Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Problem with Peter Mueller

Lo, the long offseason is drawing to a close, and if you are like me you enjoyed a summer full of activities and "getting important things done." Like working on your next fantasy hockey draft, and impatiently anticipating the hockey season. For most hockey fans in this age of the 24-hour news cycle this summer meant reading articles and watching video on how the Devils tried to skirt the intent of the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement by signing Ilya Kovalchuk to a 36-year contract at the huggable salary cap compatible price of $10,000 a season. (Okay maybe it wasn't that bad, but it was close).

Since there was nothing else hockey related to read about, and if you, like me managed to somehow pay attention to the cyclone of idiocy surrounding the events, the Kovalchuk melee ended up being an eduction not on how a room full of lawyers and agents can and will find loopholes in anything if it means being able to chalk up billable hours, but in how desperate some teams will be when it comes to signing players with "generational talent."

There is little doubt that Kovalchuk is the kind of player who can turn a team into playoff threat (at least on the offensive end of the ice) so New Jersey's desire to lock him down for the rest of his career was understandable.

But if you are an Avalanche fan like myself the events of the summer left you scratching your head at the inactivity in Denver when at very least tossing some kind of offer in the direction of Kovalchuk's agent would have signaled that the home team was interested in improving sooner rather than later. For the Avalanche organization to not even bat a collective eye in the direction of Kovalchuk, considering the team's history of trading for and signing greatness, the summer, at least for me, proved to be extremely frustrating.

The frustration stems from the fact that the Avalanche seemed intent on relying on Peter Mueller as a top six forward, even though long before he was traded to Denver for Wojtek Wolski his concussion problems were apparent. It had long been my belief that Mueller's scoring/doghouse issues in Phoenix weren't necessarily because of fireworks between he and coach Dave Tippett. I believed that the former first rounder's problems stemmed from his first concussion which prompted him to play passively, thus resulting in lower confidence and lower production.

Mueller did get back on track after the trade to the Avalanche and looked to be a steal, but Rob Blake made sure that Mueller would not be a factor for the Avalanche by dealing out his second concussion late last season.

For Mueller it was his second major concussion in little more than a year, and for me it was when the red flag went up on his career. Peter Mueller was incredibly close to encroaching upon "Eric Lindros territory" in the concussion department.

Going into camp the Avalanche were a few million dollars under the salary floor of $40.8 million, but more or less remedied that situation by signing Chris Stewart and Mueller. Mueller specifically signed for two years at two million per.

I had no problem with signing Mueller for relatively cheap over such a short span because in my mind Mueller was walking a fine line between success and disaster, and a contract with a longer term would have been foolish. Unfortunately disaster struck and Mueller was dealt his third concussion during the first game of the preseason.

Much of the argument and speculation seems to be circling around why Mueller wasn't wearing a newer, safer helmet when he got his third concussion, which is completely valid. How a player with a known history of concussion problems was allowed to set foot on the ice without the latest in protective equipment is most certainly irresponsible.

Still, the bigger question is why a team that is around $17 million under the salary cap would rest on the notion of Peter Mueller becoming a dependable top line wing without having some kind of backup plan.

This is where the Avalanche may have missed the opportunity of the decade.

The reconstruction of the Avalanche has been impressive. Recent years have brought a wealth of young talent, with the success of last season showing that the best is yet to come. But the Avalanche would have been well served if they would have tried to sign Kovalchuk, hefty contract or not. If they had landed him, the Avalanche would have solidified the soft spot on their offense (left wing) with a superstar, while Mueller continued to play on the second line with phenom Matt Duchene. If not, the Avalanche would have at least given the impression to their fans that they weren't just developing the team, they were making the leap back to the level of contenders, which would have helped fill otherwise empty seats at the Pepsi Center.

While I'm unable to live in the heads of the Avalanche brass, it is probably safe to assume that Kovalchuk was considered, but then the decision was made to hoard cap space in order to sign the talent they do have when the time comes, while biding their time in the free agency market.

Such a strategy seems to be working for the team in a league where contenders such as Chicago have had to shed massive amounts of payroll just to keep their cores intact. In that case what the Avalanche are doing should pay off, but the Mueller injury set the offense back if not by magnitudes, at least in the area of left wing, which is now going to be even more of a problem than it was last season. This is where taking a risk on landing Kovalchuk, even at a high salary, would have been a smart move.

Recent reports have stated that Matt Duchene will start the season playing the wing with the injury prone David Jones centering he and Milan Hejduk. At first and second glance I cannot imagine that this is the situation Avalanche had in mind. Should such a situation continue (from the looks of it Mueller isn't coming back anytime soon), Duchene's development into a top flight centerman could be hampered.

For an organization on the rise, success on offense this season may come down to this summer when the Avalanche took a risk on the wrong player. If so, the ripple effect of Mueller's absence will be something cannot be ignored.

No comments: