All week, I've been diving into depth on the 4 areas within the Avs' organization that will have a major effect on the team this year. In case you missed them, I covered the Avs' Offense, Defense, Goalies, and Coaches/Management. Today's article is just barely going to skim over them, so if you want more info, I'd suggest checking those out.
So here we are. The Avs' 2011-12 season starts tomorrow. Peter Forsberg's jersey retirement banner is in the Pepsi Center ready to be raised. The Wings are getting ready to make the trip to the city that housed their greatest rival for over a decade. Skates have been sharpened, patches sewn, sticks taped. The freshly zambonied ice waits patiently for the team's first game.
What sort of an Avalanche team will skate out there tomorrow? The last time the team was on that ice, it was last April - the 10th to be exact. The two bottom teams in the league were facing off one last time. The game was meaningless in the standings, but not for the fans. Adam Foote, one of the greats from the golden years of the Avs, gave them one last rousing shift to cheer about, and David Jones gave them an overtime win to end the worst year in the team's history.
But those moments are gone now, passed into history as all the Avs seasons have before. The 2010-11 season was over, that chapter in the Avs' story closed. The ice was melted and the off-season began.
Over the next few months, the Avs said their goodbyes to lots of players. Adam Foote hung up the skates after 19 seasons in the NHL. John-Michael Liles was traded to Toronto. Goalie prospect Brandon Maxwell's rights were waived. Goaltenders Peter Budaj, Brian Elliott, John Grahame, and Jason Bacashihua left to free-agency, completely cleaning out the depth-chart for that position. Philippe Dupuis, Tomas Fleischmann, David Koci, Ray Macias, Shawn Belle, and others joined them. All told, 9 players that donned the burgundy and blue only a few weeks before were no longer a part of the team.
But the Avs welcomed many new faces into the fold. Left wing Joakim Lindstrom returned from the SEL to sign with the club, and Patrick Bordeleau officially inked with the team that had given him a tryout the year before. Winger Gabriel Landeskog and defenseman Duncan Siemens (along with 4 other bright prospects) joined the organization during the draft. Free-Agency day saw Semyon Varlamov join via a trade with Washington, and over the next few days, goalies Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Cedrick Desjardins, defensemen Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien, and forwards Chuck Kobasew, Evan Brophey, and Patrick Rissmiller also signed on. 7 new additions will be be on the team opening night.
Losses came to the hockey world this summer as well. Between 3 apparent suicides and a terrible plane crash, over 40 current and former NHL players (including ex-Avs Wade Belak, Ruslan Salei, and Karlis Skrastins) passed away. Training camp finally rolled around to help ease the pain. In Denver, the Avs' veterans returned to the ice, a year older and wiser and looking for the chance to prove that last season was a fluke. Fresh-faced rookies joined them, hoping to impress the coaches enough to earn a spot on the team. All the new signees were there as well, striving to make a good first-impression on their new club. The annual Burgundy and White game showcased the team's talent, including an incredible highlight-reel save by the new starting goalie. Preseason saw some ups and downs as players were evaluated, chemistry formed. Cuts were made. The roster was finalized two days ago.
So what sort of a team will meet the Wings tomorrow night? A very different one from the one last year. Between the new arrivals and the players returning from injury, every area of this team has been altered and improved. The forward corp is as fast and dangerous as they were last year when they led the league in scoring, but now they've been joined by a few new faces and have another year of experience under their belts. The defense looks nothing like last season's - it's bigger and tougher and will be much more effective against the physical Western Conference. The goalies are both new and bring more talent to the table than any duo since Roy left. The organization's depth is better as well - even if injuries strike, quality players will be joining the club instead of career AHLers.
The overall team is young, energetic, and has something to prove to the hockey world and to themselves. They'll be looking to put the past behind them and start moving towards creating a new dynasty in Denver. They won't get there this year (the process will be much longer than that), but some of that foundation will be laid over the next 82 games and perhaps a few in the post-season. There will be ups and there will be downs, but at the end of the day, this season is about moving towards something - something not seen in the Mile High City since 2001.
So what can fans expect this season? Predictions after the jump....
On the Ice
The Avalanche are not going to win the Stanley Cup this year, but they probably won't finish in the bottom 5 either. If they do, something went terribly, terribly wrong and a lot of people will be fired. Our team and our depth charts are strong enough to guarantee that.
Overall, the forwards are very fast and, when they have confidence in themselves, very good at getting the puck in the net. Our top two lines will be switching off the starting role since they are so similar in talent levels. The "first" line includes the returning left winger Peter Meuller, veteran sniper Milan Hejduk, and third year All-Star centerman Matt Duchene. This line is fast, creative, and good at scoring; however, it's not extremely physical (Duchene hits some, but not much) and has a tenancy to get hurt at the worst times. If that injury trend ends this year, it promises to be an extremely effective line. The "second" line will feature set-up man Paul Stastny and David Jones. Even though Jones had a solid season last year (he tied for most goals on the team), Stastny had a very lackluster one and will be looking to rebound. Jones will play on the right wing, but the winger who will play on Stastny's left is still a bit of a mystery. It looks like Joakim Lindstrom (a newcomer that led the SEL in points last year) might have gotten the job, but we'll see for sure tomorrow night.
The third line should also bring a bit of a scoring pop along with a strong defensive presence. Rookie Gabriel Landeskog seems to have developed chemistry with both third year Ryan O'Reilly and fifth year Daniel Winnik. For the past two years, this line has concentrated on a very solid defensive game, but it looks as if the players on it (especially O'Reilly) have been asked to step up their scoring. Expect surprising results from them this year. The make-up of the fourth line is still a bit in question. McClement will start at center, but some combination of TJ Galiardi, Cody McLeod, Chuck Kobasew, and Kevin Porter will join him. Either way, it promises to be a decent checking line that will also play some defense when needed. There will probably even be some goals chipped in from this line as well.
A few other forwards won't be starting with the club this year but may earn call-ups at some point. On the left wing, there's Patrick Bordeleau, a 6'-6" fighter can both hit and score; Ryan Stoa, a big player that unfortunately doesn't play big but isn't extremely terrible; and Greg Mauldin, a fast, energetic scorer. Mark Olver also plays left wing/center, but the pesky forward is currently out with a head injury. At center, the Avs have 2 rookies - the still-concussed 2010 first round pick Joey Hishon and the big-hitting Brad Malone. Once Hishon gets well, he'll probably get a call-up for a few games at least as a left wing, and Malone will be challenging McLeod for his job all year. Third year Brandon Yip will start off the season on the IR (he broke his wrist blocking a shot in preseason), but will probably be either a 4th-liner or sent down once he is cleared to play.
The defense this year is extremely different than the one that started in '10-'11. Instead of being small and offensive, they're positively huge and are possibly the largest group of blueliners in the league. However, the Avs didn't completely sacrifice speed or offensive talent when they acquired the new players; all of them skate pretty well and a couple can certainly score. Erik Johnson has one of the best shots from the point in the NHL, and with newcomer Jan Hejda skating as his partner, he'll be looking to leave his mark on the scoreboard and on anyone that comes near his net. Kyle Quincey will add a bit of offense as well, and so will (hopefully) Matt Hunwick when he isn't sitting on the bench or pressbox. Shane O'Brien and Ryan O'Byrne will keep the other teams honest down around our goalie, and Ryan Wilson will be dishing out the hits like no one's business this year. In the system, puck-moving prospects Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie look like they could follow the same trajectory Kevin Shattenkirk did (possibly even without the trade), and hard-hitting Cameron Gaunce and positionally sound Jonas Holos are ready for call-ups as well. Kyle Cumiskey, a starter for the Avs last year, will sit the first few games out due to a groin injury but will probably be sent down to the AHL when he heals. It's become a numbers game, and other players have surpassed the extremely fast 6th year veteran in the depth chart. David Liffiton, the captain of the Avs' AHL affiliate, is also available to fill in if we need him.
In net, Semyon Varlamov will attempt to overcome his history of injuries and establish himself as the true #1 goalie in Colorado. He certainly has the talent to be the best goalie this team has had since Roy, his boyhood idol, but only time will tell if he can remain healthy enough to prove it. Another new goalie, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, will be his back-up and mentor. The former Conn-Smythe winner has struggled due to injury in the past few seasons, but seems to be 100% now. However, if anything happens to them, 26-year-old Cedrick Desjardins (who is currently injured, but will hopefully return soon), will be the first call-up. He has an impressive resume and may be ready to break into the NHL full time in a couple seasons. Trevor Cann will most likely be backing him up for the Lake Erie Monsters this year, but next year, goaltending prospects Calvin Pickard, Sami Aittokallio, Kieran Millan, and Kent Patterson will all be challenging for AHL jobs.
Off the Ice
Head Coach Joe Sacco is in the final year of his contract and most likely on a very short leash this season. After the dismal finish last year that had many fans calling for his firing, the third-year coach will need to prove that he can develop a successful system and get the players to buy into it. Many of them seem to really like the guy, but he has an infamous doghouse and is still an inexperienced coach. He'll probably be fine in a few years, but the Avs may be looking for a change much sooner than that if things don't turn around.
He'll be assisted by two former Avs: Sylvain Lefebvre and Adam Deadmarsh. Lefebvre has been working with Sacco since his time in Lake Erie 5 seasons ago, but Deadmarsh was promoted only this summer. He had been the Avs' video coach prior to that.
Kirk McLean will return as the Avs' part-time goalie coach. Even though it still worries many fans that the Avs only have a goalie coach there some of the time, McLean had an impressive NHL career and is better than no goalie coach at all. But hopefully he, or some other competent individual, is brought on full-time soon for the sake of the 23-year-old goalie we'll be relying on for the next few years.
Pierre Lacroix, the legendary GM from the Avs golden days, is still in the front office as the President, and Greg Sherman is still the GM. "Super Joe" Sakic will join them as an Executive Advisor, and Brad Smith, the Director of Player Personnel will return as well. This management is a bit unortodox since the GM is more of a businessman than a hockey player, but Smith and Lacroix know how to evaluate talent and Sakic knows which players it takes to win championships. All four of them will leave their marks on any trade that the Avs preform this year.
Speaking of trades, I can almost guarantee that the Avs aren't quite done with the big trades yet. The ones this year may not be as massive as the two biggest over the past 9 months (the Johnson and Varlamov deals), but they'll certainly send waves through the hockey community. Even though the depth of wings was addressed this summer to a point, it is still the weakest area on the team, particularly with regards to the Top 6. On the other hand, the Avs are completely backlogged on D - there needs to be some movement either of prospects or roster players to make room for all of them. And the Avs are currently without a first round draft pick next year. They may have 1 or 2 in the second round depending on whether Washington chooses to use it this year or next, but given the depth of the 2012 draft and the success the Avs have had at drafting in the past few years, it's not inconceivable that they may make a play that involves getting some picks.
Another thing to keep in mind for this coming off-season is the end of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NHL management and its players. There is talk that the salary cap might fall, which could force a slew of quality free-agents onto the market this summer. The Avs are uniquely positioned to take advantage of that since 65% of their players are in the final year of the their contracts and could easily be replaced with upgrades. They also have a very low current salary (lowest in the league), so even with player signings, they would still have a considerable amount of salary left to go shopping.
But even if they choose not to hit the market this summer, they'll still have a number of contracts to renew including Duchene's, Johnson's and O'Reilly's. Some fans believe that the owners, Stan and Josh Kroenke (heirs to the Walmart fortune), might try to be cheap when it comes to the new contracts, but these owners are businessmen. They know when to invest. For the past few years, the organization's been working on establishing the young core and evaluating players. This summer is the time to start putting some money towards the investments (players) that will turn a profit in the years to come. I will eat my words and grab a torch and pitchfork with the rest of the fanbase if the Avs do go the cheap route with contract renwals this summer, but I'm confident that the important ones will be taken care of. It's just good business.
Injuries played a major role in the past two seasons, last year especially. The Avs lost a whopping 474 man-games to injury last season, which was the second worst total in the league. However, since the end of the year, they've replaced the seamless glass at the Pepsi Center with the more traditional style, which will allow the boards to absorb more of the force from hits and hopefully protect the players (more on that here). They've also, as mentioned before, increased the size of their blueliners. The entire team got pushed around a lot last year - the ability to push back this season will hopefully help reduce the number of nasty hits the forwards and defensemen sustain. Many players also worked on their strength and durability over the off-season, so with any luck, the Avs will endure only an average number of man-games-lost this time around. If they do, there is a very good chance that they could be playoff-bound this year.
Another issue is the current lack of a Captain. Arguments can be made for Hejduk, Stastny, Johnson, Duchene, O'Reilly, and Landeskog, but none of them really stand out head-and-shoulders above the rest. Sacco and Co. have decided to used 3 rotating A's until they make their choice. Chances are good the C will be handed out sometime this year, but it's still anyone's guess on who will receive it. By next season, the Avs will have their Captain in place, but until then, get used to seeing a few more A's than usual on the front of the jerseys.
Summing It All Up:
The Avs have a pretty decent team this year. It may not be immediately apparent, but once you break down the off-season moves, this team is much better than most "experts" are giving it credit for. Yes, there are more "ifs" associated with this team than perhaps any other in the league. If the Avs can stay healthy, if their major players (like Duchene, Stastny, Johnson, and Varlamov) have big years, if the new players gel with the rest of the team, if everyone that's in a contract year actually plays to keep their job, and if their new defense is as good as it looks on paper, then the Avs will be a playoff team. If not, they'll be back to lottery land and shipping their pick over to Washington. However, like I mentioned before, with the organizational depth the Avs now enjoy, I doubt any pick headed to the Caps will be in the top 5 unless something goes terribly wrong. Instead, I expect this team to finish somewhere around #15 in the standings as a bubble team. They probably won't make it past the first round even if they do make the playoffs, but getting at least close to the post-season is a major step in the right direction.
There will be trades, but they probably won't be for the big-name players like Parise or Weber. To get established players like that, the price is extremely steep from a roster standpoint. Instead, judging by the Avs' recent track record, they'll be looking at acquiring young players that are undervalued for some reason, usually due to bad team situations, injuries, or a combination of both. They don't want the big players now - they want them to be hitting their prime 3 years from now when the team is very competitive again. As much as I would love to see Parise in an Avs uniform, I don't think it's going to happen, although I can see the team taking a risk on a player that could be an 80+ point winger a few years down the line.
Maybe it's the prospect of a new hockey season is making me unreasonably optimistic. Maybe my blatant homerism is coloring how I see things, but I really think this season will be a good one. Not a great one, but a stepping stone along the way to getting there. The Avs organization is headed in the right direction - they know what they takes to win the Cup and they're building their team accordingly. All Avs fans can do right now is be patient and enjoy the ride. It might be bumpy, but it's headed to a good place.
And on that high note...
IT'S HOCKEY SEASON, BABY!