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The Chris Stewart Trade: Start Of An Avalanche Fire Sale?

With last night's stunning news that the Colorado Avalanche have traded Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk to the St. Louis Blues for defenseman Erik Johnson and forward Jay McClement, Avalanche fans were initially stunned. Stewart had made strides last season and, during the first three months of the season, appeared to fulfil his promise. I even wrote about him as a potential Hart candidate early in the season.

So what happened? How did Stewart turn from "Forward of the Future" into trade bait within a span of two months? Does this signal the start of an Avalanche fire sale?

The short answer? No. Not even close.

Stewart's recent play (two goals in over a month since returning to action) did him no service, but he remains a very talented forward with skill in front of the net. That type of player always has value.

And that's why he was traded. He is a valuable player, and the Avalanche converted that value into Erik Johnson, a defensive player who would have been considered untouchable by the Blues front office a year ago. Johnson was the first overall selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, and for good reason. Take a look at this scouting report:

A powerful skater with a long, smooth stride who has tremendous acceleration in open ice … is very strong on his feet and is an outstanding backward skater who has excellent agility for his size … an offensive minded defenseman who has very good peripheral vision – makes the transition from defense to offense quickly and likes to rush with the puck which results in scoring chances … makes a solid crisp pass accurately, is also very accurate when making the long pass and possesses a hard accurate shot from the point.

Does this sound like any player currently in the Avalanche system? Kevin Shattenkirk -- who was traded alongside Stewart -- is an offensive-minded defenseman, but no one is going to mistake him for a physical presence. Shattenkirk's value lies as a power play quarterback, but he's prone to defensive gaffes. His production is likely replaced by one of several players currently in the Avalanche farm system.

Johnson is different. Though his stock has fallen somewhat since 2006 (he missed the 2008 season after a freak accident with a golf cart. No, seriously.), he is still a big, physical defenseman with significant upside. Any team in the NHL would be happy to acquire him.

Johnson is the type of player that can anchor your blue line for years, and these players do not come cheap. Colorado bought low on a defenseman they would not be able to acquire, and they gave up quite a bit of talent for him. The Avalanche have plenty of forward prospects waiting in the farm (and on the IR), and they dealt from a position of depth to grab a former "untouchable".

This wasn't a fire sale, this was an opportunity. And GM Greg Sherman made it happen.