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Season Preview

Season Preview: Colorado Avalanche

Improvements on defense, new system keys in quest for return to Stanley Cup Playoffs

by Rick Sadowski / NHL.com Correspondent
At a glance

2015-16 record: 39-39-4, 82 points, 6th in Central Division, 9th in Western Conference

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify

Additions: F: Joe Colborne, J.T. Compher, Ben Smith; D: Fedor Tyutin, Patrick Wiercioch

Subtractions: F: Mikkel Boedker, Shawn Matthias, Jack Skille; D: Andrew Bodnarchuk, Brandon Gormley, Nate Guenin, Nick Holden, Zach Redmond, Brad Stuart; G: Reto Berra

 
Projected opening night lineup

Forwards

Gabriel Landeskog -- Nathan MacKinnon -- Mikhail Grigorenko

Joe Colborne -- Matt Duchene -- Mikko Rantanen

Blake Comeau -- Carl Soderberg -- Jarome Iginla

Cody McLeod -- John Mitchell -- Ben Smith

J.T. Compher

Defensemen

Francois Beauchemin -- Erik Johnson

Patrick Wiercioch -- Tyson Barrie

Nikita Zadorov -- Fedor Tyutin

Eric Gelinas

Goalies

Semyon Varlamov

Calvin Pickard

Spencer Martin

First-year coach Jared Bednar, who won championships in the American Hockey League and ECHL, has been given the challenge of getting the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2013-14.

Hired Aug. 25, two weeks after Patrick Roy's resignation as coach and vice president of hockey operations, Bednar spent the previous 14 seasons coaching in the minors following a nine-season playing career.

It's a gamble by general manager Joe Sakic, who was impressed by Bednar's successful track record and the fact he will employ an aggressive, pressure game with an emphasis on speed.

"I have a style of play that I think works in today's game," Bednar said. "I think we have to be an aggressive team. The game's getting faster every day and I think you have to play an up-tempo style. You have to attack. And that's not just offensively, it's defensively as well."

After winning the Central Division with 112 points in 2013-14, Roy's first season, the Avalanche have been on a downward spiral. They were seventh in the division with 90 points in 2014-15 and sixth last season with 82 points after going 1-8-0 in their final nine games.

The Avalanche will rely heavily on the players they believe make up their core: centers Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon, left wing and captain Gabriel Landeskog, defensemen Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson, and goaltender Semyon Varlamov.

Video: WSH@COL: Varlamov prevents Johansson twice in the 2nd

Colorado is deep down the middle. Duchene, who scored 30 goals last season, is the first Colorado player with that many since Sakic (36) and Milan Hejduk (35) in 2006-07. MacKinnon, the 2014 Calder Trophy winner, had two goals and one assist in three games with Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 following back-to-back injury-plagued NHL seasons. Carl Soderberg set NHL career bests last season for assists (39) and points (51). Unrestricted free agent Joe Colborne, who had his best NHL season in 2015-16 with the Calgary Flames with 19 goals and 44 points in 73 games, could move from center to wing.

Bednar is addressing the Avalanche's biggest weaknesses, poor defensive play and puck possession, with a system that stresses quick outlet passes to the forwards and north-south play. This should help offensive-minded defensemen Barrie, Johnson and Eric Gelinas. The Avalanche will have some growing pains while 21-year-olds Chris Bigras and Nikita Zadorov gain more experience. It will help if Francois Beauchemin, 36, doesn't have to average an Avalanche-leading 25:04 of ice time per game. Unrestricted free agents Fedor Tyutin and Patrick Wiercioch were signed to add depth.

"There's no secret we have to be better defensively," right wing Jarome Iginla said. "We have to look at our shots for and against. We've been trying, but we know that needs to improve. We can't be outshot regularly. We have to get better in our zone."

The Avalanche also need to score more than the 212 non-shootout goals they had last season, tied for fewest in the Central Division.

Varlamov is capable of stealing games, much like he did three seasons ago. Calvin Pickard is expected to spend the entire season in the NHL as Varlamov's backup after splitting time between the NHL and AHL the previous two seasons.

The Avalanche's chances of making the playoffs largely will hinge on defense and goaltending. They allowed 240 non-shootout goals in 2015-16, most in the division and tied for the sixth-highest total in the NHL.

 

Why they should make the Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Avalanche's core players, led by MacKinnon and Varlamov, play up to expectations.

Video: ANA@COL: MacKinnon gets airborne pass, nets goal

 

Why they could miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Avalanche continue to have problems on defense, spend too much time in their end and force Varlamov and Pickard to face more quality shots than they should have to.

 

Breakout candidate

Nikita Zadorov. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound defenseman showed marked improvement in his offensive game with San Antonio of the AHL, where he had 10 goals and 19 assists in 52 games. He had two assists in 22 games with the Avalanche.

 

On the hot seat

Mikhail Grigorenko. The 22-year-old center has enough skill to play in the top six, and it's time for him to show he's capable of playing at a high level on a nightly basis. Last season, his first with the Avalanche, he had personal NHL bests of six goals and 27 points in 74 games.

 

Trophy candidates

Mikko Rantanen (Calder); Varlamov (Vezina)

 

Quotable

"I think it needs to be said that I respected [Patrick Roy] on and off the ice and I enjoyed working with him for three years, but I'm really excited about having Jared here. It feels like he brings in a lot of fresh air and feels like he comes in with a lot of optimism about this group. It feels like he believes in us, and we do as well." -- forward Gabriel Landeskog

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