NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
After the Colorado Avalanche finished at the bottom of the Western Conference standings in 2008-09, the outlook didn't seem especially promising for the following season.
Though pundits weren't expecting much from Colorado, the team regrouped in a hurry. Buoyed by a draft that saw the addition of center Matt Duchene with the No. 3 pick and a brilliant season in goal by Craig Anderson, the Avalanche claimed a Stanley Cup Playoff berth on the strength of a Duchene shootout goal against the Vancouver Canucks during the final week of the regular season.
The three seasons since have seen Colorado fail to return to the postseason, and following a 15th-place showing in 2012-13, sweeping changes were made. The Avalanche have a new coach, Patrick Roy, and another high draft pick, Nathan MacKinnon. Expectations may be low outside Denver, but that won't be the case inside the team's dressing room.
|ONES TO WATCH
|N. MacKinnon, F
|M. Sgarbossa, F
|D. Siemens, D
"I think what I've learned the last few years is how thin a line it is between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs, but also I have such a respect for the teams that do make it and go far," Duchene told NHL.com earlier this month during the Player Media Tour. "I think we're a ways away yet in terms of experience, but in terms of talent and potential we're right there."
Roy, who turns 48 in October, returns to the Avalanche as a beloved figure after finishing his playing career with 551 wins and adding the final two of his four Stanley Cup championships during eight seasons in Colorado. Roy spent the past eight seasons coaching in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but Duchene said he believes he'll relate well to the Avalanche roster.
"For our young guys, we still have a lot to learn. For me, I still have a ton of room to improve," Duchene said. "He's seen both sides of it, being a goalie. He saw a lot of offense coming his way, but he also knows what works for defense as well. For a guy like me, he can really help me be a good all-round player and develop my game."
As far as on-ice personnel, the most notable offseason departure was veteran forward Milan Hejduk, who teamed with Roy as part of Colorado's last Cup winner in 2001. Another member of that team, forward Alex Tanguay, is back as a key addition, along with MacKinnon, the first pick of the 2013 NHL Draft.
Though the Avalanche may have a long way to go on the back end, there will be no excuse if they can't significantly improve on their average of 2.38 goals per game from last season, 26th in the NHL. All the pieces are in place for far more offense.
Start with the top line, where Duchene is expected to center Ryan O'Reilly and PA Parenteau. Duchene, who will turn 23 in January, already has 266 NHL games under his belt and is developing into exactly the player Colorado thought it was getting at the 2009 draft. He rebounded from a 2011-12 season plagued by injury and inconsistency to score 17 goals and 43 points in 47 games last season, and the team signed him to a five-year contract extension during the summer.
Those 43 points tied for the team lead with Parenteau, who fit right in during his first season in Colorado after finally establishing himself as an NHL regular with the New York Islanders in 2011-12 and signing a big free-agent contract. O'Reilly, taken one round and 30 picks after Duchene in 2009, got his own lucrative payday in February when the Avalanche matched an offer sheet he signed with the Calgary Flames as a restricted free agent. His 20 points tied for fifth on the team playing 29 games, but now the natural center will move to left wing.
"I actually, after the season, talked to one of our assistant coaches and suggested him playing on my wing," Duchene said of O'Reilly. "There was a bit of a gap there on the left side. I played with some really great guys last year, it was fun, but never had a guy that really stuck there. He's a smart player. He's going to pick up playing real quickly."
Colorado's second line could hold the key to the team's fortunes if Paul Stastny and Gabriel Landeskog can rebound. Stastny had nine goals and 24 points in 40 games, and his name has been bandied about in trade rumors. Landeskog suffered through an early-season concussion and the dreaded sophomore slump after a brilliant rookie season. They likely will be joined by Tanguay, who at 33 still possesses top-six ability.
MacKinnon, who turned 18 on Sept. 1, should be able to ease his way in to the League, starting on the third line with Jamie McGinn and Steve Downie as his wings. Roy won't need to overwhelm MacKinnon in the beginning with minutes or responsibilities, but the opportunity will be there for him to earn more of both if he acclimates quickly.
IN: Nathan MacKinnon, C (draft); Alex Tanguay, LW (trade, Flames); Cory Sarich, D (trade, Flames); Andre Benoit, (free agent, Senators); Nick Holden, D (free agent, Blue Jackets); Nate Guenin, D (free agent, Ducks); J.T. Wyman, RW (free agent, Lightning)
OUT: David Jones, RW (trade, Flames); Shane O'Brien, D (trade, Flames); Greg Zanon, D (free agent); Aaron Palushaj, RW (free agent, Hurricanes)
"I am going to try and keep it simple and get better every day," MacKinnon said on his first day at rookie camp. "I'm going to do the systems and work my hardest and hope my skill can come out from that. I'm not going to try and do too much out here, just play my own game and not try and change too much."
Other prospects in camp, among them Michael Sgarbossa, Colin Smith and Joey Hishon, will push veterans Cody McLeod, John Mitchell, Brad Malone, Patrick Bordeleau, Mark Olver and David Van Der Gulik for spots on the fourth line or as depth forwards.
Aside from the personnel, the biggest factor in the Avalanche improving their offense may be Roy, who is ready to loosen the reins and let his skill players shine. That has Duchene, for one, itching to get the season started.
"We didn't play that fast offensive style, we tried to grind it out a little bit too much, I think," he said of the philosophy of former coach Joe Sacco. "Now with Patrick, he sees the game so well, and whatever he's falling short in to begin with he's going to pick up really quickly because he's so smart. He'll be able to figure out how our team should play right off the bat."
In drafting MacKinnon rather than Seth Jones, Colorado passed on adding a dynamic prospect to a blue-line group that was seen as the team's major weakness last season. The Avalanche allowed 31.4 shots per game, sixth-most in the League, and their 3.12 goals allowed was the fourth-worst average.
New faces in camp include veteran Cory Sarich, who played the past six seasons with the Calgary Flames and was acquired via trade along with Tanguay, and largely unproven Andre Benoit. At 35, Sarich brings more than 900 games of NHL experience to the table, but with two assists in 28 games last season he's clearly a one-dimensional asset. Benoit is a journeyman who turns 30 in January and comes off his first extended NHL action when he played 33 regular-season and five Stanley Cup Playoff games with the Ottawa Senators.
What's clear is the Avalanche will need more from a returning group that consists of veterans Erik Johnson, Ryan Wilson, Jan Hejda and Matt Hunwick, and a pair of promising 22-year-olds, Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliott.
With four assists in 31 games last season, Johnson's stat line barely differed from that of Sarich. The difference is Johnson's in his prime at 25, a No. 1 pick by the St. Louis Blues who scored 10 goals and 39 points in his second NHL season. Like Wilson, who played 12 games in 2012-13, Johnson has had his development stunted at times by injuries. Colorado needs full, healthy seasons from this tandem.
Though there are high hopes for prospects Duncan Siemens, Will Butcher and Chris Bigras to contribute somewhere down the road, more immediate help could be provided by the duo of Barrie and Elliott. Each has shown flashes of offensive ability, but it's being reliable in the defensive zone that will determine whether one or both stick as regulars.
One rumor involving Stastny had him going to the Buffalo Sabres as part of a trade for Ryan Miller, but the Avalanche appear committed to Semyon Varlamov, whom they acquired from the Washington Capitals for draft picks prior to the 2011-12 season. Over the past three seasons, starting with his final one in Washington, the Russian has seen his goals-against average rise from 2.23 to 2.59 to 3.02 while his save percentage has dipped from .924 to .913 to .903.
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Varlamov did win a career-high 26 games in his first season as a full-time starter in Colorado, and has seven shutouts in 88 games since his arrival. Like Johnson on the blue line, he was a first-round pick and is 25 years old.
Rather than give up on Varlamov, the move to bring in Francois Allaire as goaltending coach suggests there's still plenty of hope for his future. Allaire had a major influence on Roy during his playing days and resurrected the career of Varlamov's current backup, Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Now 36, the Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup winner with the Anaheim Ducks isn't going to carry a team for an extended period at this stage of his career, but Giguere thrived in his first season as Varlamov's backup (15-11-3, 2.27 GAA, .919 save percentage in 32 games in 2011-12) before experiencing a tail-off in the lockout-shortened campaign.
Varlamov and Giguere have to be better for the Avalanche to contend for one of the final playoff berths in the new Central Division, but the defense carries much of the burden as far as cutting down quality scoring chances and making the goaltenders' lives easier.