Petr Prucha tries to keep the puck away from Scott Hannan and David Jones. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)
With six points separating eighth from 13th in both conferences, there are a limited number of sure-fire sellers for tomorrow’s 3 p.m. trade deadline and, obviously, as many as 26 potential buyers.
Two potential buyers are teams nobody thought would be in such a position in October, Phoenix and Colorado, the fourth- and sixth-seeded teams in the West.
Both boast of cagey veteran leadership, excellent goaltending and young players who represent the future core playing at levels not expected this early in their careers. And neither is fading as many suggested they would; Phoenix is 12-7-1 in its past 20 games, Colorado is 12-8-0.
Both teams have some other things in common as well; first and foremost they’re struggling at the gate. According to ESPN.com, the Coyotes rank 30th in attendance at less than 12,000 per game and the Avalanche 27th at less than 14,000. The former, of course, is no surprise after the summer of intrigue and last minute decisions surrounding the team’s future in Arizona. But the Colorado tale is unexpected.
A fan base disillusioned by a 28th overall finish last season and the loss of Joe Sakic on the marquee got smacked by a recession and is staying away in droves this year. But they’re missing some good hockey. Netminder Craig Anderson has been sublime and the youngsters have played above their heads.
It’s been much the same in Phoenix. Ilya Bryzgalov has played to an all-star level and the young players, although not leading the squad offensively as in Colorado, are progressing nicely.
Where these teams can really do some damage Wednesday, though, is with their pocketbooks and pipeline assets.
The Coyotes have almost $16 million in salary cap space and have the sixth-rated group of prospects and 21-and-under NHLers in this month’s Future Watch 2010 issue. The Avalanche is in a similar position: a little less than $8 million in cap space and the No. 3 FW team grade.
In short, both teams have the cash and the assets to make significant moves. But should they?
I say yes. Why? To put some butts in the seats.
Phoenix is especially primed to make deadline news and a playoff run. The Coyotes have four of THN’s top 50 prospects in Future Watch and that doesn’t include left winger Viktor Tikhonov, who already has an entire NHL season under his belt.
Phoenix has also done the smart thing under coach Dave Tippet and returned some of the kids to San Antonio of the American League, rather than risk their careers by rushing them to the NHL. To top it all off, the Coyotes own two first-rounders in this June’s draft, their own and Calgary’s, a remnant of the Olli Jokinen deal at the 2009 deadline.
Colorado has one prospect in our top 50, but a wealth of young blueliners, which are always in demand at the deadline; five of their 10 top kids are defensemen.
Now, I’m not suggesting Phoenix moves Kyle Turris for Nathan Horton. Nor am I saying Colorado should trade Kevin Shattenkirk for Alex Ponikarovsky. But if either team could get those – or other – players by sacrificing some lesser parts of their futures or draft picks, I’d go for it.
Phoenix has new ownership that needs to prove to the waning Coyotes fan base that it’s willing to invest in its team. And, after all, it’s been eight years since any post-season play for Phoenix and 23 since the franchise won a playoff round. The Coyotes have been a seller virtually every year the team has been in the desert and that fan base deserves something to feel good about. The last time Phoenix made any deadline deals to improve the team immediately with an eye on the playoffs was in 1999, when Robert Reichel and Stan Neckar were brought in.
Colorado has had much more recent success, but also has a team worth investing in now to appease the fans. Its youngest players have surpassed all expectations this season and are proving themselves capable NHLers with what look to be huge upsides. And it’s not like ownership can’t afford to spend some dough; E. Stanley Kroenke is a real estate billionaire who’s married to a Wal-Mart heiress.
Phoenix and Colorado. Two teams no one expected to be where they are and two teams who should be buyers Wednesday, for many of the same reasons.
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