The Big Four
The Avalanche would not have come close to making the playoffs last year without the excellent two-way play of Brett Clark. The 30-year-old defenseman led the team in ice time (23:40 per game) while reaching a career-high 10 goals (four on the powerplay) and 39 points. Just as important, he ranked seventh in the NHL with 210 blocked shots, had more takeways than giveaways (45 to 43) and posted a plus-5 rating.
Meanwhile, no one complains anymore that John-Michael Liles is too small to compete successfully as an NHL defenseman. The mobile defender has held up well physically while posting consecutive 14-goal, 40-plus point seasons. Last year, he tallied eight power-play goals. No, he won’t throw many hits or kill penalties. At 5-on-5, he has to out-finesse bigger forwards and isn’t always successful. But he’d have a place on any starting blue line in the NHL with his deft touch with the puck and quick, accurate shot.
The Avs’ free-agent addition of steady Scott Hannan will go a long way toward solidifying the defense. He can play against other teams’ top lines. The return of a healthy Jordan Leopold, who was limited to 15 games played last season, will also help considerably.
Colorado knows what it will get from supporting defenseman Karlis Skrastins – grit, blocked shots, strong positional play and remarkable durability. Kurt Sauer also remains in the fold. The 26-year-old appeared in 45 of the last 46 games for the Avalanche after being scratched in 33 of the first 36 games.
Get the point
Even if a team has a top-notch group of forwards – which the Avs certainly do – the club also needs contributions from the defense to keep the other team honest. Opposing teams overlook Liles, and to a lesser extent Clark, at their own peril. Their contributions helped the Avs enjoy the fourth-best powerplay (21.1 percent overall, 23.6 percednt at home) in the NHL. Colorado will look for that trend to continue in 2007-08. Liles is capable of posting a 50-plus point season this year.
In the Wings
Kyle Cumiskey -- Colorado drafted the 5-foot-10, 285-pound defenseman in the seventh round (No. 222 overall) in the 2005 Entry Draft. He is an offensively skilled finesse defenseman who works hard not to be a liability in his own end and is a top-notch skater who possesses above-average awareness in all three zones. Cumiskey played nine games with the big club last season (one goal, one assist). In 63 rookie AHL games with Albany in 2006-07, he posted a solid seven goals and 33 points.
Nigel Williams -- Colorado’s second-round pick (No. 51 overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Williams boasts a rare combination of size (6-4, 226) and mobility. He has a heavy shot and is not shy about pulling the trigger. The 19-year-old is coming off an outstanding Ontario Hockey League season with Saginaw, where he racked up 17 goals, 36 points and a plus-8 rating.
Jordan Leopold -- Leopold was a minutes-eater in Calgary prior to coming to the Avalanche last season. He missed most of the 2006-07 season due to sports hernia surgery, a groin problem and a fractured wrist and never really found his defensive rhythm. He managed two goals and five points, however. A healthy return for the 27-year-old Minnesotan would be a significant asset to the blue line.