The Phoenix Coyotes weren't the only team in the Western Conference that shocked a lot of people in 2009-10. The Colorado Avalanche also reached heights that seemed unimaginable last September.
After selecting Matt Duchene with the third pick at the 2009 Entry Draft and signing Craig Anderson to one of the best deals of the summer, the Avalanche went on to win 43 games and clinch the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. While the Avs failed to get out of the first round, they gave the San Jose Sharks a run for their money in a six-game battle. It was evident during that series that Colorado is going to be a force in the West for years to come.
"I'm the type that never settles for something," said Duchene, who had 24 goals and 31 assists as a rookie. "Last season, there were still a lot of things that we didn't do and that I didn’t do that I would have loved to do. I'm even more driven than I was last year coming in. You can also look at how you want to take the team to a certain place. For example, we were in eighth place last year and made the playoffs, now we want to be a team that’s the fifth seed, fourth seed or higher this coming year, and we’re very capable of that."
That's because the Avs are returning with their roster virtually intact, as defenseman Brett Clark (Tampa Bay) and Darcy Tucker (free agent) are the only players who won't be back. It's a golden opportunity for Joe Sacco -- a finalist for the Jack Adams Award last season -- to help Colorado make major strides in 2010-11.
"We're certainly headed in the right direction," Sacco said. "There is a lot to look forward to. We have to make sure we work and do the right things to get ready for the future. We're going to be young, we're going to be full of energy. I see a lot of upside."
Duchene leads an impressive young group that also boasts Chris Stewart, who had a breakout season in 2009-10. Stewart, who recently signed a new two-year deal with the club, paced the Avs with 28 goals and finished second with 64 points. He also had 100 hits and 74 penalty minutes. Duchene and Stewart will likely skate on the same line alongside T.J. Galiardi, a 22-year-old who had 15 goals and 24 assists.
After missing a large chunk of the 2008-09 season, Paul Stastny returned in a big way and racked up 79 points (20 goals, 59 assists) in 81 games. Stastny, who doesn't turn 25 until Dec. 27, hadn't made it through a full season since his rookie campaign of 2006-07, when he had 28 goals and 50 assists. It's possible he'll be lined up with Milan Hejduk (44 points in 56 games last season) and Peter Mueller, who had 9 goals and 11 assists in just 15 games after being acquired from Phoenix. Mueller missed the postseason due to a concussion.
Duchene wasn't the only Avs' rookie last season to put up impressive numbers. Ryan O'Reilly, the club's second-round pick from 2009, had 26 points and a plus-4 rating in 81 games and is in line to be Colorado's No. 3 center. Who he will skate with remains to be seen, but possibilities include Cody McLeod (138 penalty minutes last season) and Brandon Yip, who had 19 points in 32 games as a rookie.
Other forwards competing for spots include Daniel Winnik, who was acquired from Phoenix, as well as Philippe Dupuis, David Jones, David Koci, Ben Walter, Kevin Porter, Greg Mauldin and David Van der Gulik.
The blue line crew in Colorado isn't exactly flashy, but it certainly is capable of getting the job done.
Avs captain Adam Foote, who broke into the League with the Quebec Nordiques during the 1991-92 season, returns to lead an underrated group that also includes Kyle Cumiskey, a 23-year-old who tallied 20 points in 61 games last season.
Cumiskey isn't the only Kyle in town; Kyle Quincey, who was acquired prior to the start of last season in the deal that sent Ryan Smyth to Los Angeles, had 29 points and 76 penalty minutes in 79 games and averaged more then 23 minutes a night. Scott Hannan, who has appeared in 81 games or more in six of the last seven seasons, rounds out Colorado's top four.
John-Michael Liles is back for a seventh season with the Avalanche, where he hopes to be a mainstay on the blue line following an up-and-down season. Liles, who celebrates his 30th birthday on Nov. 27, had 31 points (6 goals, 25 assists) in 59 games. He likely will be joined by 23-year-old Ryan Wilson, although Kevin Shattenkirk will certainly vie for a spot during training camp. Shattenkirk, the club's first-round pick in 2007, had 29 points in 38 games for Boston University last season.
Also in the mix is Colby Cohen, who was Shattenkirk's teammate at B.U. Cohen, a second-round pick in '07, compiled 62 points over his final two years with the Terriers.
There's no debate this year.
After fighting for the starting job last fall, Craig Anderson enters this season as the clear-cut No. 1 goaltender in Colorado. The 29-year-old, who'd never been a starter in the NHL before last season, went 38-25-7 with a 2.63 goals-against average, a .917 save percentage and seven shutouts and was the biggest reason why the Avs returned to the playoffs.
Peter Budaj is back for a sixth season with the Avalanche. He appeared in 15 games last season and went 5-5-2 with a 2.64 GAA.
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