While the National Hockey League’s period for signing unrestricted free agents doesn’t officially begin until Tuesday, the Colorado Avalanche has already taken two big steps toward filling out its roster for the 2008-09 campaign. On Monday, the Avs re-signed defensemen Adam Foote and John-Michael Liles to multi-year contracts.
Liles, who led all Avalanche blueliners with 32 points (6g/26a) in 81 regular season contests, will enter the first year of a new four-year deal when the 2008-09 season kicks off.
After only four seasons in the National Hockey League, Liles ranks statistically among the top defensemen in franchise history, sitting fifth in goals (44), eighth in assists (115) and tied for sixth in points (159).
On Monday, the Indianapolis, Ind., native said he was thrilled to once again be wearing the burgundy and blue.
“I started my career with Colorado. They kind of raised me in the NHL,” said Liles. “When they came to me with the offer and the opportunity to sign for four years, there’s nowhere else I could think of that I’d want to be.”
Avalanche Executive Vice President & General Manager Francois Giguere was quick to express his opinion on just how crucial a player such as Liles – a defenseman who can turn the puck up-ice and join the offensive rush – can be in relation to a team’s success.
“John-Michael became a priority. In this day and age of the new NHL, there’s a premium on puck-moving defensemen,” said Giguere. “I also think he became a much better defenseman this past year through a commitment to playing in his own zone.”
Meanwhile, Foote returns to the Avalanche after signing a two-year pact through the 2009-10 season. The veteran defenseman, who brings a hard-nosed style of play to the ice each night, provides a healthy dose of leadership and Stanley Cup experience, having helped the Avs to titles in 1996 and 2001.
“He’s such a competitor and brings a lot to this team,” said Liles of his fellow defenseman. “He was around for a very great part of Colorado’s history. Obviously he was gone for a few years but we were happy to have him back at the end of last season and we’re happy to have him back again.”
One of the most popular players in franchise history, Foote’s 55 goals rank third all-time among franchise defensemen, while he also sits second in points (235) and needs just one assist to tie Sandis Ozolinsh (180) for the most career helpers by a blueliner.
"I’m very happy. We negotiated a deal that my family and I are very happy with," said Foote. "I’m glad to be back for another two years with team that I started with a long time ago."
The signings of Foote and Liles should once again provide stability for a defensive unit that has been one of the Avalanche’s strong points over the past few seasons.
Heading into the 2007-08 campaign, the Avalanche had one of the more underrated blue lines in the entire league. Gritty free agent defenseman Scott Hannan was added to a mix that already included talents such as Liles and fellow 2006 Olympian Jordan Leopold, as well as a steady two-way defender in Brett Clark.
That defensive unit was part of an Avalanche squad that allowed only 2.63 goals-per-game during the regular season, the 12th-best mark in the league, a number that improved as the season wore on. Beginning January 1st, the Avs had the league’s seventh-best goals-against at 2.44 per game.
The blue line was further solidified at the trade deadline, as Giguere swung deals to acquire Foote and Ruslan Salei. Both acquisitions helped bolster the club to a great stretch run, as Colorado won eight-of-nine games after the trade deadline and ended the season by earning 11 of a possible 12 points to secure a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“After we got [Foote] at the trade deadline, we realized how important he is in terms of character, leadership and intimidation of his opponents,” said Giguere. “I think it was clear that he was going to bring a lot in terms of leadership to this team, so he also became a priority for us.”
With Foote and Liles now back in the fold (and Hannan, Clark, Leopold and Salei also set to return), the Avalanche’s defense is again shaping up to be among the league’s most formidable.
“There’s no question about it. I think there’s a lot of depth there,” said Foote. “We have a lot of guys that can move the puck, and a lot of guys that can play in the corners and don't mind playing in the corners."
Giguere was equally enthusiastic about re-signing the two players and viewed it as the Avalanche getting an early jump on the free agent season.
“If you look at the free agent class this year, there’s no doubt in my mind that John-Michael Liles and Adam Foote were two of the top five defensemen entering free agency,” said Giguere. “Our feeling is that we just signed two free agents, we just signed them a day early.”