Rumblings: Avs want to keep pair; suitors chase Spezza, Kesler, Thornton

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
11:33
AM ET

The Colorado Avalanche are at an interesting crossroads in their rebirth as a buzzworthy team.

They've won back some of their fan base after a surprising and exciting 2013-14 season that saw the team razzle-dazzle its way to a playoff berth. The sky seems to be the limit with youngsters Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene leading the way.

But now comes the business part of the equation: two of their top forwards need new contracts, center Paul Stastny a pending UFA while Ryan O'Reilly will soon be RFA and carries his own unique set of circumstances.

It's not like the Avs are up against the salary cap, far from it. But it's about keeping things within the organization's financial landscape when it comes to trying to sign both important forwards.

"They're both part of our core, and we'd like to have them both here," Hockey Hall of Famer Joe Sakic, the team's executive vice president of hockey operations, told ESPN.com Thursday evening. "That said, we have our internal structure; we don't want to change that. We signed Landeskog, Duchene and [Semyon] Varlamov all within our core structure, and we’d like to have both Ryan and Paul fit in there as well."

Ah, but what exactly is the magic number?

Stastny, 28, is coming off a five-year deal that paid him $6.6 million per season. One assumes the Avs would like to bring him back at less than that number. Tough call for Stastny, who would easily be the No. 1 targeted center on an otherwise lean UFA crop come July 1.

As soon as Wednesday, other teams are allowed as per the new CBA to reach out to Stastny's agent, Matt Keator.

"Paul has been open about the fact he wants to stay in Denver," Keator said Friday. "We will keep talking with Joe throughout the process and give them every chance to retain Paul. We will meet next week and see where things go."

The plan is for Keator and Sakic to speak in Las Vegas during the NHL awards.

"I'm going to touch base and see Matt next week," Sakic said. "But I also understand Paul has the right to listen to other teams. We hope we can keep Paul, but he's in that situation where it's his choice. I don't blame him if they choose to see what's out there."

Then there's O'Reilly, at 23 already a fierce team leader and coming off a career-high 28 goals, which led the team (he was third in points with 64). On the one hand, he's one of Patrick Roy's favorite players, which the head coach and vice president of hockey operations reiterated at a Thursday news conference in Denver. On the flip side, there's history here with O'Reilly resolving a contract dispute with the team after the lockout by signing an offer sheet with the Calgary Flames. The Avs matched it the same day.

And, Sakic warned, any team trying that again will see the same result.

"We're going to match that," Sakic said, when asked about a possible offer sheet for the restricted free agent.

The team announced last Sunday that O’Reilly was designated for club-elected salary arbitration.

It's certainly within the team's rights in the CBA, but not usually a popular move with the player.

The sensitive disagreement right now resides with O'Reilly having been paid $6.5 million in salary this past season but as the team points out, carrying a $5 million cap hit (because the two-year deal had a $3.5 million salary in Year 1).

While agent Pat Morris of Newport Sports no doubt would like the departure point in discussions to be $6.5 million, the Avs in turn no doubt would point to the $5 million cap hit as a good place to start.

In arbitration, a player can't be awarded anything less than 85 percent of his base salary from the year before, so O'Reilly is guaranteed at least $5.525 million as an award. Whether that's a decrease in salary or a raise depends on each viewpoint.

"He was a $5 million cap hit this year, so to me it's still a raise," Sakic said. "I mean, at the end of the day, you have to look at the whole contract. That's beside the point; my first option would be to sign him long term and avoid arbitration. The whole idea, though, with arbitration is that if we don't get to an agreement is have an arbitrator dictate what's a right deal, whether that's one or two years. From our standpoint, we want Ryan O'Reilly here."

What the Avs have going for them in terms of leverage is that they've once again become a destination team. They're on the rise. Players around the league are going to want to hitch a ride on this train over the next number of years.

Just like the old days.

"I think so," said Sakic, part of two Cup-winning sides in Denver as a player. "We've got great young players. With Patty coaching, we have a great system. The fans have come back, it's a great city to live in, but at the end of the day you have to win. Winning gets players interested. All players want to win. If you can put a winning product on the ice, and you look at the players we have, I think this is a destination [free agents] will at least look at."

Which is precisely part of the front office's sales pitch on both Stastny and O'Reilly. This team is going places. Why would you want to leave now?

"Well, it is," agreed Sakic about the team's direction. "We'll have Ryan for at least two years but we hope it's longer-term. Paul has spent his whole career here, he loves the city. From my point of view, I'll respect whatever decision he makes, and hopefully it'll be [to stay] here. I was a UFA too, I know the situation and I respect the process. At the end of the day, it’s going to be Paul's situation and I hope he stays here. If not, I wish him the best. But we’d like both players to remain part of our core."

Gallant in running for Panthers' gig
As we reported in Thursday's blog, the Florida Panthers hope to have a coach in place by Monday.

While Dan Bylsma had started off as the strong front-runner, we keep hearing that Montreal Canadiens assistant coach Gerard Gallant has made strong headway in the discussion. Stay tuned.

Spezza, Kesler, Thornton talk
The Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues are among the clubs to watch when it comes to the big-name free-agent centers.

Both clubs, we hear, have talked to the Vancouver Canucks about Ryan Kesler and to the Ottawa Senators about Jason Spezza, although they are hardly alone; several clubs have checked in on both available assets.

It's not surprising that Anaheim has inquired about both, as the Ducks' desire for a high-end No. 2 center is hardly a state secret, especially when the club tried too hard to get Kesler at the March 5 trade deadline.

What we're hearing out of both Ottawa and Vancouver is that the price is too high for each center, perhaps because we haven’t gotten to draft week yet in Philadelphia when things are expected to heat up.

Then again, the Canucks view Kesler as quite a bargain at a $5 million cap hit the next two seasons. Spezza has only a year left on his deal, but his offensive talent is a major drawing card the Senators are banking on cashing in on a trade.

It just so happens that the Senators and Ducks made a big trade a year ago -- the Bobby Ryan deal -- which among other assets netted Anaheim a first-round pick in next week’s draft. Because Ottawa surprisingly missed the playoffs, that pick became the 10th overall selection. I’m willing to bet the farm that Sens GM Bryan Murray would want that 10th overall pick back as part of the package in a Spezza deal with Anaheim. And I’m equally willing to bet that Ducks GM Bob Murray does not want to part with it.

On the Joe Thornton front, one thing to keep in mind amid all these trade rumors, as far as I can tell the San Jose Sharks captain has not indicated that he wants to leave San Jose. And since he has a no-movement clause, that means he won’t be moved until the day comes he changes his mind. Could he change his mind at some point? Sure. But we’ve yet to hear that.

In the meantime, teams have called to inquire about Thornton.

One club we’re told that is intrigued is the Detroit Red Wings, although at this point it's just that, pure intrigue and other than a very preliminary discussion, there hasn't been much work done on that front.

For starters, I don’t think Detroit can do something of that magnitude as long as Stephen Weiss and his $4.9 million cap hit remains on the books for the next four years. Good luck moving that contract.

Secondly, who's to say Thornton would include Detroit on his list of teams if the day should ever come that he decides to accept a deal?

It’s worth repeating, there’s no indication yet that Thornton wants to move on. At least not yet.

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