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New look on defense, in goal, has Avs hopeful

by Rick Sadowski
After finishing with the second-fewest points in the NHL and missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, the Colorado Avalanche made a number of major offseason changes in an attempt to rebound in 2011-12.

General Manager Greg Sherman's most significant moves were in goal and on defense. He brought in two new goalies, acquiring promising Semyon Varlamov in a trade with Washington and signing former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere as a free agent.


d. jones m. duchene m. hejduk
t.j. galiardi p. Stastny p. mueller
d. winnik r. o'reily B. yip
c. mcleod j. mcclement k. porter
c. kobasew
j. hejda e. johnson
r. wilson r. o'bryne
k. quincey k. cumiskey
S. O'brien m. hunwick
s. varlamov
j.s. giguere
ones to watch
f gabriel landeskog
d jonas holos
D Duncan siemens
Sherman also overhauled what had been a mobile but undersized and leaky defense. He traded John-Michael Liles to Toronto, selected 6-foot-3, 196-pound Duncan Siemens with the Avalanche's second first-round draft pick and signed free agents Jan Hejda (6-4, 237) and Shane O’Brien (6-3, 230).

"I believe (size) matters, especially in your own end," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said. "We want to be a team that's hard to play against every night, and it certainly will make our job easier with those guys."

The Avalanche return a stable of young forwards, including center Matt Duchene, who in his second season led the team in scoring with 67 points and tied David Jones for the team lead with 27.

"Speaking for myself, and I know all the guys who were here last year will feel the same way, there's a bit of a chip on your shoulder," Duchene said. "You want to prove everybody wrong and prove last year was a fluke. We had a tough second half. We want to prove we still are a team that can compete."

The Avalanche were in the hunt for first place in the Northwest Division as recently as late January before collapsing. They were 5-25-2 after the All-Star break, including nine- and 10-game winless streaks, to finish 30-44-8 – the club's worst record since arriving in Denver in 1995.

"Last year was tough for everyone the way things ended," said center Paul Stastny, who had 22 goals but only 57 points -- 22 fewer than the career high he posted the previous season. "We had the whole summer to kind of clear things up and to focus on the things we need to work on. Last year we were a first-half team and a second-half team. Everyone's got to re-prove themselves."
Health also was an issue; the Avalanche lost a franchise-record 474 man-games to injuries and illnesses.

The Avalanche return four 20-goal scorers -- Duchene, Jones, Milan Hejduk and Stastny, and the return of left wing Peter Mueller, who missed all of last season to recover from post-concussion syndrome, will be a huge addition if he manages to stay healthy.

The team is deep down the middle, with Duchene, Stastny and third-year man Ryan O'Reilly anchoring the top three lines, with Jay McClement and Mark Olver competing for fourth-line duty.


IN: Cedrick Desjardins, G (free agent, Lightning); Jean-Sebastien Giguere, G (free agent, Maple Leafs); Jan Hejda, D (Blue Jackets); Chuck Kobasew, RW (free agent, Wild); Joakim Lindstrom, C (free agent, Skelleftea, Sweden), Shane O'Brien, D (free agent, Predators); Semyon Varlamov, G (trade, Capitals)

OUT: Peter Budaj, G (free agent, Canadiens); Philippe Dupuis, C (free agent, Maple Leafs); Brian Elliott, G (free agent, Blues); Tomas Fleischmann, RW (free agent, Panthers); John-Michael Liles, D (trade, Maple Leafs)
Duchene, 20, has 51 goals in his first two NHL seasons and should be primed to reach the 30-goal mark.

"I think you want to improve every year," he said. "I've said it a lot -- I look at a career as a set of stairs. Each year you want to be climbing one more step up. Eventually you'll get to the top."

Stastny, the team's highest-paid player at $6.6 million per season, needs to rebound from a subpar campaign. O'Reilly is known as a defensive center but scored eight of his career-high 13 goals in the final 18 games when he was given more offensive responsibility.

Mueller was skating with Duchene and Hejduk in training camp on what could be the top line. Mueller had 9 goals and 11 assists in 15 games with the Avalanche following his March 3, 2010 acquisition from Phoenix before suffering the first of two concussions he sustained in a five-month span. Hejduk, 35, has scored a franchise record-tying 20 or more goals in 11 consecutive seasons.

A couple of Swedish left wings, Gabriel Landeskog, the second pick of the 2011 draft, and veteran Joakim Lindstrom, are options for Sacco to skate on a line with Stastny and Jones. Just 18, Landeskog is a 6-1, 204-pound power forward and a potential Calder Trophy candidate. Lindstrom was signed as a free agent after leading the Swedish Elite League in scoring with 60 points (28 goals, 32 assists) in 54 games.

The Avalanche could have decent depth with T.J. Galiardi, who was limited to 35 games last season because of injuries; free-agent signee Chuck Kobasew; Kevin Porter, who had a career-high 14 goals; tough-guy Cody McLeod; and McClement, who is looking to  rebound from a 7-goal, 20-point season.

Despite the retirement of Adam Foote, the Avalanche will be much bigger on the blue line with the additions of Hejda and O’Brien, and the presence of Erik Johnson (6-4, 232) and Ryan O'Byrne (6-5, 234) from the season's start.

"We certainly became a much bigger team defensively," Sacco said. "All of a sudden -- I don't know if we were one of the smaller teams on the blue line last year -- now we are one of the bigger (teams)."

The Avalanche are counting on Johnson to live up to the promise that prompted St. Louis to make him the first pick of the 2006 draft. Still only 24, Johnson was acquired from the Blues at last year's trade deadline in a blockbuster deal that included four players and two high draft picks.

O'Byrne played in 64 games and gave the Avalanche a physical presence after his Nov. 11 acquisition from Montreal. Kyle Quincey (6-2, 207) is healthy again after missing the final 55 games to recover from a shoulder injury that required surgery.

Hejda, O'Brien and returnee Ryan Wilson (6-1, 207) supply some muscle, as would Siemens if he manages to crack the roster.

The Avalanche need to fill the void left by the trade of Liles, who was the team's top-scoring defenseman the past five seasons. Offensive types competing for spots include fleet Kyle Cumiskey, who missed all but 18 games with head and neck injuries, and highly-touted rookies Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie.

The Avalanche made goaltending a major offseason priority after allowing a League-high 287 goals last season. Varlamov, 23, and Giguere, 34, replace Peter Budaj and Brian Elliott, who signed with Montreal and St. Louis, respectively, after the Avalanche chose not to bring them back.

Semyon Varlamov
Goalie - COL
RECORD: 11-9-5
GAA: 2.23 | SVP: 0.924
The Avalanche sent a first-round pick in 2012 and a second-round choice in either 2012 or 2013 to Washington for the rights to Varlamov, a restricted free agent who signed a three-year, $8.5 million contract. Giguere, who won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007, left Toronto as a free agent to sign a two-year, $2.5 million deal.

"When Washington traded me to Colorado it was a very big surprise for me," Varlamov said. "But when I was young (the Avalanche) was my favorite team, so it's exciting to be here."

The talented but injury prone Varlamov posted a 30-13-12 record with four shutouts, a 2.39 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 59 NHL games spanning three seasons with the Capitals. The Avalanche are counting on him to solidify a position that has given them fits since Patrick Roy retired eight years ago, but Varlamov never has played more than 27 games in a season because of groin and knee problems.

"We believe that he can be the player to fit the criteria of starting goalie and for being the backbone of our net," Sherman said. "There is a belief that this player is going to be the guy that can carry the load for us and be the type of goalie that this organization needs to move forward."

Giguere also experienced injury problems last season, missing 21 games with the Maple Leafs because of a groin ailment. He underwent surgery for a sports hernia shortly after the season and said he's fully recovered.

"If we can make it so goalie is not an issue, I think that's all we can ask," said Giguere, who went 11-11-4 last season with a 2.87 GAA and .900 save percentage.
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