After three seasons without making the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Colorado Avalanche welcomed a new era in 2013-14 helmed by a pair of franchise legends.
The results, with Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic in charge, were a smashing success. Colorado not only returned to the postseason, but finished with the second-most points in franchise history and won a division title for the first time since Roy and Sakic were on the roster.
Led by a collection of young stars, the Avalanche were one of the most exciting teams in the NHL. They defied analytics during the regular season before the Minnesota Wild ended their season in the Western Conference First Round.
It was an interesting offseason in Colorado. Center Paul Stastny left for the division rival St. Louis Blues on a pretty reasonable contract, and was replaced by Jarome Iginla while wunderkind Nathan MacKinnon slides over to center. P.A. Parenteau was traded to the Montreal Canadiens for Daniel Briere.
The Avalanche also acquired defenseman Brad Stuart, so it was clear they were looking for more veterans. Whether the team is improved could also be hindered by what the advanced stats-friendly crowd expects to be a precipitous regression in 2014-15.
Here is the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Avalanche:
Gabriel Landeskog - Nathan MacKinnon - Jarome Iginla
Alex Tanguay - Matt Duchene - Ryan O'Reilly
Jamie McGinn - John Mitchell - Daniel Briere
Cody McLeod - Marc-Andre Cliche - Maxime Talbot
Jesse Winchester - Patrick Bordeleau
Matt Duchene was on the fringes of the MVP discussion early last season, and MacKinnon could end up there in 2014-15. He easily won the Calder Trophy and Colorado's ability to possess the puck better this season could hinge on him becoming a truly dominant player.
Duchene played a lot with Ryan O'Reilly last season, so Iginla could slide into MacKinnon's old spot while he moves over to replace Stastny. Alex Tanguay was hurt for much of 2013-14, but either he, Jamie McGinn or Briere could earn prime real estate next to Duchene and O'Reilly.
Colorado's problems with puck possession include a below-average defense and possibly flaws in the system/philosophy, but the bottom-six forwards were a big reason. If everyone is healthy, Briere's arrival could push McGinn or Maxime Talbot down to the fourth line, which was a sinkhole for possession last season. New addition Jesse Winchester could also claim a regular role and help.
Jan Hejda - Erik Johnson
Brad Stuart - Tyson Barrie*
Nick Holden - Nate Guenin
Sakic called Stuart a "proven, quality defenseman" in a release after his signing, and later told reporters he could even see time next to Erik Johnson on the top pairing. Stuart's performance with the San Jose Sharks slipped in recent seasons, and the Los Angeles Kings targeted him with great success during the playoffs last season.
His arrival likely pushes Nate Guenin down to the third pairing with Nick Holden, who earned a three-year contract extension after being a late-bloomer. Johnson and Jan Hejda handle most of the tough assignments for Roy.
The key to the whole group is probably Tyson Barrie, who put up very nice offensive numbers last season. He's unlikely to shoot nearly 13 percent again. He was also extremely sheltered in his role, so can he offer similar production while taking on tougher conditions? If so, that could also help the team's ability to possess the puck.
Assuming Barrie signs a one-way contract, the Avalanche will have eight defensemen on one-way contracts plus Holden, so someone (or two someones) from a group of Ryan Wilson, Zach Redmond and Maxim Noreau are not likely to start the season with the club. There are also young players like Stefan Elliott, Duncan Siemens and Chris Bigras to consider, but the situation with the one-way contracts makes this a crowded blue line.
Semyon Varalmov flashed plenty of raw talent during his time with the Washington Capitals, but consistency was a problem. Working with Roy and Francois Allaire helped him produce his best season in the League and he became a Vezina Trophy finalist.
Varlamov might need to be every bit as good in 2014-15. He had some help, especially early in the season, from Jean-Sebastien Giguere. He retired and Reto Berra, who struggled in two starts after arriving from Calgary, will be Varlamov's backup.
ALSO IN THE MIX: F Joey Hishon, F Colin Smith, D Stefan Elliott, D Zach Redmond, G Sami Aittokallio
*Restricted free agent