Smyth, Hannan will bolster Avalanche roster

7/3/2007 - NHL

ESPN.com's Barry Melrose might get a phone call soon from the Colorado Avalanche marketing department.

In the wake of the Avalanche's Canada Day signings of Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan, a "Mullet Night" at a regular-season game is inevitable.

Who better to officiate than Melrose -- or, if he's unavailable, the Hanson Brothers, with or without their toys?

After missing the playoffs for the first time in their 11-season stay in Denver, but following a 15-2-2 stretch run that mitigated some of the damages, the Avalanche's free-agency moves thrust hockey into the forefront of the Colorado sports scene for at least a couple of days in July.

Farther to the west, the Los Angeles Kings were sending e-mails trumpeting the signings of Tom Preissing, Michal Handzus, Kyle Calder and Ladislav Nagy to fans -- including yours truly -- who had purchased tickets online last season.

One of the biggest surprises in the buying rush -- when general managers by necessity act like geeks wanting to be the first to get a PlayStation 3 -- was that the Kings, needing to counter the Ducks' momentum and sell tickets, didn't get at least one of the bigger names on the market.

Count me among those who were convinced that the Kings were the favorites to end up with Chris Drury, who has an offseason home in Manhattan Beach and is close friends with Rob Blake.

But no Drury.

No Scott Gomez.

No Smyth.

Instead, the Avalanche got the most done of the Western Conference's non-playoff teams from last season.

On the day the Avalanche brought their newest signees to town and went through the obligatory jersey-and-hat presentations in front of the cameras and microphones, team officials even said that some of the fans who finally had realized that season tickets no longer were the only way to get in the building and couldn't sell themselves on the huge expenditure called in Monday and asked if they could get their seats back.

At this point, at least in Denver, it's about perception.

"They're both looking for a Stanley Cup and we're looking for another one," Avalanche general manager Francois Giguere said of Smyth and Hannan.

The risk, as with most of the high-profile deals announced Monday, isn't so much tied to the expenditures, but the commitments. One of the more underplayed aspects of the cap system is that it has shot up so high during its brief run as the law of the league, cracking $50 million next season. That curve might flatten, but the Smyth and Hannan contracts -- five and four years, respectively -- serve as examples, and Daniel Briere's eight-year contract took it to the extreme (if you don't get into Rick DiPietro's lifetime deal).

Given the uncertainties of the game -- even if they involve health rather than motivation and maintenance of skills -- the length of the contracts eventually could be troublesome.

"Scott Hannan's 28 years old and Ryan is 31 and healthy," Giguere said. "Where I'm comfortable is if you look at our contracts, our longest-term contract [Milan Hejduk's] had three years left. Now we have only three players with contracts more than two years. That leaves me all the flexibility to make the decisions next year on all the guys who are going to become free agents and make decisions to keep them or not keep them."

Hannan called it "a commitment from both sides. They have a commitment to me, and that's a respect factor. And then I'm committed to them as a winning organization."

Said Smyth: "When a team invests that long in you, you want to deliver the goods. The Stanley Cup is the goods. It's only July 2, and we have to go out and play and deliver, and the only way you can do that is lead by example."

Some of the talk in Denver would have had you believe that in his years with the Sharks, Hannan proved himself to be the second coming of Larry Robinson or Scott Stevens, and that's a bit over the top. But he does fill a need for a franchise that allowed Adam Foote to leave two years ago; Colorado felt a bit vindicated when Foote struggled in the new-age NHL. Hannan provides a sharper physical edge on the blue line than the Avalanche had, especially last season after Blake's exit, and he at least seems to have adapted to the new standards and demonstrated that his game isn't archaic. He'll be out against the opposing top lines, most likely paired with Jordan Leopold -- if healthy -- or Brett Clark.

"I think it took me a little while," Hannan said. "I think it took everybody a little while. I think it took me about half my first year, and I realized there were certain things you weren't allowed to do that you grew up doing. Everybody knows those things, and it was adjusting to not doing them and playing a different way."

Joe Sakic -- who re-upped for one year shortly after the end of the regular season and who would be playing on week-to-week contracts if he could because of his determination to retire before his game slips significantly -- clearly was helping recruit his own successor as the franchise's captain and marquee player when he delivered his sale pitch to Smyth. (The NCAA might soon be checking into whether there were illegal offers of T-shirts.)

The Avalanche's on-paper offseason improvement, coupled with the late-season run that featured Paul Stastny's heightened profile as a prodigy and Peter Budaj's surprisingly solid work in the net, of course won't automatically lead to greater things next season.

The biggest question mark remains goaltending; the major issue is whether Hannan -- and everyone else -- will be turning around and thinking: I can't believe he let that one in. Despite his play as an iron man down the stretch, Budaj remains unproven as a long-term answer, and Jose Theodore hasn't come anywhere close to justifying the faith Colorado showed in him when picking him up 16 months ago.

In part because of the realization that the cap would be going up and the cap savings would be relatively low if they bought out Theodore, the Avalanche decided to stick with Theodore for the final year -- and the final $6 million -- of his contract.

"A few weeks after the season, I met with the hockey staff, the coaches and the scouts, and we discussed, and it was pretty unanimous that we felt Jose was going to be the best of our options," Giguere said. "He is in the last year of his deal so we think he's going to be highly motivated to perform well. I've had a few meetings with him, and he gives me all indication that he's really motivated to have a good year. The only thing he asked for was an opportunity to get the net back, and we said, look, the best guy's going to play and we're here to win and we're going to want the best goalie to play."

The goaltending play will be of paramount importance, of course, in determining whether Colorado will be part of a major realignment in the Western Conference's balance of power. So will the turmoil in Nashville, which figures to make the Central Division even more bottom-heavy and make the Red Wings a lock for the conference's top seed in what anyone sane hopes is the final season of the current scheduling format. So will the likely continuing unraveling in Edmonton. If Scott Niedermayer retires at 33 -- though the bet here is he decides against it -- and Todd Bertuzzi brings bad karma to the Ducks, the dynasty talk won't ever get started.

With considerable cap room and a lot to sell -- including year-round residency to Drury and his wife, Rory, who have been offseason Southlands residents for several years -- the Kings had what seemed to be a great shot at landing one of the top-tier free agents.

They landed some solid players on the second day, but they didn't make the splash.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."