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Questions for Avalanche start with state of defense

by Rick Sadowski

COLORADO -- The Colorado Avalanche will need to tighten their defensive play for a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after falling short last season. Overworked goalies Semyon Varlamov, Reto Berra and Calvin Pickard faced 40 or more shots on goal a combined 16 times, and they permitted four or more non-shootout goals 21 times.

The Avalanche also need to regain their swagger on offense. Their goal production fell from 250 to 219, the power play skidded from the fifth-best percentage in the NHL to 29th, and they were shut out eight times.

Game management and puck possession were other troublesome areas.

Here are three questions facing the Avalanche this season:

Did they do enough to improve a leaky defense? It remains suspect, but the additions of Francois Beauchemin and Nikita Zadorov should help. Beauchemin will be a stabilizing presence. He's 35 but logged major minutes with the Anaheim Ducks and will be expected to do the same while paired with Erik Johnson. Zadorov, 20, plays a physical game and his size (6-foot-5, 235 pounds) should make him a good partner for the puck-rushing Tyson Barrie.

Who will replace Ryan O'Reilly? The task figures to go to Carl Soderberg. He signed a five-year, $23.75 million contract after the Avalanche acquired his rights from the Boston Bruins. Soderberg may not have as much puck-possession or faceoff skill as O'Reilly, who was traded to the Buffalo Sabres after the Avalanche determined they couldn't meet his contract demands, but he's an excellent playmaker and strong defensively. He should be able to eclipse his totals from last season (13 goals, 44 points) while centering O'Reilly's former linemates, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon.

Can the Avalanche avoid another poor start? They played catch-up all last season after opening with 5-0 and 3-0 losses to the rival Minnesota Wild. They lost six of their first seven games and 13 of the first 17. In contrast, Colorado won 12 of its first 13 games in 2013-14, when it finished atop the Central Division to end a three-year playoff drought. The Avalanche will play five of their first seven games at home this season before a severe test comes on the road. They'll play 11 of the next 14 away from Pepsi Center, a stretch that includes a seven-game trip.

"With so much success and smooth sailing the year before, I won't say it was a letdown, but we weren't expecting how other teams were going to play against us," Avalanche executive vice president and general manager Joe Sakic said. "The pressures, the expectations, they were up there, whereas (in 2013-14) we created that with how we played. Just not being ready for what that took, we had a tough start, faced a lot of adversity and it took some time for our core guys to learn to deal with that."

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