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30in30: Top-Six Slots Among Five Questions Facing Avalanche

by Rick Sadowski | / Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche improved from the second-worst record in the NHL to third best last season under first-year coach Patrick Roy, won the Central Division and earned a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in four years. But the Avalanche won't surprise teams the way they did last season when they won their first six games and 12 of the first 13 en route to a franchise record-tying 52 wins.

Here are five questions facing the Avalanche:

1. Who will replace Paul Stastny as center on the second line? -- There are plenty of options, but the most likely is to move Calder Trophy-winner Nathan MacKinnon from right wing, where he played most of last season, to his natural center position. MacKinnon had 24 goals and 63 points while spending the majority of the time on a line with left wing Gabriel Landeskog and Stastny, who left as an unrestricted free agent to sign with the St. Louis Blues.

Another possibility is shifting left wing Ryan O'Reilly, another natural center, to the middle. But he had the best season of his five-year NHL career (28 goals, 64 points) while skating with center Matt Duchene; it wouldn't make much sense to separate them.

2. Who will play right wing on a top line that likely will include O'Reilly and Duchene? -- Alex Tanguay had four goals and seven assists in 16 games while skating on the line before he sustained hip and knee injuries that ended his season. P.A. Parenteau and Jamie McGinn were given opportunities after Tanguay was hurt, but Parenteau was traded June 30 to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Daniel Briere. McGinn is expected to play on the third line with John Mitchell and Maxime Talbot. That leaves Tanguay, whose playmaking ability is a valuable asset, and power forward Jarome Iginla, who signed a three-year, $16 million contract as a free agent after scoring 30 goals for the Boston Bruins.

3. Did the Avalanche do enough to improve their weakest link? -- Colorado's defense allowed 40-plus shots on goal in 10 games and between 35 and 39 shots in 18 others. The Avalanche added a much-needed physical presence in Brad Stuart, who was acquired from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and a sixth-round selection in 2017. He'll be paired with Erik Johnson, whose 39 points matched a career high.

Colorado signed Zach Redmond to a two-year, $1.5 million contract, believing he has the potential to develop the way Nick Holden did last season. Holden, who played in seven NHL games in five previous professional seasons, blossomed into a top-four role. He played a physical style and had 10 goals and a plus-12 rating in 54 games. Redmond, 25, played in 18 games with the Winnipeg Jets in four years with the organization. The Avalanche have yet to re-sign restricted free agent Tyson Barrie, who is expected to be fully recovered from the knee injury he sustained in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

4. Can Vezina Trophy finalist Semyon Varlamov build off last season, and will Reto Berra be a capable backup? -- Varlamov's work with goalie coach Francois Allaire worked wonders for his game and his confidence, and he should be entering the prime of his career at age 26. The Avalanche think so, having signed him to a five-year, $29.5 million contract extension that begins this season.

Berra, who replaces Jean-Sebastien Giguere as the No. 2 goalie, remains a question mark. He had an 0-1-1 record in two starts with a 5.83 goals-against average and .781 save percentage after the Avalanche acquired him March 5 from the Calgary Flames in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2014 draft. Colorado signed Berra to a three-year, $4.35 million contract and is hopeful Allaire's magic will pay off the way it did with Varlamov.

5. Unlike last year, will the Avalanche have enough depth up front to take pressure off the top two lines? -- Colorado appears to have addressed this issue by adding Briere and center Jesse Winchester, who signed a two-year, $1.8 million contract as a free agent. Briere isn't a top-six forward anymore, but he and Winchester combined for 22 goals last season and give Roy plenty of options for the third and fourth lines with McGinn, Mitchell, Talbot and Cody McLeod. Patrick Bordeleau, Marc-Andre Cliche and rookie Joey Hishon are also in the mix.

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