The Colorado Avalanche have failed to extend a qualifying offer to forward Peter Mueller, meaning he will be an unrestricted free agent come July 1st. Given that general manager Bryan Murray doesn't think he's going to be in the running for a major forward who may or may not be named Zach Parise, and the team's need for forwards, they need to take a long look at Mueller, a good talent who may come very, very cheaply.
Now, the amount of bias in this question may make you puke. You probably already know where I stand on the subject. It's no secret that I have coveted Mueller for a long time. I try to come up with trade scenarios to land him on the Senators whenever I can--and now I don't have to. Still, there's actually some logic to my thinking here, and I'll do my best to lay it out in an unbiased way. And since this is an opinion piece, I'm going to say something I almost never say: I told you so. I was pumping Kyle Turris' tires when all you bandwagon Turris lovers were still calling him overrated. This by no means proves I'm always right--in fact, I think this is the first time ever--but I hope it will lead you to consider my words as more than just a mancrush when it comes to the Phoenix Coyotes' problem children.
So, why should the Senators be targeting Peter Mueller?
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Look! He's reading what I wrote!
First, some introductions. Say hello to Mr. Mueller:
Okay, so his tastes are pretty awful. But at least he doesn't like Nickleback, right?
Here's some of his offensive skill:
A little history
His speed is deceptive – his pace picks up when in possession of the puck ... has the uncanny ability to be in the right spot at the right time ... has good acceleration to loose pucks ... mobility is good to both sides and is effective in traffic ... has excellent vision and is gifted at moving the puck using soft hands and very good anticipation ... is good at creating space for teammates and has the ability to make teammates play at a higher level ... is an efficient player who knows when to exert the proper energy and has a deceptive, heavy shot with a quick release, excelling at one-timers... would have much better numbers but plays in a very defensive oriented system ... is used effectively to quarterback the power-play ...was 4 of 8 in shootouts this season ... shows a willingness to work the corners and compete for pucks in traffic ... is willing to take a hit to make a play and pays attention to the defensive aspect of the game ... during the last half of the season was much stronger in his own zone ...
High praise, indeed.
Mueller spent one more season in the WHL, putting up 78 points (21G, 57A) in 51 games for the Everett Silvertips. He then made the jump to the NHL, and had a very strong rookie year for Phoenix. With Wayne Gretzky as his coach, Mueller recorded 54 points (22G, 32A) in 81 games. The next season, though, his production dropped and he was only able to tally 36 points (13G, 23A) in 72 games.
However, despite Mueller's statistical decline, he was still the Coyotes' fifth-highest scorer that season, tied with Ed Jovanovski. In fact, all of the Coyotes in Mueller's sophomore seasons suffered from a statistical decline. Jovanovski, for example, recorded 51 points during Mueller's rookie season, and also dropped to 36 the following year. This was a tumultuous season for the Coyotes, as it was publicly revealed just how much money the team was losing, and there were serious questions surrounding Gretzky's future with the team despite him being in the second year of a five-year extension.
In fact, in that offseason, the team would declare bankruptcy, be sold to Jim Balsillie and scheduled to move to Hamilton, Ontario before being blocked in court, and see its head coach skip training camp before officially stepping down before the season began. His replacement was Dave Tippett.
Dave Tippett is a very good coach, and he brought a sense of structure and stability to a reeling team. However, the keys to success in Tippett's system are structure and discipline. He implemented a pressure-based, counterattacking system that favored his team's strength: its defensemen. This system magnified mistakes by forwards, and those who didn't adapt to the system suffered--and Mueller suffered, managing only 17 points (4G, 13A) in 54 games.
This does not mean that Mueller is not defensively responsible. Quite the opposite. Like fellow Tippett exile Kyle Turris, one of the reasons he was ranked so highly in his draft class was his willingness and ability to play a two-way game. He just wasn't able to play the kind of two-way game Tippett was asking him to. It wasn't a matter of attitude, ability, or hockey smarts, it was simply that Mueller (like Turris) didn't fit well with the system he was being asked to play. Tippett's system considers creativity to be a mistake (this is a vast oversimplification, but bear with me) and young, creative players like Mueller and Turris can actually hurt their team by trying to create offense.
Though he said all the right things, Mueller wasn't a fit with the new direction of the Coyotes, and he knew it. He asked for a trade, and was moved to the Colorado Avalanche for Wojtek Wolski. Energized on his new team, Mueller put up 20 points (9G, 11A) in his final 15 games. The Avalanche loved what they saw and immediately signed him to a two-year, $4M extension.
If he's so great, why wasn't he qualified?
Not long after that extension, this happened:
Mueller suffered a severe concussion from the hit, ending his season, and in the next year, during the 2010-11 preseason, suffered another heavy hit and concussion. He would miss the entire 2010-11 season while recovering.
Like some guy named Sidney Crosby, he would attempt a return this past season, but only managed to play three games before his post-concussion symptoms returned. He sat out until January 12, 2012. Three games later, this happened:
His first goal of the season was also his first goal of the night, as he would record a second as well as an assist for a three-point night in a 4-3 victory over the Florida Panthers. He went on to record another 13 points, giving him 16 in the 29 games he played after his return. It's worth noting he was able to do this despite being unable to train for most of the offseason and regular season while recovering from his concussion. Similar to Filip Kuba two years ago, it's unlikely he was ever in game shape during this season--a fact that almost certainly contributed to his late-season torso injury.
Summing up his season, our friends over at Mile High Hockey had this to say about him:
Mueller worked his way back from a career threatening injury, twice to once again become a contributing member of the team. Next season he should be able to start training camp with a clean bill of health and proper summer conditioning for the first time in 3 years. If the Avs retain Mueller, he brings a great shot from the point, nice puck movement on the rush and on the power play, and some shoot first ask questions later instincts to a team that struggled to score goals all year (not to mention, he's got a cool new tinted visor).
Unfortunately, the Avalanche didn't see the same potential. Two concussions in two years was enough for them to walk away. They were obviously more comfortable investing their money in safer players like David Jones--and let's be honest: that's a fair approach (maybe not the overpaying part). There's not much sense in arguing that Mueller is a risk at this point, and he's one the Avalanche would rather not take.
To start with, though they won't publicly say it, it seems concussion worries were the main reason for the Avs not to retain Mueller. However, Ottawa has not shown the same hesitancy towards concussed players. Just this week, we've learned they've held negotiations with Jesse Winchester, who had a very similar season to Mueller in terms of concussions, and they also drafted Jarrod Maidens, a player who won't be able to participate in development camp because he still has yet to be cleared from his concussion symptoms. The Senators have already demonstrated a clear willingness to be patient with concussions, and Mueller is symptom-free. He's at greater risk for a reoccurring concussion--that's been medically proven beyond argument--but so is Winchester.
Due to his injury risk, Mueller will be available for extremely cheap. It's highly unlikely he will be able to sign for more than the two million he was making with Colorado, and the production he's demonstrated when healthy makes that a bargain.
More importantly, the majority of the 36 points Mueller recorded in 47 games with Colorado came on the wing, though he is a natural center. He is also a natural two-way player. In short, he is a top-nine winger with top-six upside. Signing Mueller would give head coach Paul MacLean the option of putting together what could only be considered an outstanding third line: Peter Regin, Mika Zibanejad, Peter Mueller. All three players are fast, skilled, and capable of playing in all areas of the ice. All three players are also centers by trade, which means getting kicked out of the faceoff circle is inconsequential to the line.
Adding Mueller also gives the Senators more depth to pursue Rick Nash, or preferably, Bobby Ryan. If Zibanejad is included in a package for a top winner, either Mueller or Regin is perfectly capable of centering the third line, and Colin Greening would naturally bump down to the wing.
Assuming an unlikely trade happens, the team's forwards could conceivably look like this on opening night:
That's a roster that I would put up against just about any opponent in the league and feel good about. It balances speed, scoring, and defense, and lets MacLean roll four lines all season long, and it leaves room for a player like Mueller to slide up if Alfie retires after next season. Regin could take over centering the third line while Stefan Noesen, Mark Stone, or Matt Puempel could safely jump on the line and play sheltered minutes while cutting their teeth at the NHL level. Mueller would also provide insurance should Jakob Silvferberg prove unready to play at the NHL level right away, as he's capable of playing in a top-six role just fine.
Why not sign Mueller?
The concussion risk cannot be ignored, first of all. Just because Ottawa is willing to take risks with other concussed players doesn't mean they'll be willing to take a risk on every concussed player.
More importantly, while I believe adding Mueller gives the team an ideal third line--one that can both provide offense and valuable defensive play--the team already has a glut of forwards to fill out their bottom six players. Even if Nick Foligno and Zibanejad were traded as the rumors suggest, players who'd be battling in camp for some minutes would include:
That's four players fighting just to play a the role of a 13th forward, as regular roster spots will likely be taken by Erik Condra, Zack Smith, and Chris Neil. If a trade doesn't happen--and let's face it, it probably won't--Foligno and Zibanejad get thrown into that mix. And that's before we even consider that it's possible that a guy like Stone could be ready to play in the league before the year is over! That's too many forwards. Adding another to the mix doesn't really make much sense.
Mueller represents a high-risk, high-reward investment for the team. Having watched him in Phoenix (disclaimer: I AM NOT A SCOUT) for a few years, I remain convinced he is a player who would absolutely flourish in MacLean's system. He would give the team depth to create a more effective third line than what was iced last year, add punch and skill to the power play, and the flexibility to play anywhere needed in the top nine. When healthy, he's demonstrated an ability to produce points consistently, and his recent history means he will come at a very reasonable price tag. That's the kind of investment I want to see Murray make, regardless of team need.