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Avalanche looks to use speed to return to playoffs

by Rick Sadowski | NHL.com / Colorado Avalanche

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams.

DENVER -- The Colorado Avalanche heads into the 2015-16 season, its 20th since moving from Quebec, determined to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Patrick Roy's third season as coach.

The Avalanche added size and grit, and it will have more depth through offseason trades, free agent signings and the return of several key contributors from injuries.

"We're very excited about this year; I like the changes we made," Roy said. "It's a big change, no doubt about it. Not only did we add size, but I also feel that we're faster. When I say fast, I want us to play and think fast."

The Avalanche scored 209 goals last season, 36 fewer than in 2013-14, to tie for 22nd in the NHL. The Avs return with a stable of young, talented forwards, but they'll need to play at a high level on a more consistent basis.

Center Matt Duchene, 24, enters his seventh NHL season looking to rebound after scoring 55 points, 15 fewer than the career high he established during the 2013-14 season.

"I feel good. I'm where I want to be," he said. "I've kind of figured things out the last few years where I want to be, and I want to make good for myself and for the team."

Duchene could again anchor a line with the Avalanche's two oldest forwards, Alex Tanguay, 35, and Jarome Iginla, 38; the two wings combined for 51 goals and 114 points in 2014-15. Iginla, in his first season in Colorado, led the Avalanche in goals (29) and tied for first with Gabriel Landeskog in points (59).

"I don't expect less from myself," Iginla said. "I feel as good as any other year, maybe even better than the last couple. I try to be positive and not expect anything less from myself. I'm not shooting for anything less and I can't wait to get going."

The Avalanche acquired center Carl Soderberg from the Boston Bruins when the club couldn't agree to a contract extension with Ryan O'Reilly, who was traded to the Buffalo Sabres. Soderberg is expected to skate with Landeskog and 2013-14 Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon.

Landeskog, 22, had 23 goals despite droughts of 14 and 11 games. MacKinnon, 20, got off to a slow start and was beginning to round into form when he broke his foot and missed the final 18 contests.

"Everything's great," MacKinnon said. "I think we're pretty hungry, I can feel it. There are good vibes around the dressing room. People are pretty anxious."

The additions of Blake Comeau and Mikhail Grigorenko should give the Avalanche more balance. Comeau signed as a free agent after scoring 16 goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Grigorenko, acquired from Buffalo in the O'Reilly trade, has been a disappointment since the Sabres made him a first-round pick (No. 12) in the 2012 NHL Draft. He will be reunited with Roy, who coached Quebec in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League when Grigorenko had 85 goals in 115 games.

John Mitchell can play all three forward positions, and right wing Mikko Rantanen, a 6-foot-4, 211-pound power forward and first-round pick (No. 10) in June, is being given every chance to make the roster. Jesse Winchester appeared healthy as camp opened after he missed all of last season following a concussion.

In an effort to spend less time in its end and reduce the number of quality shots it allows, the Avalanche signed Francois Beauchemin as a free agent and acquired Nikita Zadorov in the O'Reilly trade.

Beauchemin, 35, signed a three-year contract reportedly worth $13.5 million and will be paired with Erik Johnson after leading the Anaheim Ducks in average ice time (22:44).

"You need some guys to step up and calm things down, make sure we go back to the basics in practice and work hard," Beauchemin said. "We have a good mix of older and younger guys. I see myself coming in and leading by example."

Zadorov, 20, was a first-round pick (No. 16) by the Sabres in 2013 and could develop into an effective shutdown type. At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, he plays a physical game and could be paired with offensively gifted rear guard Tyson Barrie.

"Getting Beauchemin is a rock-solid move," Barrie said. "He's an unbelievable leader and he's been around forever. Just watching him, he's so smart with the puck and he's physical too. He'll catch you with your head down if you're not looking. Zadorov is a big guy and super skilled. He's going to be an exciting guy to watch. He's a great skater and he moves the puck well."

Johnson, 27, scored an NHL career-high 12 goals in 47 games last season. He was chosen for the All-Star Game but couldn't play because of a knee injury that caused him to miss the final 34 contests.

Roy, who likes to keep eight defensemen, returns four others who played between 58 and 77 games last season: Nate Guenin, Nick Holden, Zach Redmond and Brad Stuart. Brandon Gormley, 23, is making a bid following a trade from the Arizona Coyotes for Stefan Elliott. He was a first-round pick (No. 13) in 2010.

COMING AND GOING



2014-15 record:
39-31-12 (90 points)

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify

Key additions: D Francois Beauchemin, LW Blake Comeau, C Mikhail Grigorenko, RW Mikko Rantanen, C Carl Soderberg, D Nikita Zadorov

Key subtractions: C Daniel Briere, D Jan Hejda, LW Jamie McGinn, C Ryan O'Reilly, D Ryan Wilson

The Avalanche is set with Semyon Varlamov as its No. 1 goalie, but Reto Berra will compete with Calvin Pickard for the backup position.

Health is the biggest issue for Varlamov, a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2013-14. He missed 16 games because of groin injuries last season, 15 in the first 31 contests. He went 24-14-3 in his final 41 games, and his .921 save percentage was 11th in the NHL.

Berra played well down the stretch after getting off to a poor start and finished with a 5-4-1 record, 2.65 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. The Avalanche recalled Pickard five times from the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League after losing faith in Berra when Varlamov was injured. He had a 2.35 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in 16 games.

"Reto's going to have to have a good training camp," Roy said. "Calvin is right there, he had a great year for us. I'm sure we're going to use the training camp as a way to evaluate both of them, and we'll see after the camp which one we're going to keep. It's open."

The Avalanche has plenty of room for improvement on the power play after the team was 29th in the NHL last season (15.0 percent). Landeskog and Iginla combined for 14 of Colorado's 37 power-play goals, so the defensemen need to chip in a lot more.

The penalty kill improved to fifth (84.6 percent), up from 24th (80.7 percent) in 2013-14. O'Reilly's skill on takeaways will be missed. Having an elite goalie in Varlamov helps, and the defensemen are adept at blocking shots.

Missing the playoffs was a rare experience for Roy.

"It's certainly humbling," he said of failing to qualify for the postseason after leading the Avalanche to 112 points and winning the Jack Adams Award in 2013-14. "But I like the recipe that we have, trust and respect. I believe in that, I believe in partnership [with the players]."

Former NHL defenseman Dave Farrish replaced assistant Andre Tourigny to join holdovers Tim Army and defense development consultant Adam Foote.

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