1) Can Semyon Varlamov repeat last year's Vezina-Level breakout season?
Ah, a frequent question. While I fully believe that he can repeat that kind of season, I have a lot of hope that he won't have to carry the team like he had to in '13-14.
In the first full season since the '12-'13 Lockout, Varlamov put up stellar numbers behind a... um... less than stellar... defensive corps. He saved our bacon more times than I can count. While the offense started clicking right away, bringing a number of important tools to the table, the most important man in the back ice was our Tender. That's not to say there weren't some bright points... Erik Johnson continued his ascent, Tyson Barrie began his, and Nick Holden surprised a lot of us with his play on the bottom (and sometimes not so bottom) pairing. But the rest of the guys just weren't quite up to snuff. Luckily this year, we have made some improvements... We'll just have to see how we do. Check further down for some more info on the D.
I do fully believe that Semyon Varlamov can, and will, continue his high level of play. As you look at his numbers leading into last season, his previous seasons haven't been awful, just not very impressive. The lockout year messed up a lot of developing players, but coming off the end of that season, the Avs' overhaul of the front office was key to getting Varly the support he needed to reach this level. With Patrick Roy behind the bench, Joe Sakic running the show, and bringing in goalie coach Francois Allaire and his team, the Avs started really giving their players the tools to succeed. Between that, and Varly's off-season work with Lancaster-based Steve Saunders, owner of Power Train Sports Institute, Varly really had every tool that he can possibly need to bring his talent to light.
Varlamov did use those tools last season, and became the Av's best player nearly every game. He showed why the Avs were willing to risk a first rounder for him. I have no doubt that, even with some small regression in numbers, his skill set will continue to improve. Look for Varly to continue to be a big part of the Avs' success as he continues to keep his name in the Vezina conversation for the next few years.
2) Will Patrick Roy up his game in his second year behind the bench?
Yup. He will. A year ago, we all waited to see what system Coach Roy was going to bring to us. It turns out that his man-to-man system worked very well for our young, fast team. Agile players, willing to adopt something new, came out and surprised the entire league. I mean, Roy did win the Jack Adams award for bringing a team hanging out in the basement to placing first in the Western Conference.
But here's the thing: other teams did begin to see holes in our system that could be exploited. Yes, we were fast, but we also couldn't always keep up with the best passing teams. If they could keep us trying to keep up, they could surprise us. There was also the tendency to sit back when we had the lead... I hated that, but honestly, it was a strategy that worked for us pretty often. Still, there were holes in what we did last year, and they became more apparent as the season went on.
What we all need to remember is that Roy coached the Quebec Remparts for 8 seasons. Granted that the QMJHL is a long way from the pros, but he still worked with different systems, had to play against them, and has been working on his own for a long time. I believe that his experience with that team, already learning a lot about what he's doing, will give him the tools to adapt his system on the NHL level. I don't pretend to know a ton about systems, but I haven't seen anything quite like what Roy is trying to do... at least in the recent NHL. He has to know that there will need to be adjustments... it won't be perfect out of the box.
This year, we will see adjustments bettering the team'a play. But I do believe that they will be just adjustments... refining a product that's already working pretty well. I'm not even sure I'll be able to recognize them anywhere but on the scoresheet. I have full faith in Coach Roy, and I'm ready to see what he does now.
3) Will Colorado's defense improve enough to help mitigate the potential regression in offense and in net?
They are making improvements, but I'm not sure if they will really be enough to cover significant regression in either offense or goaltending. Lets take a quick peek at what they changed in the lineup:
First off, we let a couple of players walk. Andre Benoit signed with Buffalo, and Cory Sarich has gone unsigned. Note: Sarich was hurt fairly seriously in a cycling accident recently... positive vibes to him on a speedy recovery. Both of those gentlemen did play significant time for us last season, and I will not miss either. We retained the services of Nate Guenin, whom we signed through 2015-16 for some reason. We also gave Nick Holden a three year extension. In the offseason, we snagged Zach Redmond for very little cash, and we traded a 2nd and 6th round pick to the San Jose Sharks for aging Brad Stuart to give us some veteran presence.
Erik Johnson is hitting his prime, and I'm even more excited that he's on our team. I think that they will start Stuart on that top pairing with him, letting Jan Hejda drop down to help be a defensive partner for Tyson Barrie. That leaves just the bottom pairing of Nick Holden and... someone. That someone could be any number of guys... newcomer Redmond, hopefully-improved Ryan Wilson, fill-in Nate Guenin, prospects Duncan Siemens or Stefan Elliott, or even AHLers Maxim Noreau or Karl Stollery.
That is an improvement over last year's roster. But I don't know if it's good enough. Stuart might be out of gas. Wilson might not have actually improved enough to earn a roster spot back (altho he did look good to me in camp). Redmond might not actually play well. If any of those things happen (much less Hejda breaking both his hands again and playing anyway), we are in almost the same position that we were last year. We have to basically hold our breath and hope that our call ups are ready, that Stuart won't be a let down, and that Guenin spends his time primarily as a fill-in or eating nachos.
I worry about this defense. I think that Roy will be turning his attention to it and get it clicking like he did with the offense, but only when he has the right pieces to fit together. Any improvement at all is better than none, tho, and if they can keep some rubber away from the crease, I'll be happy enough.