Within a matter of two weeks -- and especially the last 24 hours -- the Colorado Avalanche have completely reinvented their defensive corps through a series of trades. The trades themselves were expected (the unit has been by far the weakest link on the team due to injury and inconsistency), but the names involved were very surprising.
I shared my thoughts on the O'Byrne trade when it happened, but what about the transactions of the past day?
Colorado Trades Colby Cohen to Boston Bruins for Matt Hunwick
Colorado traded the near NHL-ready Colby Cohen, an aggressive defenseman with some size and a dynamite point shot, for Matt Hunwick. Hunwick is an undersized but fast skater with some puck-handling skills, but has been with the Boston Bruins for three year in a system that doesn't play towards his offensive tendencies. (They even experimented with him at forward last season.) Response to this deal has ranged from confusion to outright hatred, but there's plenty to like going forward:
-Hunwick should be an excellent fit within the Avalanche's system of fast-tempo, aggressive play. His body type also fits the profile of a preferred Colorado defenseman; quick, agile and offensively motivated.
-He has NHL experience, something that many current Avalanche defensemen lack. He's also spent three years in the Eastern Conference and joins the club on the brink of two straight weeks against Southeast Division teams. Considering the top forwards they are about to face (Steven Stamkos, Eric Staal, Dustin Byfuglien, Alex Ovechkin), any prior experience could be a serious boost to Colorado's chances during this stretch.
-Less Ryan Wilson. Wilson is playing himself out of an NHL job this season, and the idea of him attempting to stop the Tampa Bay Lightning top line is enough to give Avalanche fans nightmares.
-Colby Cohen was a solid defensive prospect, and one that would have added size and toughness to an Avalanche defense that gets pushed around. This is precisely why he was traded. Colorado once had an identity as a tough, mean club. That mentality has now changed, leading to...
Colorado Trades Scott Hannan to Washington Capitals for Tomas Fleischmann
This morning, Colorado traded veteran defenseman Scott Hannan to the Washington Capitals for Tomas Fleischmann, a 26 year old forward who is in the midst of a mediocre season. Fleischmann has some talent, scoring 51 points for the high-powered Capitals, but has seemed to stagnate within their system this season. What does this trade accomplish for Colorado?
-Fleischmann adds forward depth in the wake of the Chris Stewart injury. With Stewart out for the next six weeks, and Peter Mueller still without a timetable for return from concussion, Colorado was in desperate need of some experience at winger. They cannot depend on players like Greg Mauldin breaking out everytime someone goes down with injury.
-Fleischmann is a great change of scenery candidate. The Avalanche have had great success recently trading for underachieving (but talented) players. Winnik, Porter, and Mueller are all recent examples of players who thrived in the up-tempo Colorado system.
-It's a very low risk trade financially. Fleischmann is an unrestricted free agent after this season, meaning that Colorado can simply cut ties without any penalty if the experiment doesn't succeed. He also makes $2 million less than Hannan this season, completely offsetting the salary increases from the O'Byrne and Hunwick trades and making these transactions completely neutral from a financial standpoint.
-Hannan had become a non-factor in the Avalanche's current system. He had probably been the most consistent defenseman on the team this season, but that's about all you can say. When watching Colorado games, when was the last time to noticed Hannan's presence on the ice? Invisibility is normally a good thing for a defenseman (at least they aren't making mistakes), but that is not what Colorado had in mind when signing him to a four year deal back in 2007. He was supposed to be a strong, physical presence. Instead, he was an adequate $4.5 million player. That simply was not good enough, and it didn't fit within the new team philosophy.
In two weeks, Colorado has completed an organizational change that began last season, banking completely on the NHL's most potent offense to completely carry the team. They've bolstered their forward depth in the wake of injury, and made their defense faster, younger, and completely in line with that scoring mentality. All while adding nothing to the payroll.
There's no further doubt that the Avalanche have to pour in the goals and hope that their two goalies can carry the heavy defensive load. It's a serious gamble, but GM Greg Sherman has been shrewd in using his cap space as leverage while dealing with teams who are pressed up against the salary cap. Are the Avalanche a better team then they were two weeks ago? Uncertain. One thing is for sure, they are finally a team built with a single unifying principle in mind. The rest of the season will prove to be one fascinating experiment.