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Avs, Blues ready to forget last year's disappointments

Monday, 09.19.2011 / 8:52 AM / 2011-2012 Season Preview

By Dan Rosen and E.J. Hradek - NHL.com Staff Writers

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Avs, Blues ready to forget last year's disappointments
Which Western Conference outsider has the best chance to visit the 2012 Playoffs?

Seven teams in the Western Conference didn't make the playoffs. That, of course, happens every season, but usually some of them break from that bottom-feeder pack the following season and surprise everyone with a move into the elite eight.
 
Let's call them the dark-horse teams.
 
Anaheim was the only dark horse to do it last season, but Phoenix, Los Angeles, Colorado and Nashville made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2010 after missing the previous season. Four teams also made the jump in 2009 after suffering through a long offseason in 2008.
 
Which team or teams make the move in 2012? We've got our ideas on the topic:
 
ROSEN'S DARK-HORSE TEAM
 
Colorado Avalanche
 
Yes, the 2010-11 season was Colorado's worst since the franchise relocated from Quebec. And, yes, the Avalanche have many of the same players back from the team that won only 30 games and garnered just 68 points, good for No. 14 in the Western Conference.
 
But, no, they will not be that bad this season. Not even close.
 
Matt Duchene has learned about the NHL game and lifestyle in two full seasons. He had 67 points last season, and I expect him to approach point-per-game status with 30-plus goals this season. It's his time.
 
Duchene will also serve as a good mentor -- yes, I know he's only 20 years -- for first-round pick Gabriel Landeskog, who should make the opening-night lineup and be among the favorites to win the Calder Trophy as the League's rookie of the year.
 
Sticking with the Duchene theme, the Avs depth down the middle appears strong with Paul Stastny, Ryan O'Reilly and Jay McLement joining Duchene.
 
A key to the Avs success will be the health of Peter Mueller, who missed all of last season with a concussion. He had 20 points in his first 15 games in Colorado before suffering his first concussion on April 4, 2010. Mueller has the offensive wherewithal to help the Avalanche become a more dangerous team.
 
That said, Colorado's problems last season were on defense. The Avs gave up a League-worst 3.50 goals per game, but they helped address that problem during the summer by trading for goalie Semyon Varlamov and signing defenseman Jan Hejda. They also traded for Erik Johnson late last season, and he should benefit from having a full training camp under coach Joe Sacco.
 
Varlamov is obviously the biggest key to their success. If he's good, and we all know he can be, then the Avs will be a good team. If he struggles or has injury problems, which we all know he's susceptible to, then Colorado could be in for a long season.
 
HRADEK'S DARK-HORSE TEAM
 
St. Louis Blues
 
David Backes
Right Wing - STL
GOALS: 31 | ASST: 31 | PTS: 62
SOG: 211 | +/-: 32
When the young Blues raced out to a 9-1-2 start this past fall, many figured their time had come. Then, the injury bug started to bite. Davis Payne's team managed to stay afloat for a while. After a 4-3 New Year's Eve win against the Coyotes, it was a very solid 20-12-5.
 
Eventually, though, the season sank in the second half.
 
This year, GM Doug Armstrong fortified his group by adding a pair of Cup-winning veterans, Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner. Armstrong is very familiar with both players (he traded one for the other in a multi-player swap back in 2002). He figures that if the boat starts rocking again during the upcoming season, these tested vets can settle their talented young teammates.
 
In the summer, the club also slapped the "C" on David Backes' sweater. That was smart. Backes is rugged leader. I think he's sitting on big year working alongside a skilled group of forwards that includes: Andy McDonald, Chris Stewart and underrated Alex Steen as well as Arnott and Langenbrunner. If lanky center Patrik Berglund can take another step forward, the Blues will really be dangerous.
 
On the blue line, Alex Pietrangelo figures to build on a strong season, while Kevin Shattenkirk settles in for his first full season in St. Louis.
 
They'll work in front of goalie Jaroslav Halak, who was good, bad and injured during his first season with the club. He'll be the ultimate key to the Blues' success. If he can be consistent, this team is going to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for just the second time since the lockout.
 
If you believe in Halak, you can believe in the Blues. I'm a believer.
 
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl. Follow E.J. Hradek on Twitter at: @EJHradek_NHL
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