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August 4, 2011
Front Office Focus
Paying A Mile High Price For Goaltending

by Ryan Popilchak

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With major free agent moves complete, we have a chance to use hindsight to evaluate the strange goaltender transition in Colorado. Few teams undergo such a wild swing in personnel in such a short time.

Having ridden the hot hand of Craig Anderson through the 2009-10 season to a playoff berth, it seemed as if the Avalanche had found some stability between the pipes. Even more importantly, they had done it in bargain fashion, with a cap hit of $1.8 million for that season and the next. With a young, talented squad that was in over its head most nights against top possession teams, the veteran presence of an emerging Anderson seemed like a gift from the hockey gods.

One short season later and the Avalanche had become disillusioned with Anderson and his potential UFA status as the trade deadline loomed. Apparently fearing that they'd be unable to keep him around, GM Greg Sherman initiated a string of events that may come back to haunt him, or possibly make his career.

Anderson for Elliott

Craig Anderson for Brian Elliott: just about any way this deadline deal is spun, it still makes absolutely no sense for the Avalanche. When they traded Anderson, he had played in 135 NHL games over the past three seasons with fine even-strength save percentages of .928, .926 and .917. Though his worst season was his most recent (2010-11), that performance was still equal with the league average since the Lockout. His average value over those same three seasons was 12.6 GVT. By all accounts, he had proven to be a solid, above-average NHL netminder who more than earned his meager contract. He had only played two seasons as a starter in his career, but had matched his lofty save percentage as a backup in Florida. The risk that he would suddenly regress was much lower than when a young goaltender shows promise over 20-30 games to start his career.

Had Sherman felt Anderson would depart in free agency over the summer, it's understandable that he would try to get an asset back rather than just let him walk free. However, the theory that Anderson wanted to "go to a winner" was quickly debunked when he re-upped with the Senators for four years with a cap hit of $3.2 million per year. In the end, he remains an above-average performing player who is the 20th-highest paid at his position according to CapGeek.com. Anderson should continue to be decent return-on-investment for the Senators.

In exchange for Anderson, Sherman acquired a player who had shown little to make any team exec believe he could ever be a starting NHL goalie. At the time the Avalanche made the trade, Brian Elliott had played in 129 NHL games over the past three seasons, with even-strength save percentages of.920,.907 and.900. His average GVT over the same time period was -5.5, sub-replacement level. He may have recorded a stellar rookie season, but had done nothing to back it up since. Consequently, the Avalanche would have been better off just asking the Sens for a third-round pick.

In the summer, Colorado promptly let Elliott leave to play in St. Louis with the Blues after appearing in only 12 games with his new team.

The Varlamov Trade

Make no mistake, Semyon Varlamov could be a very good starting goalie in the NHL. At 23 years of age, he's proven that the 23rd-overall pick in the 2006 draft wasn't a wasted gamble for the Capitals. Over the past three seasons, he's managed to appear in 59 NHL games with even-strength save percentages of.930, .929 and .930 in those seasons. Sporting an average GVT of 5.4 despite limited appearances is also a good sign.

However, he's only faced a total of 1636 shots at the NHL level, or roughly the equivalent Jonathan Quick's workload in L.A. this past season. So despite Varlamov's fairly promising track record, the sample size is still comparatively small. He has potential, but is hardly a known quantity at this point.

On the bright side, Varlamov is hitting an age when many young goalies start to make their mark and is only signed to a three-year, $8.5 million deal. His cap hit of $2.8 million is hardly a huge risk and the medium term gives the Avalanche a chance to find out what they've got while still retaining the player's RFA rights at the end of the deal. That said, Varlamov is going to cost only $400,000 less per year against the cap than Anderson will for Ottawa.

The real crime for the Avalanche was the price they paid to get Varlamov. Giving up a first- and second-round pick for Varlamov was steep to begin with. Taking into consideration that the Avalanche have finished 15th, 8th and 14th in the Western Conference the past three seasons, the price seems even worse. As Iain Fyffe showed earlier this year, Top 5 draft picks are worth way more than other first round draft picks. The Avalanche could very likely finish near the basement of the Western Conference again, not just because they've done it in the past, but because they're a very poor team at even-strength.

Not only did the Avs have the fifth-worst goal differential at even-strength last season, but they were consistently outshot as well. Both measures can be solid predictors of future league success.

If the first-round pick they gave up is in the Top 5, they could be giving up an elite prospect with a total peak GVT of 12.5 to 23.0 (with the second-round pick included) for a single prospect that hasn't proven his worth yet.

If Colorado has a decent season, they are likely still giving up 10.0 GVT worth of player value for a goaltender who peaked with a GVT of 9.8 last season. Obviously, if Varlamov can sustain an even-strength save percentage even in the low .920's across 50 or 60 games, he'll be worth everything they gave up GVT-wise.

Conclusions

The Avalanche clearly made a mistake in the Anderson-Elliott trade. And though they may have found their goaltender of the future in Varlamov, he shows no more promise at this point than Steve Mason did in his rookie season for the Blue Jackets. In case you don't follow hockey in Ohio, Mason's even-strength save percentage of .911 over the past two seasons is hardly commensurate with his $2.9 million cap hit.

Getting Varlamov signed for only $0.4 million per year less than Anderson signed, while giving up first- and second-round picks is hardly a win. Colorado took on more risk of Varlamov being a bust while Anderson is the more proven commodity.

In the end, Avs' GM Greg Sherman outsmarted himself and should have just tried to lock up Anderson for the next three or four seasons while attempting to assemble more talent around him. He could have used the extra first- and second-round picks to bolster other areas of need on his roster. Trust me, there are plenty.

Ryan Popilchak is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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