DENVER -- Despite losing free agent Paul Stastny to the Central Division rival St. Louis Blues, Joe Sakic believes the Colorado Avalanche are better than they were when they lost to the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference First Round.
Sakic, the Avalanche's executive vice president of hockey operations, said Wednesday the additions of forwards Jarome Iginla, Daniel Briere and Jesse Winchester, along with defensemen Brad Stuart and Zach Redmond, have improved Colorado's size, depth, experience and toughness.
"We saw how last year went and we had a tremendous year," Sakic said of the Avalanche's surprising first-place finish in the division, "but at the end of the year after our playoff loss to Minnesota we knew we needed to have a little more depth on our third and fourth lines, and we felt we needed to get tougher.
"We feel we got tougher, and for sure the experience factor -- leadership -- you can never have enough of that. We know our core guys are young. To bring in this leadership to help them along is huge. Now you're not relying on one or two or three guys to be leaders. We have a whole bunch of leaders helping our young guys. There were a lot of things we tried to accomplish, which we think we did."
The Avalanche might have to be at least as good as they were a season ago, when they won 52 games and made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in four years, in an already difficult conference that includes the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
Aside from Stastny, the Blues signed 2008 draft pick center Jori Lehtera; the Wild signed wing Thomas Vanek; the Chicago Blackhawks added center Brad Richards; the Dallas Stars brought in forwards Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky; the Nashville Predators traded for wing James Neal; the Anaheim Ducks acquired center Ryan Kesler; and the Vancouver Canucks signed goalie Ryan Miller.
"Everybody, especially in our division, wants to improve," Sakic said. "We've got a tough division, and obviously it's a tough Western Conference, and our division just got even stronger. But that's a good thing. When you're playing in a division like this, it's exciting. It's exciting for the team, it's exciting for the fans to be in a division where it's so tight. Everybody's trying to get better."
Sakic said Iginla "was always tops on our list" to replace Stastny when it became apparent the 28-year-old would leave after eight seasons in Colorado. Stastny signed a four-year, $28 million contract Tuesday with the Blues.
"Both sides were open with what we could do," Sakic said of Stastny and agent Matt Keator. "We had a heads-up. Obviously he tested the market and I had a pretty good idea [he would leave] the day before. It was Paul's right. We couldn't get to what he got in St. Louis. I respect Paul a lot, I respect everything he's done for the Avalanche. It was his right, he's going home, and I wish Paul all the best in St. Louis, just not against us."
Sakic and Iginla were linemates on gold medal-winning Canada at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and are good friends. Sakic spoke with Iginla and agent Don Meehan during the five-day period before the first signing day Tuesday and found a mutual interest.
Iginla, 37, signed a three-year, $16 million contract after scoring 30 goals for the Boston Bruins last season. The 6-foot-1, 207-pound right wing has 560 goals in 19 NHL seasons and will play on a line with center Matt Duchene or Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon, who is expected to move from right wing to center, his natural position, now that Stastny has left.
"Bringing [Iginla] in, he's a winner and he got 30 goals for Boston last year," Sakic said. "He might not be in his prime, but he's still got a lot left. I believe he trusts me when we talk, we're very honest with each other. I think he liked the direction of the team. He wants to try and win a Stanley Cup and he believes in the group we have. To be part of this group, and not only for one year but for a three-year run, it's a lot of trust on his part in feeling that that's our goal, and he wants to be a part of it and he believes that he's got a chance here with this group."
Stuart, 34, was acquired from the San Jose Sharks in a trade for a second-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and sixth-round selection in 2017. Stuart, who is 6-2, 215 pounds, will probably be paired with Erik Johnson. Stuart has one year left on a contract that will pay him $3.6 million.
"Stuart is a physical, stay-at-home defenseman, he's won a Stanley Cup in Detroit," Sakic said. "We expect him to help [Johnson] and be that presence in the locker room and obviously on the ice. We wanted to upgrade our [defense] and we feel that we did that by getting Brad in here, especially with his toughness and his leadership."
Winchester, 30, left the Florida Panthers to sign a two-year, $1.8 million contract. He can play center and right wing and likely will skate on the fourth line. He's 6-1, 200 pounds, and had nine goals and nine assists in 52 games with the Panthers.
The Avalanche acquired Briere, 36, on Monday from the Montreal Canadiens in a trade for right wing PA Parenteau and a fifth-round pick in the 2015 draft. Briere, who waived his no-trade clause, has one year left on a contract that will pay him $4 million.
"The trade gives us flexibility," Sakic said. "Briere is on a one-year deal whereas PA was on a two-year [contract]. With our lineup, PA probably needs to be on the top two [lines]. He's not a third-line player and that's where he would have been. Daniel Briere brings that experience, he scored big goals in the playoffs for Montreal, and he's a guy who's almost a point a game in the playoffs. He's a big-time player, a competitor, and we believe, especially on a one-year deal, he's going to add a lot to our dressing room.
"We like what we've added in Jarome and Brad Stuart and Briere, his veteran leadership. Our core guys are all young and we wanted to surround them with great veteran leadership and we've done that. We feel our third and fourth lines, we were lacking depth in the playoffs and we really noticed it against Minnesota and we feel we've got some depth down there as well. We're pretty happy with where we are right now."
The Avalanche have about $10 million of salary-cap space left to re-sign restricted free agents Ryan O'Reilly, Tyson Barrie, Stefan Elliott and Joey Hishon. The Avalanche filed for arbitration with O'Reilly and the others received qualifying offers.
"We're going to focus on trying to get Ryan signed," Sakic said. "If we don't, we're going to arbitration, so we know he's going to be here. We want Ryan to be here and to be here for a long time. I haven't spoken to (agent) Pat Morris since we filed. Now that we're all done with the draft and free agency I'll be getting in contact with him."