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Avs simply reloaded in returning to playoff form

by Michael Stainkamp
So much for "rebuilding." The Colorado Avalanche opened eyes last season when they made the playoffs, simply because that doesn't happen often to a team coming off a last-place finish in its conference that has been given the "rebuilding" label.

With a wealth of young talent that includes second-year forwards Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly and Brandon Yip, the Avalanche have a very bright future that is only getting brighter.

The front office decided against pursuing big-name veteran players this offseason, showing loyalty to the depth of the Avs system. They already have a solid core in place and want to allow those players to grow and develop together, while stockpiling more young talent through the Entry Draft.

Milan Hejduk will be returning to the Avs and will be one of the veteran leaders on the team, helping out those younger players.

The Avs are looking to improve on a successful season in which they finished with 95 points and claimed the eighth seed in the Western Conference. With their core of young players, led by last season's points leader Paul Stastny (79 points), the Avs are a solid offensive team. Chris Stewart, 22, finished second on the team with 64 points in 77 games. Duchene, 19, played in 81 games as a rookie, finished with 55 points and was a Calder Trophy candidate.

Don't discount the veteran leadership of captain Adam Foote. He signed a one-year extension in May and will be providing the young players with someone to look up to when times get tough. He will be leading the defense in front of goalie Craig Anderson, who was a revelation in his first season as a full-time starter. Anderson posted 38 wins, a .917 save percentage and seven shutouts after signing a free-agent contract with the team. The Avs also have many top-end defensive prospects in their farm system that will be competing for roster spots come September.

The Avalanche lost a handful of players to free agency, but the only one who saw significant time in the NHL last season was defenseman Brett Clark, who played in 64 games and posted 3 goals, 20 points and 28 penalty minutes with a plus-6 rating. He signed with the Lightning.

Forward Chris Durno also signed with Tampa Bay. This wasn't a huge hit for the Avs, as he only appeared in 41 games, tallying 4 goals and 8 points. At 29 and with only 43 NHL games under his belt, he's looking to go to a place where he can get more playing time -- and with the amount of young talent in Colorado, he had to pack up and move out.

Forward Brian Willsie and defenseman Brian Fahey signed with the Capitals. Willsie, like Durno, didn't have much of an impact last season, going scoreless in four games. Fahey has been a career AHL player.

Goalie Tyler Weiman, who saw 16 minutes of NHL action with the Avalanche early in the 2007-08 season, signed with the Canucks.

Currently unsigned and not expected to return is veteran forward Darcy Tucker. In his two seasons with the Avalanche, the pesky Tucker put up 18 goals, 40 points and 114 penalty minutes in 134 games.

Adding to the defensive side up front, the Avalanche acquired forward Daniel Winnik from the Coyotes for a fourth-round pick in the 2012 Entry Draft. Winnik, 25, appeared in 74 games for Phoenix and was near the top of the team in a few categories that you wouldn't necessarily expect a forward to be in. He had 54 blocked shots and 30 takeaways, helping create a number of good scoring opportunities for his team. He also added 19 points, so he does provide some offensive punch as well.

The Avs also re-signed defenseman Kyle Quincey. In his first season with the team, Quincey, 24, saw action in 79 games last season and tallied 29 points, a solid offensive season for a defenseman. Quincey also has experience in the postseason. Last year, he led the Avs in ice time in their series against San Jose in Game 1 (22:50) and Game 2 (25:00).

With their nucleus being so young, the Avs are set up well to be contending for a while. Duchene, Stastny, and Stewart will provide opposing teams with a lot of headaches, and fans can also look forward to the return of David Jones, who turns 26 on Tuesday. Jones was off to a fine start last season, with 10 goals in his first 23 games, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Wild on Nov. 28.

Early last season, Colorado might have snuck on some opponents that were under the mistaken impression the Avalanche were the same woebegone team that finished with just 69 points in 2008-09. That changed long before the playoffs rolled around, and they put a scare into the top-seeded Sharks behind some brilliant goaltending by Anderson before bowing out in six games.

Anderson worked hard last season, leading all goalies in shots faced (2,233) and saves (2,047) as well as ranking third in minutes played (4,235) and fifth in games played (71). He faced an average of nearly 40 shots per game in the playoff series against San Jose -- including a 51-save shutout performance in Game 3, but the Avalanche may want to pay a bit more attention to detail defensively this season so they don't wear Anderson down prior to the stretch run.

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