Maybe I like cheering for underdogs. The second a team is considered down-and-out even before the season/tournament begins is when I find myself drawn to them. Or maybe I have an unrealistically high opinion of the Avalanche and am suffering from blatant homerism. Or maybe I just like to look at the bright side of things and don't think our situation is as bad as many people make it out to be.
But whatever the case, I think the Avs will do well next year.
All this doom and gloom about how we traded away a for-sure lottery pick to get an injury prone goalie who probably won't even play 30 games this year has really started to bug me. And it's not just from people here. Everyone in the hockey community seems to think we got totally fleeced. Maybe they're right - but we won't know that until at least February. IT'S JULY. The season hasn't even started yet! Heck, we don't even have a roster finalized, let alone put anyone on the ice or been pummeled by injuries. We don't even know who will still be here on October 8th - Sherman could very easily have a few other moves in mind. I just don't see how anyone can completely write off a team so early in the year.
So, in general, I think we are vastly underrated. Here are my reasons (after the jump) :
We aren't the same team that skated against Edmonton on April 10th. We have 8 players returning from injury (Gali, Mueller, Stastny, Cumiskey, Gaunce, Hunwick, Johnson, and Quincey), 6 departing due to UFA/Retirement (Budaj, Elliott, Dupuis, Koci, Belle, and Foote), 2 players that were injured that have been traded/UFA'd (Liles and Fleishmann), 6 newly signed players so far (Bordeleau, Lindstrom, Kobasew, Hejda, Varlamov, Giguere), and 5 possible/probable rookies for next year (Landeskog, Hishon, Elliott, Barrie, and Malone). This team is completely different from even the one that saw the majority of the tank last year. We have no idea what we have, and we won't until training camp rolls around. To say TEH AVZALUNCHE R TEH SUXXORS right now is very premature. I'd like to see our staring roster before drawing that conclusion, thanks.
No Plan B:
We HAVE to win games this season because there's no
light prospect at the end of the tunnel tank this time. In the past years, if we tanked, Pracey would be there to bail us out. But not this year - if we go down, Washington will be laughing all the way to the Draft. This team has to make sure that those picks are as low as possible next year. Sherman's job may depend on it.
Our group of forwards looks pretty darn good for next season. Yes, we lost Stewart and Fleischmann, but we acquired Lindstrom and Kobasew, have Landeskog and Hishon coming up, and Mueller probably coming back. Yes, all these players are risky, but remember - Duchene, Stastny, Jones, and Hejduk didn't go anywhere. Stewart was a part of what made this team one of the top scoring in the league, but most of the guys that contributed to it are still here. Yes, they had a shitty second half of the season (except Jones), but this is a new year. Plus, we've added the top scorer in the SEL, a player who has scored 20 goals in a season 3 times, a power forward that will actually show up every game, the feisty OHL First Team All-Star center, and a winger that looked amazing with Duchene in '10. Plus, we discovered that our third line center can score if that's what's asked of him. The way I see it is Stewart = Landeskog (hopefully) and Fleischmann = Mueller, Hishon or Lindstrom, so talent-wise, we might actually be doing better right now than we were a year ago. I wouldn't say that expecting this group to be one of the top scorers in the league is too far of a stretch. The sophomore slump is over - let the junior year begin.
New and Improved Defense:
We've completely re-vamped our blueline. Since the beginning of last year, we lost Hannan, Shatty, Liles, and Foote, but we gained EJ, O'Byrne, Hunwick, and Hejda. We also have Elliott, Barrie, Gaunce and Holos coming up (Siemens is probably a few years out still) and Quincey and Cumiskey coming back. It's a bigger, meaner group that won't get pushed around nearly as easily as last year's starting corps. Of the 6 that skated during the '10-11 season opener, only 3 are still with the team, and there is doubt whether or not Wilson and Cumiskey will even make starting lineup again this year. And now, instead of relying on Quincey to return to his BMF days, we can still pair him with a quality player - like O'Byrne or Tyfen Barriott - without betting our top pairing on his play. And when injuries do strike, we've got more than Belle and Macias backing us up. Yes, we lost some offensive firepower with the trading of Liles and Shattenkirk, but Johnson still has a rocket of a shot, and Elliott and Barrie (who will be fighting for the third line spot) have a ton of offensive upside too. So, we might have slipped a little in our offense (but not by much), but we increased the shut-down abilities of our defense tenfold while also increasing our depth. I'm thrilled if that's our only trade-off on the blueline. I'm excited to see what these guys can do.
Goalies with Upside:
The situation in net is MUCH better than it was last year. Anderson was amazing in his prior three seasons (including the two with Florida), but he was absolutely terrible for us last season for whatever reason. Budaj and Elliott aren't more than backups, and I'm not sure they'll ever be more than that. Varlamov, although young and injury prone, has some freakin' amazing stats, and Giguere has a Cup and a Conn Smythe. Even without a full-time goalie coach, I think Giggy will be an amazing influence on Varly. And don't forget - the last hotshot Russian Giggy mentored just signed a 9 year, $51 million contract with Philly. JSG might not be Roy, but he seems very committed to helping this team win in whatever way he can. There is word that Varly is tweaking his playing style so he's less prone to injuring his groin. I don't think Giguere can help with that (he's just as prone to groin injury), but hopefully our goalie coach can. I wouldn't be surprised if he was brought on full time next year. Sheman's reputation, and possibly job, is riding on how Varly does next season, so it would be reasonable to guess that he'll do what he can to make sure the 23-year-old succeeds. And if not, well, at least the coach is there part time and Giggy can cover for him during the rest. Our goaltending situation is high risk, high reward, which is better than '10-‘11's second half's high risk, little to no reward. There's still no word on who the third goaltender in our '11-'12 depth chart will be, but I'm pretty okay with the first two. Would we have been better off with Vokoun in the net? Maybe next year, but that would still mean that we were counting on the unproven Pickard to save us in a few years. At least this way, we have Pickard AND Varlamov when Giggy retires. Basically, we have options now. That's not a bad thing.
A Fresh Start:
This is a new year. We have health, at least for a while, and the Tank is gone (hopefully for good). Once you begin losing like we did last year, turning that around is extremely difficult, especially without veterans. More than anything, I think confidence will be back in the locker room next year, and if we stay healthy, I think it will stay. Plus, last year taught our young guns what it feels like to lose. I don't think they'll forget that anytime soon, and unlike other young teams caught in that situation, I think they actually might have the tools to prevent another Tank. And if the saying "You've got to lose to know how to win" is true, well, I think there is quite a bit of winning in our future. Our young core has learned from their losing. Now it's time to win.
No More Seamless Glass:
The devil's transparent plaything is gone from the Pepsi Center and the league. Its departure won't be the end of injuries on this team, but it's absence could get us under 300 man-games-lost to injury next year. Here is an analysis I wrote about a month ago on how it possibly hurt us last season. I'm thrilled to see it gone.
Much Better Organizational Depth:
Left Wing: Hishon, Landeskog, Lindstrom, Galiardi, Porter, McLeod, Olver, Bordeleau, Malone, Mauldin, Stoa
Center: Duchene, Stastny, Radar, and McClement, Hishon and Porter if needed
Right Wing: Hejduk, Mueller, Jones, Kobasew, Winnik, Yip, van der Guilk, Walker
Left Defense: Hejda, Quincey, Gaunce, Wilson, Cumiskey, Hunwick, Choinard, Liffiton
Right Defense: EJ, O'Byrne, Elliott, Holos, Barrie
Goaltending: Varlamov, Giguere
Beginning of Last year:
Mueller, Galiardi, Jones, Winnik, Porter, McLeod, Mauldin, Stoa
Center: Stastny, Duchene, O'Reilly, Dupuis, Porter
Right Wing: Hejduk, Stewart, Yip, Olver, Koci, van der Guilk
Left Defense: Quincey, Liles, Cumiskey, Shattenkirk, Liffiton
Right Defense: Hannan, Wilson, Foote, Cohen, Holos
Goalie: Anderson, Budaj, Grahame, Bacashihua
So, it's still not perfect. There are so may question marks on our left wing than even Socrates would blush. But we have the potential for five Top 6 players (Hish, Landy, Lindstrom, Gali and Olver) instead of just Gali and an out-of-position Jones. And although our right wing depth suffered from the loss of Stewart, Jones proved he can handle Top 6 RW duties last year, and the overall depth is much, much better. Our centers are better (even though I'm sad to see Dupuis leave, even if it was the best thing for him), and our defense is night and day. I'd say the goalies are pretty close to a draw, but after what happened last season, I'm happy that none of those names are back on the list for this year.
Sacco is in his last year, as are 15 other roster players. Jones, McClement, McLeod, Winnik, Yip, Lindstrom, and Hunwick will all be UFAs at the end of it, and due to the logjam we have at almost all our positions, they'll be playing for their jobs next season. Hejduk is also up - will he play in 2012-13? Duchene, O'Reilly, EJ, Quincey, Mueller, Olver, and Holos are all RFAs as well. Even though we all know Dutch, Radar, and EJ will be given qualifying offers, how much will they be, and will any of the others join them in that list? Also, since we haven't heard anything about Wilson, Cumiskey, Gali, or Porter's RFA negotiations, they too could join this list if they are only extended one year deals. Either way, more than half our roster will be playing for a job, and our head coach will be fighting for his as well. I'd be willing to bet that we'll see career years from some - if not most - of them.
Overall, I like our chances next year. Maybe not for the Cup, but I expect we'll make at least the first round of playoffs, maybe even the second. Am I being overly optimistic? Maybe. But if we can finish the season even with an average number of man-games-lost, I think this team will be good and surprise a heckuva lot of people.
Don't give up on the boys yet. The Varlamov deal is far from a secured lottery pick. Let's wait until at least January before completely writing this team off, okay?