I've been seeing a few previews start to trickle in, so here's mine. A big thanks to the community here, which is where I have derived a lot of the information. If you're a hardcore MHH'er, there may not be much if anything new for you in this post. But for a casual fan who is just trying to learn about the changes on the team heading into the new season, I hope it will be a good jumping off point.
Semyon Varlamov had a .924 SV% last year with Washington, which was 4th-best in the NHL. His career to date has been hampered by groin injuries but he is healthy now and has been working with renowned trainer Steve Saunders, focusing on exercises that are intended to help prevent further injury. He is still only 23, so he has not likely yet reached his full potential. He is easily the closest thing to an elite, franchise G the Avs have had since Patrick Roy. Many people in the media skewered the Avs for giving up a future first and second round pick to WAS for him (because of his contract situation and the reports that he might return to Russia). Many pundits also speculated that based on Colorado’s record last season, the first rounder going to the Caps will likely turn out to be a lottery pick.
However, if Varlamov can stay healthy and realize anywhere near his full potential as a top 10 (or dare I say even top 5) NHL goalie, the trade is going to end up looking like a steal. Any draft pick comes with the inherent risk that the player might bust. Varlamov, on the other hand, has already proven he has the skills to become a franchise goalie in the NHL. A franchise goalie is worth a first and second rounder any day of the week.
J.S. Giguere isn't the same player he used to be, but he's still a guy who won the cup not all that long ago and will act as the veteran mentor and backup to Varlamov.
A note about goaltending: In my opinion, it's by far the most important position on the ice. Varlamov is going to be the key to the team's success, it's as simple as that. Here's an example why:
Last year, Anderson, Budaj, and Elliot's team SV% was .890. You know how that turned out.
2 years ago, Anderson and Budaj had a team SV% of .917. The Avs made the playoffs.
The coach and most of the players from those 2 seasons were the same. That's how much difference good goaltending makes.
Erik Johnson has all the tools to become an elite, cornerstone defenseman in the NHL. He was drafted by St. Louis #1 overall in 2006, but was affected by some unrealistically high expectations there. Also only 23, he is still very young for an NHL defenseman. After being traded to Colorado, he has a chip on his shoulder going into the coming season and he's been training harder than ever. He was recently quoted as saying he is getting his confidence back, and when he feels confident, he feels "almost unstoppable". He is a natural leader, and I think he's poised to have a break out season in 2011-12. Check this stat out:
Defensemen - First 3 season’s point totals:
Rob Blake- 125
Dan Boyle- 112*
Tomas Kaberle- 107
Erik Johnson- 101
Sergei Gonchar- 99*
Zdeno Chara- 91*
Brent Seabrook- 86
Duncan Keith- 84
Shea Weber- 70
Chris Pronger- 69
Jack Johnson- 58
*For comparison's sake, Boyle’s and Chara's totals are over their first 6 seasons due to games played, Gonchar’s are over his first 4 seasons.
The numbers here speak for themselves. He's been almost as good as anyone during their first 3 seasons worth of games, and he's only going to get better.
The rest of the Avs D heading into the '11-'12 season is generally bigger and badder. They added Jan Hejda (6'3", 229) and the feisty Shane O'Brien (6'3", 224) as free agents. Ryan O'Bryne, who played fairly well last year and should only get better playing against 2nd liners instead of first liners, is 6'5", 233. I already mentioned Erik Johnson and his offensive potential, but he's no slouch at 6'4", 220. The "undersized" Kyle Quincey (6'1", 207, and who was basically The Avs' #1 D-man when they made the playoffs in 09-10) will be back after almost a full season lost to injury last year. The Avs top-6 D-men are on average two inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than they were at the beginning of last year.
The Avs are also going to have some seriously talented young guns pushing for playing time on defense. Why did the Avs feel they were in a position where they could afford to trade Kevin Shattenkirk and John-Michael Liles? Stefan Elliott (20 years old, 81 points in junior last year) is poised to make the team this year, and Adrian Dater predicted he could be a potential Calder trophy candidate. Colorado also has the promising young 2-way d-man Tyson Barrie (19 years old, 58 points last year in junior) and this year's 11th-overall draft choice Duncan Siemens (just 17 years old, 6'3", 193) in the pipeline.
I can't tell most Colorado fans anything they don't already know about Matt Duchene (20 years old) and Paul Stastny (25). Duchene might be on the verge of superstardom. Stastny was the USA's top line center at the Olympics and even after an off year last season, still maintains nearly a point-per-game career average.
The Avs have a very good defensive-minded 3rd-line center in Ryan O'Reilly, who has shown signs he might break out this year offensively. O'Reilly is highly regarded by the Avs for his "intangibles", and some people feel he could be captain material. The Avs are fortunate to have him, and he's going into his 3rd NHL season at only 20 years old.
19 year old 2010 first round pick Joey Hishon may be poised to make the big club this year after scoring 87 points in 50 games in the OHL last season. Hishon has battled some injury issues in his young career, but when healthy he has the talent to take on a top-6 role in the NHL. It will be interesting to see if the Avs keep him at his natural center position, or (more likely) move him to wing.
Most Avs fans also know about the productive pair Milan Hejduk and David Jones. The Avs added a potential stud in #2 overall draft pick Gabriel Landeskog. Yes, he'll be an 18 year-old rookie, but if anyone from this year's draft class can jump right into the NHL and succeed, it'll be him. He's a prototypical power forward at 6'1", 207 lbs, and he's another young player with all of the right intangibles such as leadership and a good work ethic. He'll do the dirty work in the corners and in front of the net, and if he reaches his full potential, he may someday allow Avs fans to forget all about Chris Stewart.
In free agency, Colorado added Joakim Lindstrom, who led the Swedish Elite League in scoring last year with 60 points in 54 games. He has previous NHL experience and could turn into a nice player if he finds chemistry with Duchene or Stastny.
The Avs will also have a healthy Peter Mueller back. Mueller is a talented former #8 overall draft pick who has battled concussion issues but will be medically cleared to play again this year. Before he was hurt, he played at over a point-per-game pace with CO. I don't know how long he'll last, but if he can stay healthy, he should be a real difference-maker for the Avs. 23 year-old T.J. Galiardi will also be back after an injury-plagued season last year. He may not be a true top-6 player, but he might have been the Avs best skater in the playoffs against San Jose in 2010, so he's shown he has the skills to do some real damage on what could be a pretty good 3rd line with O'Reilly. Galiardi has also shown the ability to contribute as a top-6 forward when called upon for spot duty.
There are a few notable forwards destined for the bottom 6 - Daniel Winnik, Jay McClement and Kevin Porter, to name a few, are solid. CO picked up Chuck Kobasew in free agency. There may be no one in this group to write home about, but the bottom 6 won't be a liability, either.
On defense, the inconsistent puck-moving defensemen Kyle Cumiskey and Matt Hunwick, who can both skate like the wind, will be given every opportunity to make an impact with the team. The hard-hitting Ryan Wilson will also be returning to the fold.
There is a ton of youth at key positions on this team. There are some serious durability concerns, and a whole lot of potential that has yet to be reached. But you have to give the Avs management credit. Through a hellish season last year and some pretty substantial trades that seemed mind-boggling at times, they've proven that they've been doing their team-building with a clear plan in place all along. They now have the 1a and 1b star centers, the franchise goalie, the cornerstone d-man, and the stud power forward. Their defense will be bigger and meaner, with some seriously talented offensive skill on the way. The role players and the overall team depth are solid.
Despite all this, almost every national publication is going to pick Colorado to finish in the bottom 5 in the league this year. I'll admit that it's a possibility, especially if Varlamov gets hurt again. But if the law of averages finally balances out a little for this team and the injury bug doesn't totally destroy them again, the Avs are going to prove all of the "experts" wrong, just like they did in ‘09-’10. Go Avs!