Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Once a perennial Cup contender, the Avalanche are close to a year away from missing the playoffs. The glory days of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy, and Adam Foote are over, although two of those four remain. A string of strong regular season finishes and a couple of trades left the Avs with either a low first round pick or no first rounder at all. It’ll be a changing of the guard for the Avs, either this season or the next. Everyone knows it’s coming, it’s just a question of who’s going to fill who’s shoes.
Offensively it’s no question that Paul Stastny will be leading the charge, although it is still Sakic’s team. The 22-year old left the University of Denver after two seasons and did not miss a beat, compiling 149 points in 148 games over two season, easily one of the best point per game averages for sophomore players. His career point totals are only behind Sidney Crosby‘s 294 from the 2005 draft class. Sakic’s injury-shortened season was one of the key reasons why the Avs’ powerplay was woeful 28th at 14.6%, but that can also be attributed to John-Michael Liles and Jordan Leopold‘s disappointing seasons. With Liles and Leopold ready to go to start the season, and with Ryan Smyth finally healthy, the Avs will be looking to improve on that number. With no other big body on the top two lines, Smyth’s in-your-face style will be vital since the Northeast boasts three all-star goalies – look also for Darcy Tucker to see some spot duty on the powerplay as well. The biggest question mark on offense is Milan Hejduk. The long-time winger of Sakic’s, it has been reported that Hejduk has not skated all summer due to a bum knee, and will opt to play the entire season despite not being 100%. Hejduk has made it publicly known that he intends to retire after his current contract runs out, which has two years remaining. Hejduk’s veteran presence is vital, as young snipers Wojtek Wolski and Marek Svatos still have consistency issues to resolve. Tyler Arnason, forgotten since his Blackhawk days, has also become a consistent secondary scorer – his 179 shots were second on the team – in the Avs’ lineup, and should Sakic or Hejduk fall to injury, look for either him or rookie TJ Hensick to pick up the slack.
The Avs have one of the most balanced defensive corps in the league, which is almost a requirement in the West. Foote returns for an entire season in an Avs uniform, and will be the de facto shut-down defenseman, despite being 37 years old. Scott Hannan, the other Avs’ splurge last summer, will also continue to be counted on to provide a physical presence. Leopold and Liles are the big question marks. Leopold has been plagued by injury since the trade from Calgary, while Liles, who was expected to hit the market and be one of the most sought-after puck-moving defensemen, needs to find the game that got him 45+ points. Brett Clark and Ruslan Salei round out the top six, and these two are no slouches either. Clark has been one of Colorado’s most consistent defensemen over the years, and while his game isn’t exactly eye-catching, but he was arguably their best defenseman last year. Salei is another stabilizing presence on their blueline and will be relied on heavily on the PK, which was a rather pedestrian 21st with 81.4%.
Goaltending is an area the Avs have yet to sufficiently find a solution for since Roy’s retirement. David Aebischer was thought to be the man, but was traded to Montreal for former MVP Jose Theodore, only to find the Theodore that showed up wasn’t the one they thought they had acquired. Soon after backup Peter Budaj supplanted the struggling former-MVP, but only to battle consistency issues, and apparently Francois Giguere felt the best remedy to that was to sign an even more inconsistent yet talented goalie in Andrew Raycroft. It’ll be interesting to see what the Avs will do, either with a 1A/1B tandem or naming Budaj the starter or even just playing by ear and starting whichever goalie gets hotter. Whatever may be the case, given their goalies’ reputations and talent, they’ll be hard pressed to stay in the middle of the pack in goals against, especially with an even stronger Western Conference this year.
Even with those question marks, the biggest one of all is Tony Granato. The former head coach returns to the bench once more after Joel Quenneville‘s departure. It’s often overlooked that Granato actually did a great job with the Avs, posting an impressive winning record of 72-33-17-11 . It’s just unfortunate that Granato’s first head coaching stint with the Avs was overshadowed by the Todd Bertuzzi–Steve Moore incident. Even when Quenneville took over for Granato, it caught many by surprise. When Granato was announced as Quenneville’s replacement it took even more by surprise, but the Avs have been known to be make the right decisions regarding the coaching staff and I don’t think this year will be any different. Granato’s style is a little more abrasive than Quenneville’s, but perhaps that’s what players like Svatos and Wolski need.
Even with Sakic’s return, the Avs have plenty of room, about $5m worth, to play around with. The Avs don’t need a major overhaul of their roster, and god forbid that happens, but should goaltending problems arise, and they will, that cap room will come in handy. This is very likely Sakic’s last season, and the Avs would love to see him raise the Cup one last time, and if the Avs are still in contention by the deadline they can make some serious moves… but that’s a big “if.” There’s just too many question marks on this Avs squad for them to make a run at the playoffs. The team remains unchanged even though the West got better, and they face an uphill battle just to squeak in.
Ryan Smyth – Joe Sakic – Milan Hejduk
Wojtek Wolski – Paul Stastny – Marek Svatos
Cody McLeod – Tyler Arnason – Darcy Tucker
Cody McCormick – Ian Laperriere – Ben Guite
John-Michael Liles – Adam Foote
Scott Hannan – Jordan Leopold
Ruslan Salei – Brett Clark
Peter Budaj – Andrew Raycroft
scratches: TJ Hensick, Kyle Cumiskey, Brian Willsie
Coach: Tony Granato
GM: Joel Quenneville
Predicted finish: 5th Northwest, 12th West