CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- John-Michael Liles acknowledges it took him a while to get accustomed to Colorado Avalanche head coach Joe Sacco's way of doing things a year ago.
Sitting on the bench as a healthy scratch 10 times turned out to be a bitter part of the learning process.
"It's the toughest thing going," Liles said Sunday after the Avalanche completed their two-day training camp at South Suburban Family Sports Center. "It's the toughest thing that I've had to deal with in my hockey career, but it definitely made me stronger and I think it made me realize exactly what I need to do and figure out how I'm going to be successful going forward."
Liles also missed 13 games because of shoulder and wrist injuries -- he needed surgery on both after the season -- but still led Avalanche defensemen in scoring for the fourth year in a row with 31 points (6 goals, 25 assists) in 59 games.
The Indiana native, who at age 29 is now the fourth-oldest player on the team -- "It's crazy, scary," he said -- played two of his best games down the stretch when the Avalanche were battling to secure a spot in the Western Conference playoffs.
He scored in overtime in a crucial 5-4 home win against San Jose on April 4 and two nights later made a couple of sparkling defensive plays -- diving from behind to poke pucks away from Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin on separate Canucks breakaways -- before the Avalanche clinched a postseason berth with a 4-3 shootout win in Vancouver.
"It was a tough season for me last year in some respects," said Liles, who has two years remaining on a contract worth $4.2 million per season. "I tried to continue working and I bounced back toward the end of the year and contributed. Hopefully I can build on that. I went into the summer hoping to build upon that, for my game and to help the team.
"For me, my biggest thing is being on my toes, to make sure I'm going forward and not on my heels. I have to jump up and try and help the forwards, try to give them an outlet on the rush and help the power play click. That's been my game for a long time. If I'm doing that well, most of the rest of my game will take care of itself."
Sacco, a no-nonsense type, is expecting big things from Liles from the very start in 2010-11. He benched Liles for back-to-back games in late December, one game in late January, four games in early February and three games in late March.
"Certainly he really came back and turned the season around. He was very good for us toward the end of the year and in the playoffs. Johnny is a very good defenseman and he should be good for us all season long."
Liles wouldn't use nagging injuries as excuses for his inconsistent play. He missed seven games after hurting his shoulder in an Oct. 13 game in Toronto, and he sat out five more in November after injuring it again in a Nov. 6 game against Chicago.
"It never helps, but I would never chalk it up to that," he said. "You're going to have injuries and it's just a matter of whether you can play through them or if it's something that needs attention right away.
"I just need to play the way I did down the stretch. That's how I'm going to help and to contribute to the team. I wasn't doing that early on in the year, in the middle of the year, and the coaches made it known. It took me a little while to figure it out. The bottom line is I have to continue to do what made me successful at the end of the year."