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Soderberg, Johnson, Barrie are Avalanche X-factors

by Rick Sadowski

DENVER -- The Colorado Avalanche fell to last place in the Central Division last season with 39 wins and 90 points after finishing first in 2013-14 with 52 wins and 112 points.

Offseason moves were made to try and prevent the Avalanche from missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.

Here are three X-factors that will have an impact on whether they can return to the playoffs:

Carl Soderberg's ability to fit in: After realizing they wouldn't be able to sign center Ryan O'Reilly to a contract extension, the Avalanche acquired Soderberg's rights from the Boston Bruins on June 25 and signed him to a five-year contract reportedly worth $23.75 million.

"I like his size," coach Patrick Roy said of the 6-foot-3, 216-pound center. "He stops at the net, he has a net presence. A player like him is going to play a big role for us."

If he plays on O'Reilly's former line with Nathan MacKinnon and fellow Swede Gabriel Landeskog, Soderberg should be able to surpass last season's totals of 13 goals and 31 assists. His five power-play goals were three more than O'Reilly scored.

"That would be a great line if that's the case," Soderberg said. "I'm not sure what Patrick is thinking, so we'll see. I love to be here. I think we have a good chance not just to make the playoffs, but to make a couple runs too. I'm excited for the season."

Soderberg, who turns 30 on Oct. 12, spent most of last season as the Bruins' third-line center. He's solid defensively and isn't easy to knock off the puck.

"I like to carry the puck, be a two-way centerman, a playmaker and strong on the puck," he said. "I'm pretty excited to be here. Colorado didn't make the playoffs, but I think we're on the right track."

Faster start: The Avalanche opened the 2014-15 season by losing six of the first seven games and 13 of 17, forcing them to play catch-up. They open this season with five of the first seven games at home before going on the road for 11 of 14, including a seven-game trip.

"Whether we were ready for it or not, we got off to a rocky start," Landeskog said. "With the conference and division that we're in, it was tough to get back in it. It's a new season now, and we have a different group."

In 2013-14, when the Avalanche finished first in the Central Division and made the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, they won their first six games and started 12-1-0. They never lost more than three consecutive games in regulation, something that happened only once.

"We know we're going to have to have a really good first 10 games and establish ourselves as a top team," defenseman Tyson Barrie said. "The majority of us were here last year and we saw what happened at the beginning and saw how that can snowball. You don't want to let it get away from you again."

Tyson BarrieErik Johnson on rise: Barrie, 24, and Johnson , 27, are two critical components for a defense that has been a weak link for several seasons. They must continue to improve if the Avalanche are going to make a run at the playoffs.

Barrie was a third-round pick (No. 64) in the 2009 NHL Draft, and it took several trips to the minors before his game matured enough for him to earn full-time duty with the Avalanche midway through 2013-14. He's on the small side (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) but is a slick skater and playmaker who is especially dangerous off the rush.

"I've been able to progress and get a lot more confidence and hopefully take that into this year," said Barrie, who is coming off his best NHL season (12 goals, 53 points). "I want to establish my role and be an even bigger part of this team, be one of the top defensemen in the League. I'm excited to see how good I can get."

It's been a long road for Johnson, whose career seemed stuck in quicksand after the St. Louis Blues made him the first player chosen in 2006. Nine years later, the 6-foot-4, 232-pound Johnson has developed into a solid defenseman at each end of the ice. He set an NHL career high with 12 goals in 47 games last season before missing the final 34 games because of a knee injury.

He's healthy again and ready to pick up where he left off last season.

"I feel awesome," he said. "I feel really good, really confident, ready to lead the team back to the playoffs. I was really happy with how my game was going. As far as individually, I was happy with my play even though I didn't feel totally 100 percent for a couple of months. Nonetheless, I still played good hockey. This year I want to play a full season, help the team get back to where we need to be. I know what I'm capable of, know what I can do. I'm really excited to have a great opportunity this year to play a lot of minutes."

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