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Established Avalanche now focus on going further

by Rick Sadowski / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

Duplicating last season's success will be difficult for the Colorado Avalanche following their surprising Central Division championship, franchise record-tying 52 wins and first Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance in four years.

Patrick Roy was awarded the Jack Adams Trophy in his first season as Avalanche coach after a 52-22-8 record and 112 points, the second-highest total in franchise history, and re-energizing what had been an indifferent fan base. The Avalanche lost in seven games to the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference First Round, but the experience was viewed as a necessary step in a young team's development.

One year after saying he hoped the Avalanche could "shock the world of hockey," Roy said the goal this season is to qualify for the playoffs again and make a deeper postseason run despite rugged competition in the division and Western Conference.

"I think it's going to continue to be a great challenge for us," Roy said. "I think we all learned a lot and we realize we haven't reached our objective. For us, right now it's focusing on making the playoffs, preparing ourselves to having a good start. I think our players are well prepared for that. Even after the season, the first thing I was doing was thinking about what can we do to get to the next level. I think it's very simple, we need to continue to grow, we need to continue to learn.

"The change of values and our identity and the culture is going to go a long way. I believe this will become the cornerstone of our success."

A lack of depth hampered the Avalanche against the Wild when injuries hit, a problem executive vice president of hockey operations and general manager Joe Sakic believes he rectified by signing free agents Jarome Iginla, Zach Redmond and Jesse Winchester, and trading for Daniel Briere and Brad Stuart.

PROJECTED LINEUP

FORWARDS
R. O'Reilly M. Duchene J. Iginla
G. Landeskog N. MacKinnon A. Tanguay
M. Talbot J. Mitchell D. Briere
C. McLeod J. Winchester M. Cliche
Extra: J. Hishon
DEFENSEMEN
B. Stuart E. Johnson
J. Hejda T. Barrie
N. Holden R. Wilson
Extras: N. Guenin Z. Redmond
GOALIES
S. Varlamov
R. Berra

"We had a couple injuries and we don't use those as excuses, but we needed to work on our depth and team toughness, and I think we did a pretty good job filling those needs," Sakic said. "We feel we're as deep as we've ever been, and that was one of the main goals. We know injuries happen, but we feel if we have them we'll be OK."

That conviction will be put to the test when the season starts Oct. 9 at Minnesota. Fourth-line forward Patrick Bordeleau is expected to be sidelined until December recovering from back surgery; a back injury has prevented third-line forward Jamie McGinn from playing in preseason games; and third-line center John Mitchell may not be ready for the opener because of migraines.

But there is plenty of cause for optimism. The Avalanche lost center Paul Stastny, who left as a free agent to sign with the St. Louis Blues, but Colorado has a collection of talented, young forwards led by Matt Duchene, Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly, along with Vezina Trophy finalist Semyon Varlamov and defensemen Tyson Barrie, Nick Holden and Erik Johnson.

"I love our team," said Duchene, who had 23 goals and a career-best 70 points last season despite missing the final eight games because of a knee injury. "I think it's probably the deepest team I've ever played on at any level. We just have to keep maturing as a team. Last year was a great step in the right direction, but we can't ever be satisfied with that. We should be proud of that division championship, but now it's trying to repeat.

"More important, even if we don't repeat because our division is so tough, get past that first round and keep going deep in the playoffs. Every round we're going to keep gaining experience."

FORWARDS

The Avalanche scored 250 goals last season, fourth-highest in the NHL, and Duchene and MacKinnon will give them their most dangerous 1-2 punch down the middle since Sakic and Peter Forsberg were centering the top two lines during the glory days. Duchene is fully recovered from the knee injury that kept him out of the final eight regular-season games and first five playoff games. MacKinnon has looked as fast as he did last season after putting on about 12 pounds of muscle.

AVALANCHE AMONG FANTASY TOP 275

The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.

Below are Colorado Avalanche players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.

24. Nathan MacKinnon, C/RW (Jensen's breakout pick)

31. Matt Duchene, C/LW (Top 50 breakdown)

40. Semyon Varlamov, G (Top 50 breakdown)

46. Gabriel Landeskog, LW (Top 50 breakdown)

71. Jarome Iginla, RW

88. Ryan O'Reilly, C/LW

136. Tyson Barrie, D (Cubeta's breakout pick)

172. Erik Johnson, D (Overvalued)

225. Alex Tanguay, LW/RW (Sitkoff's sleeper)

265. Jamie McGinn, LW

270. Nick Holden, D (Category specialist)

"You look at our first two lines, I think it's 1-A and 1-B," Duchene said. "I don't think there's a first or second (line) by any means. It doesn't really matter. At the end of the day you just want to contribute."

Duchene will anchor a line with O'Reilly, who had 28 goals last season, and Iginla, 37, who showed no signs of slowing down when he scored 30 goals for the Boston Bruins. MacKinnon, who turned 19 on Sept. 1, is coming off a 24-goal, 63-point season despite playing out of position most of the time as a right wing. MacKinnon will replace Stastny by moving back to his natural center position. He'll skate with Landeskog (26 goals, 65 points) and Alex Tanguay, who was limited to 16 games last season because of knee and hip injuries.

"Joe [Sakic] and I believe the day we're going to be winning the Stanley Cup, Nate MacKinnon will be our center," Roy said. "We might as well do it right now and see how it goes. We want to be patient with him. A lot of people are talking about the sophomore jinx, and I think Nate's going to do a very good job this year despite the way people think about a second-year player."

MacKinnon said he feels "a lot more comfortable" entering his second NHL season and is happy to be back at center. His landlord last season, goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, retired, so MacKinnon moved in with Maxime Talbot and his family.

"I played all last year and got some playoff experience, so it's good," he said. "I've learned how to take care of my body a little more than I did last year, just little tricks that I picked up from the older vets. I feel stronger in the corners, protecting the puck. I feel like I haven't lost a step. I worked on my draws this summer and we'll see how it goes. It's my natural position and I'm very comfortable playing it."

The Avalanche didn't get much offensive production from their third and fourth lines last season, but they expect to be better with the additions of Briere, who was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in a trade for P.A. Parenteau, and Winchester, who signed as a free agent.

Mitchell, if his headaches are under control, will center the third line with Talbot and Briere. Talbot, who kills penalties, or Briere could move to the fourth line once McGinn recovers. Rookie Joey Hishon, a first-round pick (No. 17) in the 2010 NHL Draft, finally seems over the head injuries that have hampered his development and could make the team as an extra forward. Roy said he'll carry 13 forwards.

Winchester, who had nine goals in 52 games with the Florida Panthers, will center the fourth line with rugged Cody McLeod and Marc-Andre Cliche, Hishon or rookie Andrew Agozzino, who had a solid training camp after scoring 17 goals for the Lake Erie Monsters in the American Hockey League.

DEFENSEMEN

Roy and Sakic said the Avalanche defense is underrated even though it allowed 2,678 shots last season, the sixth-highest total in the League and the most by any playoff team. The Avalanche weren't a good puck-possession team, and Sakic would like them to reduce the number of shots they allow, but he said the final outcome of a game is more significant.

SUMMER MOVES

ADDITIONS: C/RW Daniel Briere (trade, Canadiens); RW Jarome Iginla (free agent, Bruins); D Zach Redmond (free agent, Jets); D Brad Stuart (trade, Sharks); C Jesse Winchester (free agent, Panthers).

SUBTRACTIONS: D Andre Benoit (free agent, Sabres); G Jean-Sebastien Giguere (retired); D Matt Hunwick (free agent, Rangers); C Brad Malone (free agent, Hurricanes); RW P.A. Parenteau (trade, Canadiens), D Cory Sarich (free agent); C Paul Stastny (free agent, Blues).

PROMOTION CANDIDATES: LW Andrew Agozzino, C Paul Carey, D Stefan Elliott, C Joey Hishon, D Duncan Siemens.

"We're pretty excited about our blue line," said Roy, who believes the acquisition of 6-foot-2, 215-pound Stuart adds much-needed toughness and experience. Stuart, who was acquired from the San Jose Sharks for two draft picks, will be paired with 6-4, 232-pound Erik Johnson, who matched his career high for points in a season with 39.

"I just want to be physical, a guy that can kill penalties and play good defense," Stuart said, "be a guy that my teammates know is going to go out there every night and work his butt off and do the little things -- maybe things other people don't notice, but if your teammates notice it that's all I care about."

Barrie, 23, emerged as an offensive force and a clutch performer -- his five game-winning goals tied for third among NHL defensemen -- after getting off to a slow start that prompted the Avalanche to send him to the minors. He returned to score 13 goals and got 22 of his 25 assists in the final 47 games. Barrie, who was rewarded with a two-year, $5.2 million contract, has shown no ill effects from the knee injury he sustained in Game 3 of the Avalanche's playoff series against the Wild and will be paired with Jan Hejda, who led the team with 144 blocked shots.

Nick Holden signed as a free agent in July 2012 and was expected to play at Lake Erie, but he spent the entire season in Colorado and finished second among Avalanche defensemen with 10 goals in 54 games. Holden (6-4, 210) is a smooth skater and punishing bodychecker.

The Avalanche are hopeful Redmond, who signed as a free agent after playing 18 NHL games in two seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, emerges the way Holden did. He has good size (6-2, 205) and a hard shot. Nate Guenin and Ryan Wilson are in the mix, as is Stefan Elliott, a second-round pick (No. 49) in 2009 who hasn't developed as quickly as expected.

GOALIES

There's no question Varlamov, 26, is the No. 1 goalie. Working with goalie coach Francois Allaire before and during last season, Varlamov broke Roy's franchise record for wins with 41, was a Vezina Trophy finalist, and finished fourth in voting for the Hart Trophy after facing more shots (2,013) than any goalie in the League.

Semyon Varlamov
Goalie - COL
RECORD: 41-14-6
GAA: 2.41 | SVP: .927
"He showed the world last year that he was a No. 1 goalie and I'm sure Varly's going to continue to do that," Roy said. "Last year he was a question mark and this year he's going in with I'm sure one thing in his mind, to help this team to achieve his goal. From what Francois has said to me, he thinks Varly will get to another level this year."

The same cannot be said of Reto Berra, who replaces Giguere as the backup. Acquired from the Calgary Flames in March in a trade for a second-round pick, Berra went 0-1-1 in two starts with a 5.83 goals-against average and .781 save percentage. The Avalanche showed plenty of faith in Berra by signing him to a three-year, $4.35 million contract and they're banking that his work with Allaire will pay off the way it did with Varlamov.

"I have to agree he didn't play up to [expectations]," Roy said, "but it was a tough situation for him. When he came in Jiggy was playing really well down the stretch. Coming to a team that had high expectations going to the end of the season and the playoffs, it was not an easy situation for him. But I think he worked really hard this summer. He went to Switzerland, worked with Francois Allaire at his hockey school there, came down to Montreal and worked hard. He worked really hard with Varly last year and I hope it's going to have the same effect on him."

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