In the days leading up to opening night on Oct. 6 against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, DallasStars.com's Scott Burnside will break down the Stars and their six opponents in the Central Division. Kicking off our previews today: the Colorado Avalanche.
Colorado Avalanche: 22-56-4; missed the playoffs
Nowhere to go but up: Where to start with a team that was 21 points worse than the 29th-ranked NHL club last season, and somehow managed to come up with a minus-112 goal differential? Well, let's just say this is the kind of season that will speak volumes about Executive Vice-President and GM (and Hall of Fame player) Joe Sakic. There has been plenty of grumblings about Sakic's approach to team building and his either inability, or reluctance, to make substantive moves in the wake of a historically poor showing from his team. But here's the thing: the team is subtly different this season with an influx of talented, motivated young players eager to help carve out a new identity for this team. Plus, as more than one person connected to the team suggested, they can't possibly be worse than last year, right?
The Matt Duchene Chronicles: So, what of Matt Duchene? Among the many players who might have expected to have been moved in the wake of the team's woeful performance, none was rumored to be on the move more often and to more different teams than Duchene. Certainly Duchene felt he was going to be wearing a different jersey come training camp. And it does seem like it's past time for the talented forward to find a new home. The problem is that Sakic, still smarting from a disastrous trade of Ryan O'Reilly to Buffalo in the summer of 2015, couldn't find a deal he liked at the trade deadline, and then couldn't or wouldn't move him at the draft when trade ground should have been most fertile. The problem is that unless the Avs are prepared to keep Duchene until the '18 trade deadline, his value is not particularly high. He's coming off a disappointing 18-goal, 41-point campaign, and has this season and next left on a deal with a $6 million cap hit. Best-case scenario is that Duchene gets off to a great start and the Avs find a trade partner that might be experiencing injury problems, and both sides can move forward. But if the team gets off to a tough start, the pressure is only going to mount to make a deal of any kind.
Can Varlamov remain durable? Have to admit, we were a bit surprised to see the Avs protect Semyon Varlamov in the expansion draft given the netminder's injury issues, and the fact he has two more years left on a contract with a $5.9 million cap hit. Now, to be fair, when the Avs won the Central Division in '14, it was behind Varlamov's all-world goaltending. But the 29-year-old appeared in just 24 games last season, winning just six. So, durability is more than a niggling question. Now, the Avs did bring in Jonathan Bernier to back up Varlamov after something of a renaissance season for Bernier in Anaheim, giving them a solid one-two look between the pipes. But the season ended on a bleak note when Bernier was torched in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final against Nashville. Varlamov has appeared healthy and happy in training camp, and if the Avs are going to surprise folks this year, it will start with him.
Time for Bednar to take next step: When Patrick Roy abandoned the Good Ship Avalanche last August, it put Sakic in more than a bit of a bind, having to find a head coach at the last minute. The scouting reports on rookie bench boss Jared Bednar, fresh off a run to the American Hockey League championship in the spring of '16, were all positive and Sakic saw enough to keep Bednar after last year's disastrous campaign. Bednar is going to have to show he's learned a great deal in his rookie season to justify Sakic's faith in returning him for a sophomore go-round. Having to deal with the Duchene situation is another learning hurdle for Bednar but with a camp full of youngsters this might be Bednar's time to shine.
It's not that bad: Hey, it's not all doom and gloom in the mountains, right? Right? Of course not. Nathan MacKinnon needs to return to form, but no reason the former No. 1-overall pick can't do that after a 16-goal campaign. The Avs did bring in highly-touted college free agent Alex Kerfoot ,who has made an immediate impact in camp. J.T. Compher is a good foundation player and David Warsofsky has impressed as has former No. 1-overall draft pick Nail Yakupov, who is facing a last chance opportunity with the Avs. "Definitely there's some stuff we can learn from (last year)," Compher said. "We have a lot of turnover player-wise this year compared to who we had last year, and I think for a lot of guys that weren't there for the full year it's kind of a fresh start to come in and try and make difference. There's some spots to be had and guys are showing good compete throughout the entire camp, which is good." Certainly the guy they're most excited about is Mikko Rantanen, the 10th-overall pick in 2015. He's one of the few untouchables on the Avs roster, and he'll be the centerpiece of whatever revival might be possible with this team. With 20 goals in 75 games in his first full NHL season, the sky is the limit for the 20-year-old Finn.
So we subscribe to the 'they can't be worse' theory, and if Varlamov is healthy, this is a team that could hang around the playoff picture longer than people think. But there is such a gap between the Avs and the rest of the Central that we see no other place for them but at the very bottom.
Avalanche finish seventh in the Central Division.
This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here