Oh Captain My Captain
If there weren't already questions around Gabriel Landeskog's captaincy and his ability to steer a young streaky team back into the playoffs, there certainly should be now. The youngest captain in NHL history is now tasked with bringing together a team that had some serious issues with chemistry last season, and now he has to do it with just a week of training camp. In a shortened sprint to the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Avs can't afford to get complacent. On a team that relies so much on forechecking, physicality, and speed to be successful, it will be essential that Landeskog keep a steady, focused locker room. You take a risk when you name such a young player as captain, but if Landeskog can follow Jonathan Toews example and just keep playing his game, not trying to do more than he's capable of, then the young winger should wear the C just fine. Look for Landeskog to.... just BE Landeskog in camp. The Avs need their steady shot leader to bring it every night and pace this team for a sprint.
2 consecutive playoff misses has put coach Joe Sacco on a very short leash and it is hard to believe that the Avalanche would retain him if he misses the playoffs for a 3rd consecutive year. While Sacco will still be running the show this year, he has new help in the assistant coaching slots in Tim Army and David Quinn. Both are stereotypical "build from within" hires, but, having coached Lake Erie last year, David Quinn could prove to be a good advocate and resource for monsters players hoping to make a jump to the NHL. If one of the Lake Erie players makes a good impression at camp, it's probably a safe bet that David Quinn will advocate giving them a roster spot.
In Joe Sacco's own words, the Avs have to "start on time." There is no room for slumping and late starts in a 48 game schedule and if the Avs continue to have poor 1st period performances then Sacco has got to go. It's coaches responsibility to make sure his players are ready to go at puck drop every night. Joe Sacco is the only Avalanche player or coach to have played during the 1994-1995 shortened season, so he should understand the difficulties of a shortened camp and shortened season. Be watching in training camp for any changes in his scheme: particularly on the Avs high energy forecheck. It will be interesting to see if Sacco shies away from the uptempo forecheck and fast break offense we've seen in recent years and relies more on trap defense and puck possession offense to better conserve energy in a compressed season with less time for recovery.
Sacco's job, unfortunately, doesn't stop there. The 4th year coach has lots of work to do as he tries to build this team into a winner in just one short week. Pay careful attention to line combinations throughout training camp, because although Sacco is known to change them throughout the season, good chemistry will be essential to the Avs success this season. Last year saw Paul Stastny wedged between Milan Hejduk and Matt Duchene, for a line the couldnt find eachother on the ice, let alone the back of the net. We saw Daniel Winnik spend an extended period of time on the top line, Shane O'Brien got top pairing defensive duties and despite struggling to find chemistry, Matt Duchene was never once paired up with stud winger Gabriel Landeskog. Sacco has to build this lineup in a way that allows all his players to flourish, not just Landeskog and O'Reilly. Matt Duchene may be the most talented player on the team, and its time to play a system and build lines that can help him be successful, even if that means splitting up O'Reilly and Landeskog.
Who is Matt Duchene?
Speaking of Matt Duchene, it isn't just Joe Sacco's coaching that needs to change for the young center to find his game. Slow starter. Dangling spin-o-rama master. "Power" forward. Pass first playmaker. And dynamic young center with a great all around game and sniper shot. We've seen it all from Matt Duchene, so the question is what will we see now? And in the years to come? After an unfortunate 2011-2012 campaign which saw Duchene battling injuries and unable to ever find his game, it's time for the young center to make a name for himself. Duchene has had a successful albeit uninspiring warm up in the Swedish and Swiss leagues, so he should be ready for the Avalanche's 2013 campaign, but if there is one thing that will determine the Avs success this year, it is Matt Duchene. The team clearly has high expectations for Duchene; after all, the money conscious Avs dropped $16M on P.A. Parenteau this summer to give Duchene a winger who compliments his style. Duchene lost his status as Avalanche poster boy last season and he needs to come back with a vengeance. He should be flying at camp and leading the charge offensively into the shortened season. No slow starts, no excuses. Duchene needs to prove once and for all that he is the player who gave Avalanche fans so much hope 2 years ago.
Defensive logjams are starting to become a theme here in Denver. The Avalanche have 7 NHL defensemen ready to go for this season and another three in Lake Erie. Erik Johnson, Jan Hejda, Ryan Wilson, Ryan O'Byrne, Greg Zanon and Shane O'Brien seem like sure bets to make the opening night roster, with Matt Hunwick filling the role of healthy scratch, but one of the young guns could surprise us in a shortened camp. You can bet that Tyson Barrie, who has absolutely lit up the AHL, is going to be less rusty than Wilson, Zanon, O'Brien or Hunwick (none of whom have been playing). Barrie looked relatively comfortable in NHL action last season, aside from a few major mistakes, and he could compete for a spot later this month and get another crack at the big club.
The Greg Zanon signing means that there is a little less uncertainty as to who will make the opening night roster on defense, but watch carefully to see what defensive pairings Sacco uses throughout camp. Many thought the Avs would pursue a top 2 defenseman to play with Erik Johnson this summer, but after failing to land Ryan Suter or Matt Carle the Avalanche elected to stand pat and bring in a lower pairing shot blocker in Greg Zanon.
The question remains, who will play top line minutes with Erik Johnson. Jan Hejda is undoubtably the 2nd best defenseman on the team, but he and Johnson never quite seemed to gel together, and he was much better suited to a shutdown pairing with Ryan O'Byrne. Shane O'Brien also spent some time on the top pairing last year, but just didn't have the chops to compete with the other teams' top lines. The only really successful pairing came between Ryan Wilson and Erik Johnson. Wilson had some streaky play last season, when he was off, both D struggled, but when he was on, they were by far the team's best duo. Keep a close eye on the defensive pairs throughout camp as the Avalanche D corps needs to find some chemistry to have better success this season, particularly on its top pair.
The name on every Avs fans lips in the last 24 hours, there are huge question marks surrounding O'Reilly. Will he sign with the Avs in time for training camp, if at all? The length of his contract in the KHL is suspect to say the least, and seems like a ploy to get more out of the Avalanche once the CBA is ratified. Even if O'Reilly does make it back to Denver, fans have to wonder if he is on the outs with upper management, or even just the odd man out in the Avs 3 center rotation. Set all those questions aside, and we can start to worry about O'Reilly's production on the ice. Was last season a fluke? Or can he be a consistent 50-60 point scorer in the NHL with a truly fantastic two way game?
Despite all those questions, we do know one thing. Ryan O'Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog, as a pair, were the heart and motor for this young Avalanche team last season. If O'Reilly is late to or absent from training camp it could go all bad for the Avalanche. O'Reilly is by all accounts a great locker room guy, well liked by his teammates, and he is vitally important to training camp and practice with his professional work ethic and implementation of insanely creative puck handling and passing drills. Ryan O'Reilly helps foster a great work ethic at practice, and with a shortened camp, he could be sorely missed. He and Landeskog are Sacco's most trusted players, playing in every game situation and if O'Reilly is gone, or on his way out, we may see Sacco searching for a new go to player in camp.