What should the Colorado Avalanche do with Ryan O’Reilly?

Rory Boylen
o'reilly

So, you’re the Colorado Avalanche. You’ve just enjoyed a comeback season in which you won the regular season Central Division title and returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2010. You maybe got a little lucky with all that success, since your goalie posted a career year and you were the worst possession team to qualify for the post-season, which is probably why you were upset in the first round.

But there’s a lot to like here. You have Varlamov, who probably won’t post the same type of numbers, but should still be good enough to get 60-plus starts and hold the fort. Nathan MacKinnon had an electric rookie season and looks to have all the skill required to live up to the hype. Matt Duchene is one of the most explosive and fun-to-watch players in the league and you can see the superstardom in his future every time he takes off down the ice. Captain Gabriel Landeskog is the leader of this young group and its second-highest goal scorer this past season. Tyson Barrie looks like a keeper on the back-end and Patrick Roy was an award-winning coach in his very first season behind the bench.

There’s enough feel-good material here to make any Avs fan optimistic that 2013-14 was only the beginning of better things to come.

But it’s not all rosy. The Avs lost center Paul Stastny, their best possession center, for nothing to the St. Louis Blues via free agency. They traded P-A Parenteau, who had the third-best Corsi relative among Avs forwards (albeit with favorable zone starts), to Montreal for the very underwhelming return of Daniel Briere. The defense still needs help and the aforementioned likely dip in numbers from Varlamov will exacerbate problems that stats like Corsi and Fenwick say the Avalanche have.

And then there’s Ryan O’Reilly.

According to the Denver Post’s Adrian Dater, it appears all but certain Colorado will go through the arbitration process with O’Reilly after contract talks broke down between the two sides. Most scheduled arbitration cases don’t make it to the arbiter because player and team almost always come to an agreement beforehand. So it says a lot about the relationship between these two if they go all the way through arbitration just two years after O’Reilly signed an offer sheet with the Calgary Flames.

For a deal to get done ahead of the scheduled July 23 arbitration date, the Avalanche would have to pay O’Reilly a price Calgary has already made clear it thinks he’s worth, or O’Reilly’s price would have to come down fairly significantly.

From Dater:

“An arbitrator can’t award O’Reilly less than 85 percent of his base salary of $6.5 million last season. That guarantees him at least $5.525 million in salary with the Avs for the 2014-15 season.

O’Reilly’s salary cap hit the past two seasons was $5 million. The difference between that number and his last base salary is the crux of the difference between the Avs and O’Reilly’s representatives at Newport Sports, a high-powered agency based in Ontario. The arbitration hearing is expected to be in Toronto. The arbitrator must make a decision no more than 48 hours after the hearing ends.

When the Avs filed for arbitration with O’Reilly, they did it because the team would have had to give him a qualifying offer of his last base salary – $6.5 million – to retain his rights because he is a restricted free agent.”

Since the Avs took O’Reilly to arbitration, he has the option of selecting a one- or two-year extension off the hearing. If he chooses two years, he’d become a 25-year-old UFA at the end of it. The Avs may be able to get him at their price today, but then there’d be hard choices to make about O’Reilly tomorrow.

So what do you do? If you trade O’Reilly this summer – before or after arbitration – you’re doing it when his value may be at its highest. He scored 28 goals to lead the Avs in 2013-14, won the Lady Byng, can play center, which Colorado just lost one of, and his new contract will be fresh. If you trade him later, any team acquiring him would be willing to give up less and less as his contract gets closer to expiring. He will continue to grow and get better as a player, but the amount of contract control over him will decrease. These days, team management is asset management, and you don’t trade the future for one season, or less, of a player.

It’s a conundrum the Avs would rather not have to figure out.

TRADE HIM
If you trade him this summer, you’ll probably get more in return than you ever will. Which is good, because if you look at Colorado’s player usage chart from last season, you’ll see how badly they’d need to hit a homerun if they did move O’Reilly. Look at this chart below (via ExtraSkater) and then imagine it without Parenteau, Stastny and O’Reilly. There’s a huge hole to fill, especially at center, where O’Reilly should move to full-time next season to replace Stastny.

Colorado Avalanche chart 2013-14

If Colorado trades O’Reilly it is absolutely imperative to get a top-two center back. Without that, a strength of Colorado’s last season – its depth down the middle – will disappear. Sure, Nathan MacKinnon can play center and so can Daniel Briere. But both had terrible winning percentages at the dot in 2013-14. O’Reilly took about 80 fewer draws than MacKinnon, but his winning percentage was about 10 points higher. Plus he’s got an elite defensive acumen, which will blossom into Selke contention in short order.

You need center strength to survive, especially in the West. Why do you think The St. Louis Blues went so hard at Stastny? If O’Reilly is moved, the Avs should be able to get a Tyler Seguin-esque return – but it must include a pivot. Duchene is a fine top-two, but is MacKinnon ready to take a lead in that position in his second season? Can you expect improvement with that?

DON’T TRADE HIM
Here’s the thinking I subscribe to. Sure you might get the best return for O’Reilly now, but if it’s not the exact skill and combination of players you need to stay in the Western Conference playoffs next season, you may be doing more harm. They have to keep him, at least for one season. Maybe this relationship can still be salvaged with time – and if O’Reilly accepts a two-year arbitration reward, the Avs would know if they ever had a chance of keeping the player next summer, when they could re-open negotiations. O’Reilly’s a talent worth waiting a bit on, isn’t he?

The Avs have to do everything in their power to keep their momentum. They are going to be more of a playoff bubble team next year than they looked this year (sorry Avs fans), so unless Colorado can get a top-two center (signed longer than two years) in a deal for O’Reilly, there’s no better option for them to run down the middle. And where is that center going to come from anyway?

It’s not ideal to move ahead with a guy who seems to have a tenuous future with the franchise, but it may be Colorado’s only choice for now. Losing a solid puck possession center in Stastny was bad enough, but losing another solid puck possession player who can fill the full-time center job would be a nightmare, especially so for a team that struggled with possession last season. Top-two centers don’t become available very often – this summer was an anomaly in that regard. So when you have these centers, they’re like gold. Treat the assets with care. And whatever you do, don’t rush.

Keep O’Reilly, at least for one more season.

What would you do with him?

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