After boasting the most ballyhooed rookie class in the National Hockey League a season ago, it’s easy to see why there is so much optimism surrounding the Colorado Avalanche heading into the 2010-11 season.
Colorado’s rookie class was the most proficient in the NHL a year ago, as the 10 rookies who suited up for the Avs combined for a league-best 166 points (64g/102a) while appearing in 355 total games (also tops in the league).
Considering the quantity and quality of youthful players the Avalanche boasts - as well as their potential for growth - you would assume things can only get better moving forward.
But in the world of sports, there will always be doubters who claim that certain young players will be due for a “sophomore slump.”
Those naysayers discuss the possibility of a second-year decline as though it were inevitable for some of the Avalanche’s youngsters. But in truth, avoiding a regression is completely in the hands of those second-year players, and they simply don’t believe such a thing will happen because of their work ethic.
Aside from putting in quality time training, weightlifting and skating, what’s the most surefire way to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump?
“Not to think about it,” said Matt Duchene
. “If you just focus on what you can do to help the team, you’re going to be fine. There’s going to be times this year when people say ‘what’s he doing’ or ‘why is he not having success,’ but that’s the case in any season. There’s obviously going to be a lot of expectations on our team and a guy like myself to perform every night and have a great season. There’s going to be times when people are going to be down on us, but it’s about not letting that get to you and keeping the noise out of your head.
“When I grew up, that’s something my dad always said. ‘Matt, get the noise out of your head.’ If you keep the noise out and keep focused on the task at hand, you’re going to be fine.”DEEP CLASS LOOKS TO ADVANCE IN YEAR TWO
Duchene enjoyed a stellar rookie season, garnering 55 points (24g/31a) in 81 games and earning a nomination for the Calder Trophy, but the Avalanche’s strong rookie class ran much deeper than just him.
Other players to make a big splash in their first full NHL seasons were T.J. Galiardi, a versatile winger who finished fifth on the team with 39 points (15g/24a), Brandon Yip, who netted 11 goals in 32 games, and defenseman Ryan Wilson
, who was recalled from the Lake Erie Monsters early in the season and finished the campaign ranking third among team blueliners with 21 points (3g/18a).
And of course, there’s Ryan O’Reilly, who emerged as a solid No. 3 center and penalty-killing specialist during his rookie season. He also showed flashes of his offensive potential when he netted 14 points (4g/10a) in his first 17 games as a professional. That stretch included a seven-game point streak (2g/7a) from Oct. 12-24, which ended up representing the longest point streak by an NHL rookie in 2009-10.
After a strong first season, O’Reilly is expecting only bigger and better things for himself and the team in 2010-11.
“Me, personally, I expect a lot more from myself. I want to be more of an impact player.” said O’Reilly. “As a team, I think we should be good next year. We’re still a young team and we have a year together under our belts, so I don’t see why we can’t compete with anyone.”
However, don’t expect O’Reilly and the rest of Colorado’s youngsters to sit back and wait for things to fall into their laps. The group has been hard at work all summer, knowing that the 2010-11 season represents another opportunity to take a big step forward as a team.
As for O’Reilly himself, he’s turned much of his attention toward improving his strength. The Clinton, Ontario native says he currently weighs in at around 207 pounds, up seven pounds from his listed playing weight last season.
“Usually early in the summer I mainly focus on my body. I don’t do much skating early on, so it’s about getting bigger, stronger and quicker,” said O’Reilly. “The main thing about training is to train your weaknesses and the things you’re not good at. I want to be the kind of guy that when the coach looks down the bench, he sees a guy he can put in any situation.”A LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
One of the most underrated aspects of Colorado’s success during the 2009-10 season may have been the unique chemistry in the Avalanche’s locker room.
Maybe it was because the team contained so many young players who were growing together while going through the same trials and tribulations. Or maybe it was the ability of veterans like Adam Foote and Milan Hejduk
to keep a relatively inexperienced group together when the waters started to get rough.
Either way, it was something to behold.
Even at practice the morning after a loss, the players were seemingly able to digest the lesson they learned the night before and get back to work with a positive, hungry attitude, all while tossing good-natured barbs at each in the locker room. Simply put, the team genuinely liked being together.
The fact that the Avs enjoyed playing together and spending time with each other is hardly groundbreaking news in itself. You’d be hard-pressed to find a group of NHL players who will admit they don’t like skating with their teammates. But the indisputable chemistry in Colorado’s locker room was different somehow, and that closeness allowed the Avalanche’s rookies to feel more comfortable and simply worry about their performance on the ice.
“It’s amazing. Honestly, a lot of teams I used to play on growing up, when the year was over I didn’t really miss the group. I missed a few guys but I didn’t miss the whole entire group,” said Duchene. “I was over in Germany (for the World Championship) after the season and I was already missing the guys. It was such a fun year last year. We have a great time as a group and we’re constantly laughing and teasing each other. Guys have genuine love for each other. That’s amazing, and that’s what makes a championship team.”
With the majority of the team’s core back in the fold for the coming season, don’t expect the locker room dynamics to change anytime soon.UNFINISHED BUSINESS
When a team defies the critics and “unexpectedly” has a strong season, things often go one of two ways the next year. In some cases, the club feels satisfied with what it accomplished and unintentionally takes its collective foot off the throttle a bit. In other instances, a team realizes the magnitude of the situation and its potential, and gains an understanding of what is needed to take the next step.
According to Duchene, the Avalanche’s rookie class from a year ago should fall into the latter group. Instead of resting on their laurels, they feel they have some unfinished business to attend to.
“I’m the type that never settles for something. 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,” said Duchene. “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.”
Still, many unanswered questions linger about the Avalanche’s young core, with training camp less than a month away.
Which of the Avalanche’s myriad rookies from a season ago will take the biggest leap forward in their progress? Will Ryan Stoa
or Justin Mercier
, two other players who saw their first NHL action last season, be able to gain a roster spot and make an impact? Or will another young player from Colorado’s organization step up and make an unexpected mark, like Wilson did a season ago?
You can bet those are the kinds of questions most NHL teams would love to be facing.