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Avalanche have depth up front

by Brian Compton
Despite numerous injuries to key players like Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth, the Colorado Avalanche not only managed to stay competitive last season, but nearly won the Northwest Division, finishing just three points behind the Minnesota Wild.


As we head into the 2008-09 season, though, significant changes have been made. Tony Granato, who coached the Avs from 2002-04, has replaced Joel Quenneville behind the bench. Jose Theodore is no longer between the pipes, as the free-agent netminder signed a deal with the Washington Capitals. Instead, the Avalanche will be going with a tandem of Peter Budaj and newcomer Andrew Raycroft, who spent the past two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Nonetheless, there is still plenty of talent in the Rocky Mountains. Sakic, who has been with the franchise since the Quebec Nordiques drafted him in the first round in 1987, recently committed to return. Paul Stastny is a budding star. Milan Hejduk and Marek Svatos each surpassed 25 goals. Veteran forward Darcy Tucker will inject some grit.

John-Michael Liles avoided free agency by re-signing with the club in the last week of June, and Adam Foote will be in training camp after being acquired in February at the trade deadline.

"I'm excited about this challenge," Granato said. "I know this team has a great mix of youth, experience, skill and speed. I'm looking forward to this new opportunity ahead."


After appearing in 35 games in 2007-08, Budaj may receive a heavier workload this season now that Theodore is playing elsewhere. Budaj -- who turns 26 on Sept. 18 -- went 16-10-4 with a 2.57 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage last season.


Category Rank (Conference)
2007-08 Points 95
(6th West/10th NHL)
Change from 2006-07 0
Home Points 56
(3rd West/4th NHL)
Away Points 39
(12th West/24th NHL)

Being a No. 1 goaltender would be nothing new for Budaj, as he was thrust into that position in 2006-07 and did a fine job. That season, Budaj won 31 times in 57 appearances and posted a 2.68 GAA.

Certainly, though, Budaj will receive stiff competition in training camp. After a sub-par campaign with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, Raycroft will be aiming to re-claim his status as a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. Raycroft, who was signed by the Avs on the first day of free agency, went 2-9-5 in just 19 games with the Leafs last season.

"Andrew has played many seasons at the NHL level," Avs General Manager Francois Giguere said. "His experience will be an asset to our organization."


Aided by the return of Sakic, who scored 40 points in 44 regular season games last season, this is where the Avalanche are the deepest.

Just 22, Stastny already has 52 career goals and had 71 points in just 66 games last season. Wojtek Wolski -- another 22-year-old -- did not suffer from the sophomore jinx, as he posted 18-30-48 in 77 contests. And Hejduk -- one of the veterans in this bunch -- has scored 20 or more goals in eight consecutive seasons.

There are others who will be expected to contribute, too. Svatos returned to form last season with 26 goals. Tucker will be playing with a chip on his shoulder after having his contract bought out by the Maple Leafs. T.J. Hensick could be a wild card here, as he gets his first full crack at the NHL. He had 45 points in 50 games for the American Hockey League's Lake Erie Monsters last season.

The key up front, however, will depend on the health of the veteran Smyth. After signing a five-year deal worth $31.25 million in the summer of 2007, Smyth experienced a tremendous amount of difficulty staying on the ice. He was limited to just 55 games, and notched just 14 goals and 23 assists.


With hopes of going deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2008, the Avs acquired Foote from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the trade deadline. While the postseason didn't go as planned -- Colorado was ousted in the second round by Detroit -- the Avalanche were at least able to retain Foote's services. The veteran blueliner signed a two-year deal with the Avs just hours before the free-agency market opened.

Foote and Liles -- who also chose Colorado over free agency -- will provide the Avs with a formidable 1-2 punch. They will be joined by veterans Ruslan Salei, Brett Clark, Scott Hannan and Jordan Leopold. Others who could be the mix for playing time include 21-year-old Kyle Cumiskey and 31-year-old Daniel Tjarnqvist, who missed all of last season due to injury. Cumiskey -- Colorado's seventh-round draft choice in 2005 -- split time between Colorado and AHL Lake Erie in 2007-08.

Three reasons for optimism

* Joe Sakic will be back. Colorado’s chances of returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs become that much better with Sakic, who had 10 points in 10 postseason games in 2008. In 172 career playoff games, he has recorded 84 goals and 188 points, helping the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001.

* Ryan Smyth is healthy, and there's no reason to believe he can't stay that way. While he only appeared in 55 games last season, he's never been hindered by injuries in his career. Prior to 2007-08, the fewest amount of games Smyth appeared in was 61 in 2001-02.

* The goaltending competition in training camp between Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft should be beneficial for both parties. For now, Budaj likely gets the edge since he's entering his fourth season in Colorado. However, Raycroft -- who broke into the League in 2000-01 -- is only two seasons removed from winning 37 games. Regardless of who wins the No. 1 job, the Avalanche are entering the new campaign with two capable netminders.

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