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30 in 30: Goal prevention top question for Avalanche

by Brian Hunter

Right off the bat, first-year Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy erased any mystery about how No. 1 pick Nathan MacKinnon would be used when he announced shortly after the team selected the Halifax Mooseheads center at the NHL Draft on June 30 that MacKinnon will center Jamie McGinn and Steve Downie on the third line.

In fact, Roy has his top two lines set as well. He told the Denver Post that Matt Duchene will center Ryan O'Reilly and PA Parenteau on one unit with Paul Stastny between Gabriel Landeskog and Alex Tanguay on the other.

That doesn't mean there still aren't plenty of questions surrounding the Avalanche, who finished last in the Western Conference in 2012-13 and have a new coach, a handful of new division rivals, and a potential second Calder Trophy winner in three seasons in their lineup.

Here are six of Colorado's pressing questions:

1. Will Patrick Roy be a successful NHL coach? -- As a goaltender, Roy's credentials rank with the best all-time. His 551 regular-season wins were a record when he retired, since eclipsed only by Martin Brodeur. Roy's 151 wins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs remain the standard. He won the Stanley Cup twice with the Montreal Canadiens and two more times with the Avalanche.

After retiring in 2003, Roy transitioned well into the coaching ranks with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, becoming the seventh coach to win the Memorial Cup in his first season.

Roy clearly knows about winning, whether it's with goalie pads strapped to his legs or standing behind a bench wearing a suit. But this is his first NHL gig as a coach, and as a Hall of Fame member back in one of the cities where he achieved stardom, he'll be under a constant spotlight. If he can even approach the success he enjoyed as a player, the decision to hire him will be a shrewd one.

2. Was Nathan MacKinnon the right pick at No. 1? -- For several months heading into the draft, the consensus seemed to be that whichever team ended up holding the top pick would select Portland Winterhawks defenseman Seth Jones. But Colorado executive vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic wasn't shy about his interest in MacKinnon, and the Avalanche lived up to their word on draft day in making him the No. 1 selection.

There's no doubt the 6-foot, 182-pound center has the makings of a future star. He finished with 32 goals and 75 points in 44 games for Halifax last season and was MVP leading the Mooseheads to a Memorial Cup title. With plenty of young talent surrounding him in Colorado, it's not inconceivable MacKinnon could match or surpass the 22 goals and 52 points Landeskog put up winning the Calder two seasons ago.

Jones, drafted by the Nashville Predators at No. 4, also projects as a franchise player, and the Avalanche entered the offseason needing help on the blue line more than at forward, casting some doubt on whether MacKinnon was the wisest choice.

3. Can Gabriel Landeskog rediscover his rookie form? -- A turning point in the 2012-13 season for Colorado may have come early when, in its fourth game, Landeskog was on the receiving end of a crushing hit from San Jose Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart. Landeskog returned to finish the game but then missed almost a month with a concussion.

The extent to which that contributed to Landeskog's sophomore slump is hard to define, but his 17 points in 36 games represented a significant drop even when projected over an 82-game season. There's also the question of whether the Avalanche placed a little too much pressure on his shoulders by naming him the NHL's youngest captain prior to his 20th birthday.

On paper, the Avalanche appear to be a team that should score plenty of goals, but last season they were 26th in goals per game (2.38) and 24th on the power play (15 percent). If they can get a bounce-back season from Landeskog, those statistics figure to soar.

4. Has the defense improved enough for Colorado to contend? -- The Avalanche were one of five teams to have a goals-against average higher than 3.00 last season, and the 31.4 shots against them per game -- sixth-highest in the League -- certainly were a factor.

Passing on Jones, who could have stepped into the lineup right away, leaves Colorado with veteran Cory Sarich and 29-year-old journeyman Andre Benoit as the offseason upgrades. That means the core from last season is going to have to show improvement.

Simply put, the Avalanche must get more from Erik Johnson, who gave them four assists and a minus-3 rating in 31 games while battling injuries. A healthy season from Ryan Wilson, limited to 12 games in 2012-13, also would go a long way toward strengthening the blue line.

5. And how about the goaltending? -- The blame for Colorado's defensive shortcomings also has to fall somewhat on the men paid to stop the pucks. Despite facing a barrage of rubber, the cumulative .904 save percentage posted by Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere needs to be better.

Varlamov, who showed great promise with the Washington Capitals in taking over the starting job in the 2009 and 2010 postseasons before eventually getting lost in a goaltending glut and traded, endured his most difficult season in 2012-13 and will be looking to pare down a bloated 3.02 goals-against average.

Giguere, a Conn Smythe winner in 2003 and Stanley Cup champion in 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks, has settled in to the second half of his career as a useful backup, and he'll reunite with goaltending coach Francois Allaire, hired during the summer.

6. Are the Avalanche better off in the Central Division? -- With the NHL realigning to two seven-team divisions in the Western Conference, there are plenty of new neighbors for Colorado. In fact, the only former Northwest Division team to make the move with the Avalanche instead of shifting to the reshuffled Pacific is the Minnesota Wild.

On the one hand, the Avalanche are now rid of the Vancouver Canucks, who owned the Northwest for the past five seasons. However, the division had generally been weak otherwise, and now Colorado has to compete with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on a more regular basis, as well as a tough St. Louis Blues squad.

Overall, the Avalanche went 7-10-0 last season against their 2013-14 division opponents (they didn't play the Winnipeg Jets, who had been in the Eastern Conference). The Avalanche fared best against the Blues and Predators, winning two of three matchups against each.

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