Pre-season is over, and it's time to get ready for opening night against the Red Wings. The Avs have made a number of changes since April, and after a rocky start to pre-season, it looks like things are finally starting to come together. For all you lurkers out there, this is what you can expect to see when the regular season starts October 8th.
We'll start by looking at the offense. Last year, the Avs were one of the most offensive teams in the league, leading in scoring for the first half of the season. For the first three months, they scored 127 goals in 38 games, good for a 3.34 GPG average. But the bottom dropped out after New Year's, and they only managed to score 100 goals in their final 44 games (2.27 GPG). The drop was caused by injuries and a team-wide sophomore slump, so if the Avs can stay healthy this year, their numbers will almost certainly be closer to 3 goals per game.
If there is one word to describe the overall character of the Avs' forward corps, it would be FAST. Speed played a major part in their success in the first half of last year, and it will continue to be the foundation of the offense this year. Even though they've added quite a bit of muscle to the lines through new players (like Landeskog) or summer workouts (most notably Stastny and Galiardi), the Avs will continue to boast one of the fastest, if not the fastest, group of offensive players in the NHL.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the Avs forwards are a very young group. Besides Milan Hejduk at 35, all of their players are under 30 years old. Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly, two of the mainstays at center, aren't even old enough to legally drink in the US (not that that stops one of them, but that's another story). "Old Man Stastny", the 4th most veteran player on the team, is only 25. The saying is that forwards don't usually hit their peak performance until they're 26 years old. The average age of our forwards? 25. There's still a lot of learning to do, but the Avalanche have the talent to become an offensive powerhouse in the next few years.
And, like the rest of the team, the majority of the forwards are in the final year of their contracts. Only 4 of the 17 possible players to make the offensive lines this year are signed on for next season, and there's a healthy stream of rookies coming up. Needless to say, there are going to be a lot of people playing for their jobs, and with only 12 spots available, competition is going to be fierce.
Those battles, plus some predictions for the coming season, after the jump....
You can't talk about the Avs offense without first concentrating on the centers. The team is very deep down the middle - it's the only proven "area of strength" in the organization. Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene lead the way, creating a potent 1-2 punch on the top lines. It's unclear which is going to be the official starting center on the 8th, but it really doesn't matter. Because of their talent, the Avs will be running a 1A and 1B line this year instead of a true 1st and 2nd line. Even though Stastny had a rough season last year (57pts in 74 games), he is still an elite set-up man and his numbers are expected to bounce back up closer to his normal .92PPG. If he stays healthy, 70+ pts is not out of the question. And despite a terrible sophomore slump in the second half of last year, Duchene still managed to lead the team with 67pts and 27 goals. If he can avoid such a slump this year, he'll probably be good for close to 80pts.
On the third line, Ryan O'Reilly is entering his third season. He surprisingly made the team just after he was drafted in 2009 (same year as Duchene) and has become a reliable defensive center in the seasons since. Known for doing all the little things right (he was third in the league last year in Takeaways - Giveaways with +46), he also found a bit of an offensive pop to his game in the last part of the season, scoring 8 of his 13 goals in the last 18 games. Preseason has seen him continue that trend - he already has 2 goals. It seems like the coaches have asked him to concentrate a little more on the offensive side of his game, so 30-40 points is not out of the question this year.
Jay McClement will be centering the fourth line. Even though he didn't really click with the team last year after the blockbuster trade that brought him and Erik Johnson to Colorado, he seems to be finding his groove now. Like O'Reilly, he excels more at the little, less glamorous things (like faceoffs), but will put up solid minutes that will allow our other three lines to rest without hurting the team. He'll even chip in a few goals here and there while doing so. Many fans believe he may be trade-bait at some point, but he can be counted on to put up good minutes in an Avalanche sweater as long as he's wearing one.
The Avs are led on the wing by veteran Milan Hejduk, the only remaining member of the team that lifted the Cup back in '01. He has a 12 season streak of 20+ goals and hasn't shown any sign of slowing at 35. The sniper will be playing on Matt Duchene's right this year looking to continue that streak. On Duchene's left, Peter Mueller will be returning from a concussion that sidelined him for all of last season. After his trade from Phoenix at the '10 deadline, he and Matt instantly found great chemistry, which allowed Mueller to score 20pts in only 15 games. He's still a bit out of shape - he was only recently cleared to play - but after he finds his legs, expect big things out of him this year. NHL.com has ranked him at #7 on their "sleeper pick" list.
Stastny will be assisted by David Jones, a 9th round pick from 2003 that has really come up through the ranks and proved himself as a top 6 winger. He tied Matt Duchene for leading goal scorer last year with 27, and he was one of the only members of the team that didn't experience a total second-half collapse. With an on-form Stastny feeding him the puck, his numbers will probably go up.
Other returning wingers include T.J. Galiardi, Daniel Winnik, Cody McLeod, Kevin Porter, Brandon Yip and previous AHL callup Mark Olver. Winnik is almost a sure-in on O'Reilly's wing - they played together all through training camp and the preseason and seemed to be developing a nice chemistry - but all the others are still battling for a spot. TJ Galiardi had a great series against San Jose in the playoffs two years ago, but is a team worst -6 in the preseason and seems to have found himself in Sacco's infamous doghouse. McLeod has had a good preseason, but with newcomers Brad Malone and Patrick Bordeleau challenging him for the "tough guy" role, his status on the 4th line is questionable. Even if he does make the team this year, he may not hold it for very long. Porter is a fair hockey player who shoots and hits, but does neither well enough to guarantee himself a spot on the team despite his ability to play all three forward positions. And Yip, despite his occasional flashes of brilliance, hasn't proved that he deserves a spot on this team so far this year. He'll start out the year on the IR (he broke his wrist blocking a shot in the preseason), but the team will probably take the risk and place him on waivers when he comes back. Pesky center/left wing Mark Olver is also hurt (his head is giving him issues - either it's a new concussion or hangover from the one he sustained last year), so he can't be moved from the Avs roster right away either. Even though he's a gritty, determined player who has decent hands and a good amount of chemistry with Duchene, he's only 5'-10" 170lbs. He would be an All-Star power forward if he were bigger, but there's only so much he can do with his size. Despite that, expect him to be one of the first call-ups when injuries strike.
Perhaps the most important new arrival came on draft day. Gabriel Landeskog, a Swedish power forward, was drafted 2nd overall and is almost a certain lock for our 3rd line opening night with the chance of moving up to the 2nd at some point this year. He's had a strong camp and preseason, often leading the team in hits while putting up multiple shots on goal each night. Sooner or later, those shots will start falling and he's going to be a solid offensive contributor. Even though he won't put up the same numbers Duchene will (80+pts a season), he'll definitely put in quite a few goals while acting like a leader on the team. His "never-say-die" attitude has already shown itself in the preseason. Long term, he projects to be Chris Stewart's replacement - scoring the dirty goals and racking up the hits, but doing so without the occasional periods of on-ice apathy that Stewart was known for.
But Landeskog wasn't the only exciting Swedish winger the Avs added this summer. Joakim Lindstrom was a surprise addition that was a further surprise in training camp. The sniper led the SEL in scoring last year and looked to be an AHL depth signing until he showed up to camp and began to develop chemistry with Stastny. Expect him on be on Stastny's left against the Red Wings opening night.
Chuck Kobasew, a free-agent signing from the Wild, is also in contention for one of the reaming spots on the bottom line. He's played pretty well in the pre-season, but hasn't proven to be anything spectacular. Expect to see him getting sporadic minutes or filling in for an injury. Otherwise, he'll be in the press box as a healthy scratch for most of the year. His $1.2 million cap hit - a part Avs' plan to make it above the salary cap floor - will help the team probably more than he will on-ice this year.
Even though it's looking like Landeskog will be the only rookie in our forward corps right off the bat this year, there are a few others worth mentioning. Patrick Bordeleau, a 6'-6" heavy hitter and fighter, was a late cut the past two years. He may be known for being a tough guy, but he is a good skater and has an offensive upside as well. Even though he'll be starting the year in Lake Erie, he'll be pushing for McLeod's job all season. Brad Malone, a recent graduate of the University of North Dakota, is another gritty player challenging for that position. Even though he doesn't fight quite as much as Bordeleau, he's still a big hitter and probably has even more offensive upside to his game. He scored 40 pts in 43 games with his college club last year. One or both of these players will probably earn a call-up from Lake Erie at some point this season.
Another interesting rookie is the still-concussed Joey Hishon. He received an elbow to the head during last year's Memorial Cup tourney and has been out of action ever since. However, he's an offensively-gifted 2-way centerman who plays a gritty game despite his smaller size (5'-10, 180 lbs). When he heals, he'll be in Lake Erie as one of their top centers and may earn a call-up as a wing at some point this year. He projects to be a Top 6 forward long term, but whether he'll be at center or wing (or even with the Avalanche) still remains to be seen.
Opening Night Lines:
Mueller / Duchene / Hejduk
Lindstrom / Stastny / Jones
Landeskog / O'Reilly / Winnik
McClement with some combination of McLeod, Galiardi, Kobasew, or Porter