While it's certainly true that the Avalanche missing the playoffs was disappointing, there are more than a few reasons to celebrate the 2011-2012 season. In fact, here are 19 of them, in no particular order.
1. Experience - It's been said 1,000 times before, so let's make it 1,001: the Avalanche has the youngest team in the league. At one point, the top line on the team had an average age of only 20 with Ryan O`Reilly (21) centering Gabriel Landeskog (19) and Matt Duchene (21). But even more than that, the team is in want of experience. Based on the closing night's roster, the Avalanche averaged at 4.5 seasons in the NHL. Moreover, only seven of the players had more than 5 years in the league. But there were many games that saw this team dominating play, looking like a team with far more years under the belt than the players actually had. The team also played in many different scenarios that might happen in a season: solid wins over the best teams, extended losing streaks often due to a one-goal deficit, a push to make the post-season which created a playoff-like experience, and more. Many interviews with the youngest and most inexperienced players had a similar theme: a lot was learned that will make them better players next season. With experience comes consistency, something with which the Avs struggled. This season will go a long way in bringing it to the locker room and the ice because of the growth they made.
2. Trades - You have to give something to get something. That's the basic tenant of trading players in the NHL. The Avalanche definitely gave to get in 2011-2012. No matter what personal feelings you have about Kyle Quincey and how he left the team, his defensive skills were missed once he was gone. Similarly, Daniel Winnik's absence on the penalty kill was felt, even if only in the chests of Avs fans as their hearts were palpitating more once he was sent to San Jose. But the great news is what the team got back in return. Both Jamie McGinn and Steve Downie made immediate impacts, instantly upping the physicality of the team and making it harder to play against. The chemistry both had with their respective lines was abundantly clear, turning O`Reilly's line into a frustration-inducing power line and Paul Stastny's line into the scoring line it was meant to be. The trades also brought in some solid prospects in Mike Connolly and Michael Sgarbossa.
3. Respect from Peers - It happened more games than not. Some player or coach did more than give the typical canned response of "They're a good team. We can't overlook them" when asked about the Avalanche. They'd acknowledge how well-coached they were. They'd admit the team was full of young players just starting to realize their talent. They'd say the team was dangerous and going to be a huge threat for years to come. When your opponents recognize your abilities, noting how difficult you are to play against and how much of a challenge you are going to be for the rest of the league as soon as next season, you know you've got something good.
4. Depth - The Avalanche has a wealth of talent in the pipeline. We got to see the likes of Tyson Barrie, Stefan Elliott and Mark Olver this season, all of whom showed they have the talent to play in the NHL. We also heard the stories of the guys who haven't hit the pros yet like Sgarbossa, who was a scoring machine. The depth at goaltending is almost embarrassing. The Avs are facing a dilemma about which of their impressive young goalies they should sign. The fight for the Monsters' net is going to be a tough one with Sami Attokallio, Cedric Desjardins, Calvin Pickard, Kent Patterson and Kieran Millan all vying for two spots.
5. Ryan O`Reilly - Three years ago, Ryan O'Reilly beat the odds and made the team right out of training camp as an eighteen-year-old. Over the next two seasons, he proved to be a solid third line center with a defensive acumen that looked more like a player ten years his senior. Although higher point production would have been great, fans were happy with what he brought. O'Reilly, however, was not. Always the hardest working player on the team, he pushed himself over the off-season and came into the 2011-2012 season on fire. Coach Sacco put rookie Landeskog on O'Reilly's line, most likely because he wanted the first-year player to get sheltered minutes and have the best defensive forward on the team by his side. What he got was a dynamic duo that quickly became the biggest threat for the team. For most of the season, O'Reilly led the team in goals and points, often putting the team on his back to carry them through the losing streaks. He never quit, he never accepted mediocrity and he never felt satisfied with his play because he always believed he could do better. The young forward showed this season that he would make an excellent captain, setting an example both on and off the ice.
6. Gabriel Landeskog - Last year's second overall pick was touted as being the most NHL-ready player of the draft. There was no doubt that he would be on the Avs' opening night roster. But many expected him to be nothing more than a second-line power forward with more grit than goals. What the Avalanche got was a game-changer, a leader, a guy who was not afraid to shoot, hit, block shots, go into the dirty areas and battle like a warrior. Rather than suffering the typical rookie slump after the All Star break, Landeskog only seemed to get better. He ended up the team's top goal-scorer, top shooter, and tied for top game winner. He set an NHL record and made everyone around him better. Teammates and opponents alike agreed that he played well beyond his years, looking and performing like a veteran rather than the teenager that he was. This season, Landeskog showed us that he is going to be a cornerstone of this team for years to come.
7. Mark Olver - Talk about no fear. Mark Olver never hesitated, not when challenged by an opponent even if he had 6 inches and 30 pounds on him; not when the puck was in the corner and three other guys were already there trying to dig it out; not when his teammate got run with a cheap shot. Olver may not be the most prolific scorer, but he brings energy to whatever line he's manning and frustrates the other team to the point of stupid mistakes. Perhaps the best part about Olver, though, is how much fun he is to watch.
8. Peter Mueller's Noggin - He missed the entire 2010-2011 season. He saw specialists across the country. He would make progress, only to regress back to the headaches, dark room and isolation again. Things looked up for 2011-2012 as he played through training camp with only conditioning as a question; then he played all of the pre-season with nothing but optimism for the season. But three games in, his head went mushy again, and it looked like--at only 23 years old--his hockey career was over. But as happens with concussions, he turned a corner and came back with a vengeance. Although it took some time for him to start scoring again, he was aggressive, engaged, and visible on the ice. Then the flood gates opened, and he looked like the Mueller of 2009-2010. His play did tail off as the season went on, but that was more likely due to a shoulder injury. Of all people, Peter Mueller knows you don't ignore concussion symptoms. So the noggin's good, no more mush.
9. Defense - Gentlemen, we can rebuilt it. Better than it was before. Bigger, stronger, faster. Seriously, the defense was bad ass. Yeah, the goals against stats weren't so great. But we got what we'd been missing: a reliable shut down defensive pair in Jan Hejda and Ryan O`Byrne, a gritty, in your face two-way guy in Shane O`Brien (okay, when he wasn't wearing clown shoes or trying to be Bobby Orr), and the Erik Johnson that went first overall in the draft. We even saw an emergence of Matt Hunwick, who played so well at the end that he was deservedly getting top-pairing minutes. This defense showed us that this team can protect the blueline and with another top-two guy, it can take the team deep into the playoffs.
10. Goaltending - No need to go into detail on this one. For the first time since Roy, Avs fans could feel confident in the guys in net, knowing that night in, night out, they would give the team a chance to win. Giguere rocked a .919 save percentage and 2.27 GAA. Varlamov? Yeah, he was pretty good too. Save percentage of .913 and GAA of 2.59. It also seemed that when one was struggling, the other would step up to take the reigns. But the best part is the influence Jean-Sebastien Giguere has had on the young Semyon Varlamov. By the end of the season, you could clearly see more composure and better positioning from Varly, things with which Jiggy excels. As both 'tenders are signed through next season, things can only get better.
To be continued at some later date that, hopefully, is sometime before the 2012-2013 season starts.
UPDATE: Click HERE for Part 2
Note: for those of you not familiar with the Top 19 meme, here is the official explanation as found in the Official MHH Glossary.
Top 19 List: See the MHH front page for a list of the Top 19 Avs of All Time. It's an awesome list, but is mostly notable for the amount of time it took Joe to finish it. Since we love nothing more than finding a joke that we can ride into the ground here at MHH, we still make frequent references to said list.