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Avalanche need Duchene to rebound

by Davis Harper

Of all the personnel questions facing the Colorado Avalanche heading into this season, the biggest is Matt Duchene.

Yes, there are concerns about a slow, sluggish defense. There is a No. 1 goalie (Semyon Varlamov) whose stamina and ability remain unproven. And there is a Calder Trophy winner (Gabriel Landeskog) in danger of a sophomore slump.

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But none of those anxieties is as pressing as Duchene. Can he stay healthy? Can he relocate his confidence? Can he buckle down and find his scoring touch within a more potent offense?

Colorado general manager Greg Sherman showed the organization was without the answers this summer by signing the forward to a modest, two-year, $7 million contract. The conservative extension reflects the main question: Was Duchene's 2011-12 season an aberration or a sign of things to come?

Duchene was a disappointment last season. For the first time in his three-year NHL career, he missed time because of injuries, first to his left knee then to his right ankle. They nagged him throughout the spring and hampered his production.

"My weapons are my legs, and I didn't have them," Duchene said after the season. "I kind of had to learn a new way to play. It was a perfect storm. When everyone else was elevating their game, it was pretty much me starting from scratch."

In 58 games, Duchene managed 14 goals and 14 assists. The spotlight passed over him and shined instead on Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly, younger players enjoying bigger seasons. When Jamie McGinn and Steve Downie joined the Avalanche at the trade deadline to give the offense a much-needed boost, Duchene was one of the few who failed to benefit.

The season-long stumble came as a surprise, following a huge 2010-11 season in which he had 27 goals and 40 assists as the offensive focal point on a struggling team.

The addition of Landeskog and the emergence of O'Reilly, another top-level center to go along with Duchene and Paul Stastny, may have hampered Duchene's output. With three talented centers and a dearth of wingers, coach Joe Sacco juggled the forward lines often, looking for the right fit, even moving Duchene to wing at one point. The lack of consistency disrupted Duchene's rhythm from October through the season.

Matt Duchene
Matt Duchene
Center - COL
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 28
SOG: 132 | +/-: -11
The addition of wing PA Parenteau should help Duchene settle into the center position. Parenteau helped John Tavares flourish over the past two seasons for the New York Islanders, and a creative, steady linemate might be just what Duchene needs. Tavares and Duchene share many similarities: position, age, talent level, and, until last season, point production. The Avalanche must wait to see if Parenteau's play can bridge that widening gap.

Last season's skid could be a blessing in disguise over the long-term. When Duchene surged for 67 points in 2010-11, Colorado as a team managed 68 in the standings. Last season, the Avalanche narrowly missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Duchene struggled. A frustrating season spent trying to skate circles around opponents should help show him that a more direct approach is the right one. At 21 years old, Duchene clearly has some maturing to do, especially if he hopes to lead Colorado back to the postseason this season.

"As much as it's been hell, individually, for me this year for the second half, I've also learned a ton," Duchene said after the season. "You don't get better in the good times. You get better in the bad times."

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