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Storylines to Watch at Training Camp

by Ryan Boulding / Colorado Avalanche
Training camp, the official start of a new season of hockey. All of the hope and promise of the coming campaign is unleashed in a blizzard of practices and scrimmages, pitting teammate against teammate as coaches and scouts evaluate the talent on the ice.

That time of year is upon hockey fans in Denver, with rookies reporting Monday and the full NHL camp hitting the ice on Friday. Nearly the whole organization will be in attendance for the week, meaning there is plenty to keep an eye on for those coming to take in the skates.

Whether you’re new to the frenzy or a veteran enthusiast who attends every year, here are a few storylines for you to keep track of throughout the week:

Freshman firsts

Colorado drafted seven fresh faces at the 2014 NHL Draft in Philadelphia, securing the future of the organization and adding some considerable size to the mix. Of those seven, five—Conner Bleackley, Nick Magyar, Julien Nantel, Alexis Pepin and Kyle Wood—will be attending their first rookie camp, looking to make enough of an impact to at least hang on through preseason if a permanent roster spot isn’t available.

This will be the first real chance for both the camp staff and fans to get a glimpse of the class of 2014, and it will serve as an introduction to the Avalanche for the players as well. Each of these skaters dream of playing in the NHL someday and rookie camp will be the next big step in that direction.

There will be a lot to be learned for the newcomers, some of the information coming from coaches and trainers and some from players returning again.

While the pressure is lessened for the first-year guys early in the week, they must still make an impact out on the ice as there will be 28 players in total vying for good marks from the staff during rookie camp.

For Bleackley, the 6-foot, 192-pound captain of the Red Deer Rebels in the WHL, the entire experience is about being as memorable as possible.

“I really want to come in here and make a good impression and make it as hard as possible for them to send me back to junior,” said Bleackley.

How these true rookies mix and match and look on the ice remains to be seen.

Gnarly Varly
Starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov had an outstanding 2013-14 campaign for the Avalanche. As he’s apt to do, he took the NHL by storm, leading the league in wins (41), road victories (25), shots faced (2,013) and saves made (1,867) and he finished third overall with a .927 save percentage.

The then 25-year-old Russian excelled in high-pressure scenarios, improving as the adversity mounted in front of him. He went 32-4-4 when facing 30 or more shots in a game, 7-1-1 when facing 40-plus shots and 6-0-1 when making 40 saves in one night.

Varlamov’s reward for this effort?

Finishing runner-up for the Vezina Trophy for top-notch goaltending—he was just 13 points shy of a first-place tie in his first nomination—and fourth in the voting for the Hart Trophy (MVP).
It was a season to remember for Varlamov but, more importantly, it was a season to build on as well. There are high expectations for him now and fans and coaches will be looking at him with a focused eye. Varlamov will head into camp full of confidence but also ready to work, looking to continue his success with another strong season as the No. 1 goaltender for Colorado.

Without the veteran presence of Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Varlamov will also now be the experienced puck stopper on the ice at camp. He will be expected to not only perform, but to impart wisdom and direction on the younger goalies in attendance as well.

New faces in familiar places
The Avalanche added a few new players over the offseason, increasing overall team experience by bringing in some seasoned, game-tested talent. You may have heard of them.

Jarome Iginla, Daniel Briere, and Brad Stuart are all members of the Avalanche now and each brings with him many proud years of hockey advice and know-how. These players have been to their fair share of training camps and will be looking to integrate into the new system as easily as possible. Where exactly these new faces will fit into the lineup is the question everybody is wondering.

Stuart will be joining the defensive unit as a shutdown-type rear guard. Sitting at 6-foot-2, 215-pounds, the 34-year-old Stuart brings size, grit and physicality with him to the back end. Joining guys like Jan Hejda and Erik Johnson, Stuart will be inserted into various pairings to find the best match for the coming year.

Briere has a history of being a smart, offensively-creative skater and will look to continue that in an Avalanche sweater. The 36-year-old forward put up 13 goals and 12 assists in 69 games last year and added another seven points (3 goals, 4 assists) in 16 postseason contests as well. His playoff background only adds to his overall value. Briere brings extra depth to Colorado’s offense, and he will be battling for a top-six spot through camp.

Iginla needs little introduction. His legacy, whether with the Calgary Flames or in international play, speaks for itself. That doesn’t mean that he’ll sit back and relax during camp. No, Iginla will still work hard to prove he has what it takes to maintain an elite level of success in the NHL, especially with him coming on to such a young, fast squad. He had 30 goals with the Boston Bruins last season, publicly shrugging off the idea that he’s lost a step.

"I’ve never believed in playing older," Iginla said on his birthday. "As I get older, to adjust my game, I don’t try to avoid fights. I don’t necessarily try to get in them, but I want to compete out there and if those things happen. I don’t think differently now that I turned 37 today. I plan on playing the same way, and I hope to play the same way until I’m done.”

MacK Attack 2.0

Entering training camp last season, then (barely) 18-year-old rookie Nathan MacKinnon—the first overall pick at the 2013 NHL Draft—was just a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, bundle of potential. There were few internal expectations placed on the kid and he went about his preseason debut the same way he did much of the season, taking everything as it came to him and not forcing it.

Needless to say, the strategy paid off for the Canadian wunderkind, who managed to lead all NHL rookies in goals (24-tied), assists (39), points (63), shots (241), power-play goals (8), game-winning goals (5-tied) and games played (82-tied) on his way to a landslide Calder Trophy win as the league’s rookie of the year. MacKinnon was dominant, using surprising strength to protect himself and the puck and fast footwork to fly up and down the ice with speed.

His quick hands matched his equally spry feet, wreaking havoc on opposing goaltenders who couldn’t predict where a MacKinnon shot might go. In the playoffs, No. 29 was even more impressive, showing an accelerated learning curve as he wrapped up a seven-game series with two goals and eight assists.

If you weren’t already planning on seeing how the 19-year-old forward has improved over the summer, looking to cast off the curse of the sophomore slump, his admission that he’s gained more thew during the offseason months should pique your curiosity. According to MacKinnon, who spoke during the recent NHL Media Tour in New York and New Jersey, his summer regimen and work with trainer Andy O’Brien provided him with some additional muscle while still allowing him to stay lean and just as lethal.

Road to recovery

Injuries are an inevitability in a game played on an unyielding sheet of ice, with metal knives strapped to your feet, a stick in your hands and gladiators gliding at you from all directions. Some are minor, nagging enough to hurt but lacking in the severity that causes any longterm absence from the team. Others are more significant, costing games or even a whole season during the recovery process.

For veteran Alex Tanguay, utility forward John Mitchell, and defenseman Tyson Barrie, the latter case played out at different times during the 2013-14 season. Tanguay was knocked out of the lineup on Nov. 2 with a knee injury and ended up missing most of the season following surgical repairs. The team was 15-1 with him in the lineup.

Mitchell was sidelined with a head injury on April 10 and missed the remainder of the season and the first round of the playoffs. He had 21 assists and 32 points—both career highs—in 75 games and had won 50 percent of his faceoffs.

Barrie played a huge role in helping the Avs bring home the Central Division title, leading Avalanche defensemen in goals (13) and finishing second in assists (25) and points (38). He had two assists in three postseason matches before a knee injury ended his year.

All three of these skaters will look to regain form at full speed as camp opens up on Thursday, proving that the injury is behind them.
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