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Avalanche have plenty of work ahead

Coach Bednar confident 'major improvements' will be made after finishing last in NHL

by Rick Sadowski / NHL.com Correspondent

The Colorado Avalanche have plenty of work to do after finishing last in the NHL with 22 wins and 48 points.

"I'm confident that we can make major improvements on last season," coach Jared Bednar said. "We're a motivated group. We're going to be young, so our push will be to be energetic and fast. We'll make some mistakes, but I think we'll be an exciting team, a team that surprises some teams around the League if we can get consistent."

They struggled at each end of the ice, scoring an NHL-low 166 goals and getting shut out an Avalanche-record 12 times. They also allowed a League-worst 278 goals.

Here is a look at the five keys for the Avalanche, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season:

 

5 KEYS

1. Bednar has settled in

Bednar begins his second season as coach after replacing Patrick Roy on Aug. 25, 2016, two weeks before training camp started after Roy abruptly resigned. He has a better handle on his players and had a full offseason to implement some system changes and a rigid training program. "The most exciting thing for me is I got a chance to know our guys personally and professionally," Bednar said. "Being familiar with the players for me is a big thing. Now I know how certain guys respond, whether they need a pat on the back or a kick in the pants. They know me, how I operate on a day-to-day basis. I think that helps us moving forward."

2. Depending on Duchene

The Avalanche need center Matt Duchene to be productive after he slumped to 18 goals last season, three in the final 39 games, after scoring 30 in 2015-16. His name continues to be mentioned in trade rumors, and he doesn't seem happy. He said in a brief statement after reporting to camp that he did so to honor his contract -- there are two seasons remaining with a $6 million average annual value, according to CapFriendly.com -- and out of respect for his teammates and fans. The Avalanche can't afford to let Duchene's situation become a distraction. "I was checking to see how he's doing, where his head's at," Bednar said. "He's a motivated player. I think he's come back determined to have a bounce-back year, same as a lot of our other veteran guys. He's ready to go and he's been really good on the ice."

3. Varlamov's return to form

Goalie Semyon Varlamov has fully recovered from the two midseason hip surgeries he had to resolve frequent groin injuries. He went 6-17-0 with a 3.38 goals-against average and .898 save percentage last season, the worst of his NHL career. The Avalanche need him to play close to the level that he did in 2013-14, when he won 41 games and was a Vezina Trophy finalist. "I feel confident about it," he said. "I'm sure all the injuries are behind me and I'm just looking forward to having a really good, solid season, a healthy season."

4. Blue line help

Colorado is thin on defense after buying out the final season of Francois Beauchemin's three-year contract. They return four regulars, Mark Barberio, Tyson Barrie, Erik Johnson and Nikita Zadorov. Barring a trade, the Avalanche will need prospects like Chris Bigras, 22, Anton Lindholm, 22, Andrei Mironov, 23, and Duncan Siemens, 24, to mature quickly.

5. Much better special teams

The power play was 30th last season (12.6 percent) and the penalty kill was 29th (76.6 percent). Significant improvement in each area is a must.

Video: VGK@COL: MacKinnon punches in rebound for PPG

 
ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

Center Nathan MacKinnon will anchor the No. 1 line and first power-play unit, and kill penalties. The No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft slipped to 16 goals last season, though his 53 points led Colorado. "I think it's going to be a good year for the team and myself," he said. "After a bad season, you always want to come back hungry. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people. It's going to be better than last year. We're going to embrace the underdog role."

Biggest battle

Bigras, Lindholm, Mironov and Siemens are the primary candidates to fill at least two roster spots on what promises to be a young defense. "It's going to be a healthy competition," Bednar said. "Someone is going to come in and open some eyes and seize the opportunity because we certainly have a number of spots that are available."

Most intriguing addition

Forward Nail Yakupov signed a one-year, $875,000 contract as an unrestricted free agent, and this could be his last chance to stay in the NHL. Yakupov has looked good in camp and is being penciled in as a top-six forward. He's struggled since scoring 17 goals in 48 games in 2012-13 as a rookie for the Edmonton Oilers, who selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.

Biggest potential surprise

Mironov, the Avalanche's fourth-round pick (No. 101) in the 2015 NHL Draft, signed a two-year, entry-level contract in May after spending the past five seasons with Dynamo Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League. He's becoming more comfortable as he adapts to the smaller North American rink. The 6-foot-3, 194-pound Mironov plays a physical game and is strong in his own end, areas where the Avalanche are in short supply. "I think he's getting better every day," Bednar said. "It looks like it's slowing down for him a little more. He defends hard and he's a real competitive guy. I think his puck placement gets better as he gets used to the ice."

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Sven Andrighetto -- Nathan MacKinnon -- Mikko Rantanen

Gabriel Landeskog -- Matt Duchene -- Nail Yakupov

Colin Wilson -- Tyson Jost -- J.T. Compher

Matt Nieto -- Carl Soderberg -- Blake Comeau

Nikita Zadorov -- Erik Johnson

Mark Barberio -- Tyson Barrie

Chris Bigras -- Andrei Mironov

Semyon Varlamov

Jonathan Bernier

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