest, if there had been a pool for the over/under on whether or not Colorado would sign Vokoun, I would probably have put at least $100 on it.
But in a move that stunned most people in the hockey world, Sherman traded his 1st and 2nd round draft picks in the 2012 draft to Washington for young goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Most of the hockey analysts cried foul, and many believe that the Avalanche gave up a "guaranteed" top-5/lottery pick. I won't get into why that notion is utterly ridiculous, but the trade is a polarizing one.
It has been reported that Sakic and Sherman had been in Var-"love"-mov for weeks before the actually acquired him. Management mentioned multiple attempts and proposals made to Washington on draft day and prior trying to get Varlamov from the Capitals, so it seems as though Washington GM George McPhee knew just how to play Sakic and Sherman into his hand and then take them for as much as he could get. And that's fine. We still haven't seen the turn or the river, for those poker players out there.
We know this much: Varlamov has a history of injuries in his short career, but he has been known to play brilliantly when healthy. He owns a 30-13-12 record with a GAA of 2.39 and a save percentage of .917. For sake of comparison, Tomas Vokoun owns a losing NHL record, a GAA of 2.56, and a save percentage of .917. Granted, Vokoun has played on bad teams, but this is for the sake of comparison.
If Colorado coaches can get ahold of Varlamov and tweak his playing style somewhat to minimize his injuries, Sakic and Sherman will look like geniuses. There is potential for Varly to become Colorado's number one guy for the next decade, and be successful doing it. There is also potential for Varlamov to turn into the next Rick DiPietro, in which case Sherman would likely be shown the door.
Avalanche management hedged their bets, though, mere hours after acquiring Varlamov, in signing veteran goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere. Giggy, as many affectionately call him, is 34 years old - by no means a 'young gun'. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2003 as the MVP of the playoffs in a losing effort by the Mighty Ducks, and then led the Ducks to a Stanley Cup Championship in 2007 - just 4 years ago. To say he is an overly qualified backup would be an understatement.
The fact is, Colorado hasn't had this kind of goaltending depth in years. In fact, never in the history of the team since moving to Denver has the Avalanche had such a tandem to deploy in net. Yes, Patrick Roy was likely the best to play the game at his position, but he never had a backup with the pedigree of Giguere (and he never needed one, for that matter).
The Avalanche has a solid plan B in case the Varlamov experiment fails, and Giguere has stated that he feels better than he has in years due to recent sports hernia surgery. To be able to go with Varly or Giggy when the situation warrants is a luxury Joe Sacco is surely not accustomed to, especially after having to rely on Elliott and Budaj. It will be interesting to see how he balances the two.
The bonus in these guys, though, is their attitude towards this Colorado organization. Giguere has been on local sports talk shows numerous times since the signing, stating how comfortable he feels coming here and just wants to make a difference, whether it be from the bench, mentoring Varlamov, or in a scenario where he assumes the starting netminder's role. And Semyon has publicly stated that the Avalanche were one of his favorite teams growing up, that he idolized Patrick Roy and was ecstatic to be in the same place where his hero once played.
Those kinds of intangibles are hard to come by, but this organization has felt them more and more recently. They chose Matt Duchene a couple years ago, a kid who had Avalanche memorabilia covering the walls of his room. They picked Gabriel Landeskog in this year's draft, who was shown before the draft in his Avalanche jersey as a child. Perhaps that is the last legacy left by players like Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, and Patrick Roy - a generation of youngsters who grew up watching their magic and wanting to do the exact same thing in the exact same place.
If all goes according to plan next year, the Avalanche won't need to worry about that first round pick. Goaltending was the first, biggest, and last piece of the puzzle needed to solidify the future of the club, and it has been aggressively addressed. If Sherman's bet pays off, the champagne may flow once again in downtown Denver.
Keep an eye out for roundups of the Avalanche defensive corps and forwards in the next couple weeks.