You would think that heading into the All-Star break in a playoff position would be enviable, but let's look at precisely where the Colorado Avalanche are right now: smack in the middle of the most dangerous division in the league, the Central. Nashville is one point back with two games in hand, while Minnesota is two points back with three games in hand.
So how does GM Joe Sakic approach the trade deadline, which is basically a month away?
Assessment is the first mission. Colorado is a high-scoring team that gives up a lot of goals – generally not a recipe for playoff success. With starter Semyon Varlamov on the sidelines due to a very serious lawsuit, the Avs are counting on rookie Calvin Pickard in the short-term. But even when Varlamov has played, he has been streaky at best.
So you're not getting elite goaltending, but the possibility of elite goaltending in the playoffs is there.
Defensively, there is work to be done – the unit is not deep enough. The Avs are also the worst possession team in the entire league and that does not bode well for the post-season.
On the other hand, Colorado has an electrifying offense led by Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene, backed up by captain Gabriel Landeskog and Carl Soderberg (who is having the best offensive season of his NHL career). And if we've learned anything about the West in recent years, it's that getting into the playoffs matters a lot more than seeding in the playoffs.
That may be too positive a spin, though. The Avs are not the Kings or Hawks; they're not built that way. But it will be hard for Sakic to improve his roster at the deadline unless he makes straight-up "hockey trades." That is to say, with Colorado at the 50-contract maximum right now, the Avs can't add talent by shipping away draft selections or futures. The franchise does have a decent amount of cap space, so the deal could be one in which the other team sheds salary, but warm bodies have to go back and forth.
This would be the only route to improvement. Even going in the other direction – tearing down if the Avs don't think they have the mustard to make a go this year – will be tough. Colorado's pending free agents aren't a tantalizing lot, unless a team thinks Jack Skille or Alex Tanguay constitutes a missing puzzle piece.
So perhaps the best solution for Sakic is to simply stand pat and let the season play out. With a young core of MacKinnon, Duchene, Landeskog, Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie, the Avs haven't even hit their contending window yet; playoff appearances now should really be reserved for learning how to win in the NHL post-season, rather than actually winning (although, you know, that's never frowned upon either).
If the Avs head into a tailspin after the break, perhaps they look at moving veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin. Though he has been a nice partner to Johnson, he still has two more years on a contract that pays him $4.5 million per season. That money could be used elsewhere, particularly since MacKinnon and Barrie are restricted free agents this summer, while Johnson's new big-ticket extension kicks in next year.
Whatever happens, the situation in Denver will be interesting to watch down the stretch.