Pittsburgh's Matt Niskanen took advantage of his increased opportunity when Kris Letang had a stroke in the middle of the season. Niskanen finished with a plus-33 rating — best among NHL defensemen. He led all Penguins defensemen in assists (36) and points (46).

Letang is back in the lineup in the postseason, playing perhaps better than ever, and the Penguins have him and two other defensemen locked in for a combined $16.625 million next season. And that doesn't include Brooks Orpik, a flashy defenseman who, like Niskanen, is a pending unrestricted free agent.

The open market begins July 1, and Niskanen, 27, appears to be exactly what the Avalanche needs. He is a coveted right-handed shooter with elite power-play skills, good size (6-foot, 209 pounds) and significant Stanley Cup playoff experience (53 games and counting). He will undoubtedly double his $2.5 million salary wherever he signs.

"Right-shot defensemen are at a premium in the league, and I mean ones that can play on the point on the power play and get points," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told Detroit reporters. "We'd like to get a right-handed shot defenseman. Can we make it happen? We'll find out."

Will the Avs be shopping along with the Red Wings?

The Avs figure to go after Niskanen, or another marquee free-agent defenseman, if they choose to upgrade their back line, which essentially means one or more of the following:

• They don't resign Andre Benoit and Cory Sarich.

• They don't think Stefan Elliott and other young prospects such as Duncan Siemens and Chris Bigras are ready for a full-time NHL role.

• They are willing to devote $5 million or more to Niskanen, or another marquee free agent.