The season from hell is here. Or so most pundits would have you to believe. Most of the superstars are gone: Forsberg, Tanguay, Blake, Foote...that list goes on and on. This is not the same old Colorado powerhouse. Yes, we know. We get it. Let's move on.
Actually, this team is far more promising than the team that suited up last fall and that team made it to the second round of the playoffs. Why? Read on
There's no question that Jose Theodore is on the hot seat. His $5.5 million cap figure is almost as ridiculous as getting nabbed by the paparazzi with Paris Hilton. If Jose is the Hart & Vezina version, this team is going to go places. If he isn't, Colorado has an Edsel of wasted cap space. Peter Budaj showed some really nice flashes last year (shootouts excepted), and would be a competent replacement if Theodore falters or becomes injured. Unless Theodore struggles and management insists on playing him, goaltending will not be the issue it was in '05-'06. And heck, maybe that Edsel just turns back into the Ferrari.
Defense is going to be very interesting this season. Rob Blake is gone, and he's taken his +4 Bag of Endless Minutes with him. To replace him, Colorado brought in Jordan Leopold and Ken Klee. The Avs defense wasn't very good last year. It tightened up as the season wore on, but still was never quite as good as it should have been. Leopold will help, but this unit will really need to work well to get things done. With Blake gone, John-Michael Liles will need to step up the consistency on both sides of the ice. He has the potential to put up 60 or 70 points, but had too many games where he disappeared, and too many plays where he gave up in his own end. Karlis Skrastins and Brett Clark became, rather quietly, the teams best defensive pair. Skrastins is a shot blocking machine, and Clark is the consistent player with a marvelous breakout pass. Both earned raises of around a million dollars last year, meaning they are no longer underrated or underpaid. They have to at least match last year's form for Colorado to repeat. I have absolutely nothing positive to say about the final two guys - Patrice Brisebois and Ossi Vaananen. Joel Quenneville seems to like them, especially Ossi. I think they are junk. Ken Klee will no doubt dress will Leopold is out, then move to a 7th defenseman role. Nothing wrong with that at all. Kurt Sauer was a healthy scratch for an insane number of games last year, and a couple of big defensive gaffes in last spring's playoffs probably isn't going to help his status much with the team.
Yes, yes, Alex Tanguay is gone. So is Steve Konowalchuk and Dan Hinote. And I don't think Colorado will miss a beat in the scoring department. Colorado has four good young forwards in Marek Svatos, Wojtek Wolski, Brad Richardson and Paul Stastny. Stastny is probably only around until some injured players get back, but the other three should be around all year. Svatos had that marvelous - albeit shortened - rookie season. And both Richardson and Wolski might even have a better season. If these guys have the season that they look like they are capable of - 60 points each, say - then there will be sizeable pressure taken off veterans like captain Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk and Andrew Brunette. And then there's Tyler Arnason, who went from deadline day steal to unwanted dead weight in a matter of weeks last year in Ottawa. The "book" is that this manchild is in a severe need of a boot in the ass. This might just be the veteran clubhouse to do that, in which case this forward group becomes that much more formidable. I don't think I'm going to put much money on that, though.
I'm a bit worried about Colorado's special teams. Tanguay and especially Blake will be missed on the powerplay. There's plenty of skill on the pp units, but not a lot of experience, and I think there may be some struggles because of that. On the kill, Konowalchuk and Dan Hinote are gone. Hejduk filled in well for Kono last year, but I think that added ice time hurt the rest of his game. Aanti Laaksonen and Ian Laperriere are terrific; it will be interesting to see who the other two forwards will be here.
Colorado plays in the tightest division in hockey. Vancouver might be faltering a bit this year, but I think Calgary, Minnesota and Edmonton all look to be improved in 06. On paper, the Avs seem like an easy pick for the bottom of the Northwest. Instead, I think they have a legit shot to win the division, although I don't expect they'll be going much deeper in the playoffs than they did last season.