DENVER -- Colorado Avalanche executive vice president and general manager Joe Sakic had an inkling that this could be a difficult season as early as training camp.
Yet he didn't anticipate the Avalanche missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs one season after they won the Central Division with 112 points under first-year coach and former teammate Patrick Roy.
The Avalanche are in last place in the division with a 38-31-12 record and 88 points with one game remaining, Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks at Pepsi Center.
"We expect to win," Sakic said. "We didn't come here to be hovering and missing the playoffs. Last year, for sure, 112 points ... we know we weren't as good as 112 points. This year, I think we're better than what we've performed. This year, the big thing is what happened the first half of the year. We weren't ready for (it)."
The Avalanche struggled to score in the preseason when they lost eight of nine games and opened regular-season play with two consecutive shutout losses to the Minnesota Wild. They had four wins in the first 17 games and never climbed into playoff contention despite a 25-16-4 record in 2015.
"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," Sakic said. "The pressures, the expectations, they were up there this year whereas last year 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.
"I will say I'm pretty proud of the way the guys dealt with it. I know it took longer than we were hoping, but you could see the smiles, the excitement the last couple of months, where we played much better as a team, more confident, kind of learning to deal with what it's going to take to get to that next level."
Sakic said the Avalanche's mediocre home record (22-15-3) was a major factor for missing the playoffs, along with an ineffective power play (29th in the NHL), losing 23 of 43 one-goal games in regulation or overtime, injuries (486 man games lost) that cut into team depth, and inconsistent play by too many young forwards, including Matt Duchene and Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon, who sustained a season-ending broken foot March 4.
Roy has said that game management and puck possession are other areas that need improvement.
The Avalanche's second-half play has given Sakic cause for optimism, but they need help on defense and better depth on the third and fourth lines. A priority is to sign center Ryan O'Reilly to a contract extension. He is in the first year of a two-year, $12 million contract and previous negotiations have been difficult.
"We like Ryan a lot, he's very valuable, he's one of our core guys," Sakic said. "He doesn't need it, we don't need it, no one needs the distractions of him going through the season (as a possible unrestricted free agent in July 2016) so we're going to try to get it done."
Would the Avalanche attempt to trade O'Reilly if he isn't signed to an extension?
"I'm not going to give you a deadline, but I want him signed before next season starts, let's put it that way," Sakic said.
The Avalanche are high on several defense prospects in the organization, among them 2013 NHL Draft picks Chris Bigras and Mason Geertsen. Adding to the mix won't be easy because six defensemen are under contract for next season: Tyson Barrie, Nate Guenin, Nick Holden, Erik Johnson, Zach Redmond and Brad Stuart.
"There's areas we need improvement, we didn't make the playoffs," Sakic said. "You got to look at your entire roster and see where you can get better."
The Avalanche have a proven No. 1 goalie in Semyon Varlamov, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season. But backup Reto Berra struggled and sat behind minor-league call-up Calvin Pickard when Varlamov was out because of groin injuries.
Berra has slowly regained the organization's trust with better work habits and play; he made 41 saves Thursday in the Avalanche's 1-0 win against the Winnipeg Jets for his first NHL shutout. The backup position is probably his to lose next season, but Pickard will compete with him in camp.
"What I like here in the last two months, we got the mindset back where the expectations are there," Sakic said. "We expect to win, we expect to be in the playoffs and we know and the players know what's expected of them next year. Going into training camp it's going to be different. We're in the toughest (conference) so you can't afford a slow start. We have to be ready to play right from the start."