The Avs used the July 1st explosion of talent onto the market to shore up a couple weak areas in the lineup, signing defenseman Ian Cole and forward Matt Calvert to 3-year contracts. The contracts are expensive but not burdensome and can be used for exposure in the anticipated 2020 expansion draft for the new NHL team in Seattle. What these deals highlight is apprehension at using the young talent Colorado already possesses and the chronic inability to develop depth players in the AHL.
6’1, 220 lbs, left shot D, 29 years old
3 years at $4.25M each
Last year: PIT/CBJ – 67 games, 5 goals, 20 points
Projected to be a top-4 D in Colorado this year
Cole was traded to the Jackets at the deadline and played almost exclusively with David Savard at 5v5, which I’ll say was nominally the 2nd pairing. They also were the top PK pair. Offensively his scoring rates match up well with EJ and Zadorov. It’s tough to compare on-ice rates across teams but he has been a good shot suppressor and generator. His CA/60 on the PK of 78 would have been tops among the Avs primary PK defenseman, again systems play into this but it’s promising at least. The big knock on Cole is that he takes a lot of penalties, which is bad, plus he’s supposed to be the PK guy so that’s double bad.
In Joe Sakic’s conference call he mentioned the leadership and the Stanley Cup experience with Pittsburgh, which is nice for reference but meaningless in practice. He also mentioned that Zadorov and the as yet unsigned Patrik Nemeth are both recovering from shoulder surgery and this deal was partly to cover in case they weren’t ready to go on day 1, which makes some sense vaguely.
My take on this is that it makes sense right now but 3 years sure doesn’t. That’s probably what it took to get done along with a fairly nice overpayment which the Avs can handle fine for at least 2 years. If he gets taken in the expansion draft I think we’re all going to end up fine with it. I like the skillset Cole has and the role he’ll play but what it does is make having Barberio and Nemeth and Mark Alt for that matter at least one too many on the depth chart sooner rather than later. We’re in a veteran blocking situation for the young Ds, it’s not an immediate issue but since they don’t play youngsters over vets or trade vets once young players show they can handle the job it could be a cluster down the road. Overall I’d give this a B- grade as a signing.
Looking ahead to where he will fit in the lineup and how the Avs staff might use him, the first thing that stands out is that he’ll probably get a shot to be the guy that finally clicks with Tyson Barrie. It probably won’t go all that well since playing with Barrie tends to leave his partner in a situation where defending 2v1s and trying to tackle players on breakaways from behind is a regular occurrence. That said, of all the D’s they’ve tried over the years Cole probably has the best shot yet of being the solid and responsible partner they want there. I’m not wild about the philosophy, I like Barrie with someone that plays an uptempo style and is more offensively inclined but we’ll see how it goes. For me, I’d like to see Cole with Sam Girard and find out where that goes.
Cole will also be on one of the PK units. Pittsburgh played him heavily there but the Jackets went a little lighter. If you look at his PK heat maps, he has a knack for making teams shoot from farther out than they do when he’s not on the ice. That’s a key in the Avs PK so they’ll like that
5’11, 185 lbs, left shot W, 28 years old
3 years at $2.8M each
Last year: CBJ – 69 games, 9 goals, 24 points
Projected to be a bottom 6 forward in Colorado this year
Calvert has spent his whole career in the Columbus org as a defensive forward that can chip in a little scoring. He has good speed and plenty of experience on the penalty kill, although there’s evidence he’s not very proficient there anymore. The thinking here was to replace Blake Comeau, what they got was a slightly younger and more expensive version that’s a step down overall. I don’t like giving money and term to bottom 6 UFAs, this is a big overpayment and for 3 years. It makes no sense at all. The Avs finally have some talent in the pipeline and their AHL affiliate an hour up the road so the first thing they do is sign a replacement-level player that’s going to block that talent from the NHL for the next 3 seasons. Columbus cut him loose because he was clogging up their depth chart and now he’s going to clog up the Avs’. Overall I’d give this signing a D-, which sounds a little harsh but it is what it is. I know he’s a great guy and will fit into the team well but targeting intangibles and former Blue Jackets for depth roles has gotten annoying.
How the Avs plan on using their expensive new acquisition is unclear. Worst case is they plop him down right into Blake Comeau’s spot next to Carl Soderberg. I’m optimistic they have plans to use Carl more offensively this year so hopefully that won’t happen. One guess is that the staff will use him on a veteran “shutdown” line with other like players such as Matt Nieto, Gabriel Bourque, Colin Wilson, etc. Defensive lines like this tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies, they get tabbed as defensive since they have difficulties exiting the defensive zone and create little offense.
As you can see above, shot rates against are a bit of an issue when Calvert was on the ice in Columbus last season. His rates for Corsi Against, Shots Against, Expected Goals Against and plain old Goals Against were all in the bottom few forwards last year. Deployment has a little to do with that, at times he was heavily used with defensive zone starts, but not what you want to see. Aside from defensive/4th line duties he also did a fair amount of PK work. Penalty killing is very system-heavy and Columbus was 27th in the NHL last year compared to the Avs in 4th overall so take this with a grain of salt, but the same anomaly in net-front shot rates appears in Calvert’s PK as it does when he’s on 5v5. Maybe it goes away in Colorado, maybe not.
As of right now that’s it. Sakic left the door open to another move if it makes sense but the frenzy part of free agency is over. You might be wondering about AHL vet signings, the Mike Sislo’s and Ryan Stanton’s that have been a staple of July 1st for Colorado for the last decade. They did not make any and for me that deserves an A+.
Overall the Avs spent slightly over $8M per season for the next 3 years on one guy that was an immediate but probably not long term need and another that they didn’t need at all. Other teams hurt themselves far worse but this wasn’t a day that can be looked at all that positively. I’m glad they are invested in letting the young prospects with the Eagles have a go at it unencumbered by the usual AHL vet signings, at least for the moment. Training camp invites could change that but I really hope they stay away. We are in uncharted waters here with having both talent in the minors and the spots available to play them. The Cole signing creates a bit of a logjam on defense now, not from him specifically but by him pushing others down. I don’t see it as a long-term issue unless they choose to make it one and could solve itself naturally before the season opens. The Calvert signing creates a total block to any forward in the minors for the next 3 years so that’s unfortunate. The Avs have changed their ways in many aspects, it’s time they give serious thought to getting rid of bottom 6 vets when they have a younger player able to take on the responsibility.
Thanks to Micah Blake McCurdy for the visualizations and Natural Stat Trick and Corsica.hockey for the stats