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Storylines to Watch at 2015 Avs Training Camp

by Ron Knabenbauer / Colorado Avalanche

The new NHL season is nearly here and the Colorado Avalanche opens its 2015-16 training camp this week at Family Sports Center in Centennial, Colorado.

The Avs begin things with a three-day rookie camp from Monday to Wednesday, while the full NHL training camp will be held on Friday and Saturday. Camp closes with the annual intra-squad Burgundy/White Game on Sunday.

Here are some storylines to watch for at Avs camp.

THE NEW GUYS

The Avalanche brought in several new faces during the offseason via free agency, trades or at the draft, and training camp will be the first look at how those players will fare and mesh with the veteran Avs on the roster.

 Francois Beauchemin during his time with the Anaheim Ducks

Defenseman Francois Beauchemin and forward Blake Comeau were both signed on the first day of free agency and are likely locks to make the club's opening night squad. Carl Soderberg (from Boston), Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Zadorov (from Buffalo) also joined the organization after being traded for in late June. Soderberg might end up centering one of Colorado's top six positions, while center Grigorenko and defenseman Zadorov will face some competition from prospects and other veterans for jobs on the club's 23-man roster.

The Avalanche also acquired defenseman Brandon Gormley from the Arizona Coyotes last Wednesday, adding to the already crowded blue line corps looking to make the NHL.

THE BATTLE IN THE CREASE

While Semyon Varlamov is pegged as the starting goalie when the season gets underway on Oct. 8, the backup position is a little more of a question mark. Calvin Pickard played extraordinary in his NHL starts after Varlamov and Reto Berra were hurt, posting a 2.35 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in 16 contests.

When Varlamov came back from his groin injuries, Pickard was reassigned to the American Hockey League to give him more in-game playing experience and to build on the momentum from his NHL stint. With Pickard down in Lake Erie, Berra held the role as Varlamov's backup.

Berra only played 19 games during the season, but he saw more action as the year wound down. The Swiss netminder appeared in five contests in the final three weeks, going 3-2-0 with a 1.44 goals-against average and .958 save percentage.

With both Berra and Pickard coming in with momentum from last year, the competition in the blue paint should be interesting.

INJURED PLAYERS RETURNING

The Avalanche had its fair share of injuries in 2014-15 with the team setting a new franchise record with 495 man-games lost. The total topped the Avs' previous mark of 431 in 2010-11 and was the second most in the NHL last season. Only Columbus had more with 508 man-games lost.

Perhaps the biggest blow came when defenseman Erik Johnson needed knee surgery in January, ending his career season that featured being selected to the NHL All-Star Game.

In addition to Johnson, Patrick Bordeleau missed 81 games due to back surgery and a knee injury, while 2014 free-agent signee Jesse Winchester missed the entire campaign because of post-concussion symptoms after a head injury in the preseason.

Nathan MacKinnon will also be making his return after missing the final 18 games with a broken foot. The 2014 Calder Trophy winner was heating up offensively prior to the injury, as he recorded nine points (five goals and four assists) in his last 10 games, which included a hat trick on Feb. 22 versus Tampa Bay.

Rookie forwards Dennis Everberg (shoulder) and Borna Rendulic (leg) also missed the end of the year after seeing time with the NHL club.

THE CLASS OF 2015

Mikko Rantanen with Avs general manager Joe Sakic and head coach Patrick Roy after being selected tenth overall at the 2015 NHL Draft.

With this summer's development camp featuring an on-ice portion for the first time in recent memory, this year's fall camp won't be the first time that the players selected in the 2015 NHL Draft will be on the ice sheets at Family Sports Center. But with the summer camp's focus primarily on power skating, the week will be the first chance to see how the newcomers do against fellow prospects, professionals and NHL vets in a practice atmosphere.

Mikko Rantanen (No. 10 overall), Nicolas Meloche (No. 40), JC Beaudin (No. 71), Sergei Boikov (No. 161) and Gustav Olhaver (No. 191) will all be at training camp. Other 2015 draftees, AJ Greer and Andrei Mironov, won't be in attendance as Greer is at Boston University and Mironov is in the KHL with Dynamo Moscow this season.

Finnish forward Rantanen might have the best shot of making the team as he has already signed an entry-level contract. Unlike other 18-year-old prospects, Rantanen could play professionally with the Avs, the San Antonio Rampage (AHL) or back with his club in Finland (TPS Turku) because he wasn't selected in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, making him ineligible for junior hockey in North America.

RETURNING ROOKIES

This year's three-day rookie camp features 27 players, with the last five draft classes being represented. Defensemen Chris Bigras and Mason Geertsen and goaltender Spencer Martin are in their third rookie camp, while Conner Bleackley, Nick Magyar, Julien Nantel, Alexis Pepin and Kyle Wood are entering their second fall session.

Bleackley is among the four 2014 draft class members who will look to make an impact with the team's executives, coaches, scouts and development staff after seeing practice time last September. This will be Pepin's first full camp after missing nearly all of last year's on-ice activities because of injury.

Troy Bourke and Colin Smith (2012) and Duncan Siemens and Garrett Meurs (2011) will also be participating in their third training camps.

DEFENSIVE COMPETITION

Chris Bigras while with the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League (Terry Wilson/OHL Images).

During his first two years as head coach, Patrick Roy has elected to carry eight defensemen on his roster. There are 15 D-men battling for those spots at first glance this year with Tyson Barrie, Nate Guenin, Nick Holden, Erik Johnson, Zach Redmond, Brad Stuart, Beauchemin and Zadorov likely having the inside track at those spots.

However, prospects Bigras, Geertsen, Siemens and Cody Corbett will be pushing hard to get into that group of eight, while Gormley, Gabriel Beaupre and Mat Clark will also look to make the jump to the NHL after years in the AHL.

With so many players battling for spots, it could make the defense the most intriguing competition during training camp and bring out the best in each player.

A STRONG START

It was a common theme from the Avalanche players and head coach Patrick Roy late last season: the team's poor start put the club behind the eight ball in the race to the postseason and ultimately resulted in the team missing playoffs in the ultra-competitive Central Division and Western Conference.

Colorado went 1-5-2 in the preseason last year and the sub-par performance continued to the start of the season when it went 9-13-6 out of the gate.

Having a strong training camp and preseason will be key for the Avs to be ready to go when they host the rival Minnesota Wild in the season opener.

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