|Avalanche aim to roll uphill in Northwest
Anyone who believes it’s “easy” to make the playoffs in the National Hockey League wasn’t paying attention to the Colorado Avalanche’s 2006-07 season. For the first time in NHL history, the Avs’ 95-point season was not good enough to earn a playoff spot.
While shootout points inflate teams’ point totals to some extent, the Western Conference in general -- and Northwest Division in particular -- is stacked with talented teams. Clubs can find themselves on the outside looking in if they squander even a modest number of winnable points. The Avs missed out on the playoffs by virtue of finishing one point behind division rival Calgary.
Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville has stressed to his players the importance of getting off to a better start in 2007-08 than the starts registered in the past two seasons.
Last year, the Avs were the NHL’s hottest team down the stretch – with a 15-2-2 record (including a 10-0-2 mark on the road) over the last two months of the season. It still wasn’t quite enough to grab the eighth seed.
During the course of the off-season, the Avs made a big splash in the free-agent waters by signing veteran sniper Ryan Smyth and defenseman Scott Hannan to bolster an already formidable nucleus still led by 38-year-old superstar Joe Sakic.
Offensively, the Avs are a very potent team. There are no fewer than seven forwards -- Sakic, Smyth, Milan Hejduk, Andrew Brunette, rising young star Paul Stastny, second-year forward Wojtek Wolski and third-year player Marek Svatos) -- capable of scoring 25-plus goals, and the team has an upper-echelon offensive defenseman in John-Michael Liles. Brett Clark, the team’s ice-time leader last season, also produces points from the blue line at a healthy clip.
The Avalanche still have major questions in goal, and will need to play better team defense this season. Colorado tied Nashville for the most goals scored (272) by a Western Conference club last year. But the real line of demarcation in the playoff chase came in terms of team defense and goaltending.
Every team that let in fewer than 230 goals made the playoffs, while each of the non-playoff teams allowed 245 or more goals. The Avs allowed 251 goals last year.
In particular, improvement in penalty killing -- Colorado ranked 24th in the NHL last year -- would go a long way toward bringing down the club’s goals-against average. The addition of Hannan and the return of a healthy Jordan Leopold will help. In goal, Peter Budaj needs to take the next step to close the gap with the elite keepers in the League. He played reasonably well in his first season as an NHL starter.
44-31-7, 4th Northwest
Ryan Smyth, Jaroslav Hlinka, Scott Hannan, Jeff Jillson, Dale Purinton
Patrice Brisebois, Ken Klee, Ossi Vaananen, Pierre Turgeon, Brett McLean, Antti Laaksonen
2006-07 Leading Scorers:
Joe Sakic (36-64-100), Andrew Brunette (27-56-83), Paul Stastny (28-50-78), Milan Hejduk (35-35-70), Wojtek Wolski (22-28-50)
2006-07 Goaltending Leaders:
Peter Budaj (31-16-6, 2.68 GAA, 57 appearances, .905 save percentage, 3 shutouts)
Jose Theodore (13-15-1, 3.26 GAA, 33 appearances, .891 save percentage, 0 shutouts)