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9 Things: 2013-2014 Colorado Avalanche Season Preview

Between new system growing pains and a back end that isn't revamped enough, it could be a bit bumpy this season for the Avs. But there's absolutely Avalanche and NHL stories to look forward to this year. We've retired the number 19, so it's time for a Top 9 List.

Tyson Arnason and his new coach chat up the refs
Tyson Arnason and his new coach chat up the refs
Ethan Miller

1. Speed Kills

You've seen quotes from Roy, Duchene, and others around the team that all say one thing: This team is going to be a lot more fun to watch than last year's offering. How great is that? Take this quote from Robin Carlin's fantastic interview with Matt Duchene from yesterday:

(Patrick Roy) is such a good communicator. He wants things to be real simple and broken down so that, as a team, we’re solid. He wants us to be an offensive team, which is exciting. But at the same time, he talks about the Penguins in the early 90’s when they won the back-to-back Stanley Cups. He said they were so good on their own end, and as soon as they got the puck, they were gone – they were on offense. That’s the team we want to be.

He's talking about two things here. One, obvious: This team has fantastic skaters and Roy wants to take advantage of that. Against the infamous grind from teams like Nashville or St. Louis, that's a pretty sink-or-swim strategy: either you're winning the races (and the game) or you're getting pummeled. But it also means taking care of the puck. "As soon as they got the puck, they were gone." That's transitioning into the neutral zone with the puck, quickly. And "they were on offense." That's an end to the dump and chase.

We're going to see some fireworks this season. They won't all be burgundy, but they won't be laced with Ambien this time either.

2. The Numbers Game

If you follow Hockey Twitter at all you've seen the slapfights raging especially around the Toronto Maple Leafs (because their public statements are positively draconian in this area) but around some silly contracts and roster construction ideas in general. What has been created in this whirlwind is a real testing ground for many of the ideas hockey stats proponents have been arguing about. Among them:

  • the sustainability (or lack thereof) of high team shooting percentages
  • the sustainability of a forward's on-ice shooting percentage
  • the value of usage and shot-attempt numbers as predictors of future performance
  • the value of zone entries (and now exits)

One of the Flyers guys over at Broad Street Hockey is organizing a large effort to track zone exits and analyze the results. I'm also interested to compare Nazem Kadri's numbers from last year to this one, given his crazy on-ice shooting percentage (14.77%) and whether it's sustainable (for some players, maybe). I want to see how Mikhail Grabovski performs in Washington back on the offensive side, whether Ryan Clowe's New Jersey contract is as terrible as it looks, and whether some of the high save percentages we saw out of young goaltenders (Bob) can continue into an 82-game season (skeptical).

3. Avalanche Rookies and Newcomers

This isn't as young a Colorado squad as we've come to expect lately. Only one real rookie has joined the opening night roster: #1 Overall Big Honkin Stud Nathan MacKinnon. Chris Bigras was denied his 9-game cup of coffee and will begin the year in Owen Sound. But should injuries begin to take their toll--this being a contact sport, in case you forgot--we may also see the premiere of Duncan Siemens. It's not exactly likely with Nick Holden and Stefan Elliott ahead of him on the depth chart, but you never know.

Whether this season tells us much about MacKinnon or not is difficult to say, but the predictions of 50 points for him seem... optimistic. He may not see enough ice time for that given the center depth the Avs are working with. But that's fine because we also have other newcomers to look at. Nick Holden will get a few games while Ryan Wilson comes back to health at least. Nate Guenin is similarly noob, with his last 15 NHL games coming two years ago. Also added are Marc-Andre Cliche, who has been out of the league since 2010 but comes billed as a defensive/PK guy picked up for zilch off waivers, Andre Benoit, who played pretty well in the Ottawa B-Sens remarkable run last year, and Cory Sarich, an aging defender.

Oh yeah, also some guy some of you may remember.


5. The Dutch Factor

Let's go ahead and get that asterisk ready: *but it's the preseason

Last season we saw the rise of a potential new Duchene Wing: P.A. Parenteau. (By the way, Duchene named him the funniest guy on the team in that interview above.) Now he's got another new partner: Ryan O'Reilly*. They've been ripping it up so far* including O'Reilly with at least 3-1-4 and Duchene with at least 0-3-3 in 2 games*. (It's tough to find good preseason stats. You'd be amazed.) They've looked great both in camp and in games*. If they can keep it going into the regular season, opposing defenses better look out. Especially if they can keep it rocking with Parenteau, though he has been played on other forward lines*.

It's worked so far*, right?

6. The New York Rangers trade John Tortorella to the Vancouver Canucks for Alain Vigneault

(Have you guys ever tried to spell "Vigneault" without looking it up? No wonder he's known as AV.)

Anyway. My God. This is an episode of Wife Swap: NHL Edition. One team has a weak, soft, diving, whining, crybaby reputation! The other are blue-collar hard workers who throw their bodies in front of anything for the team! But we're about to find out what happens when you switch the Sedin-guide and the drill sergeant. Coming up next, on Coach Swap!

Whenever I'm feeling down on the Avs this season I'll just see what kind of shenanigans these two are getting up to. Should be fun for us all. The Sedins allegedly blocking shots on the penalty kill has already been a good season premiere.

7. Which Very Will Varly Be?

Yes inconsistency is a word that applies to every goaltender. But Semyon Varlamov's has been somewhat extreme. We can blame that on tons of things. Insufficient time with a goalie coach. The Lokomotiv tragedy starting his head in a bad place two years ago. A shit defense in front of him. We could go on. But at some point, Varly himself has to take ownership of where his game is going to go. A contract year with a new defensive system in place and plenty of time spent working with Francois Allaire seems as good as any to make that happen.

8. You Seem Barrie Defensive

Tyfan Barriot indeed eh? Tyson Barrie has emerged the clear frontrunner in the Which Young Offensive Defenseman Owns Hardest race against Stefan Elliott. (Excuse me, I seem to be thinking of the 2011 WJC and gazing at my navel.) Last year's .4 PPG was a solid step in the right direction. Now with a full season under his belt I almost said (Thanks, Gary), does he have what it takes to grow yet another step?

He certainly has it in him. Barrie is a smart player with a good shot who knows how to use his assets defensively when he has to. Hopefully with consistent time and partners--and 100% fewer detours to Cleveland--he cements himself not only in the league, but as a good NHL defender this season.

9. Crystal Ballin

The Avs face some tough roster decisions in their future and it's not even to do with Cap Hell (or even Floor Hell). The front office have exactly one (1) season to decide what they want their forward corps to look like going forward. No surprise, all eyes are on Paul Stastny and Ryan O'Reilly.

In the past guys who crossed the Avs' front office have been sent packing in short order. Personally, I think that's bunk with Ryan O'Reilly. For one thing the nameplates have changed since the days of arbitration meaning filing for a quick trade. For another, even if Greg Sherman had wanted to flip a giant bird at O'Reilly for refusing to sign on the team's terms, he could have done so flipping that same bird at Jay Feaster for making it necessary, as O'Reilly probably would have been claimed by some other team on waivers and Sherm would have collected two picks from Calgary for precisely fuckall. Which would have been hilarious. But Patrick Roy seems intent on giving O'Reilly every opportunity to earn his deal, and I expect him to do so.

Which brings us to Stastny. This is a guy who put up a point a game with Avalanche legends and then found himself a defensive center with David Jones. Now the Avs have drafted superstar-ceiling Nathan MacKinnon to come in behind him. Does Paul Stastny sign an extension with Colorado to continue his somewhat offensively-limited role? Or does he cash in at UFA this summer with a team who will pay him what a top-2 center will fetch under the cap balloon?

It's not anything that can be predicted from outside with any accuracy because nobody knows for sure what the front office will do with these assets. But it's another of the stories to watch for the Avs' future this season. Because that's kind of how this season has to be seen: a stepping stone to future glory--or stumbles.