Wed Sep 07 04:00pm EDT
It's going to be another year of blockbusters and huge flops in the NHL. Which teams blew out their budgets for big name stars and gigantic special effects to score Michael Bay-levels of box office gold? Which teams are bloated action retreads and terrible sequels? Find out in Puck Daddy's 2011-12 NHL Season Previews, running throughout the month.
In the first 10 seasons after the Colorado Avalanche moved from Quebec, hockey fans in Denver didn't know what not making the postseason was like. Ten years of watching playoff hockey that included two Stanley Cups and six trips to the Western Conference Final covered the franchise in a winning aura.
But the stars that brought the Avs their success got old and moved on, and the roster turnover has resulted in Colorado missing the playoffs three of the last five seasons.
The Avs finished 14th in the West last year with a 30-44-8 record (68 points) and a fourth place finish in the Northwest Division. A year after their surprising trip to the playoffs, the momentum flattened out early when Craig Anderson(notes) was sidelined with a knee injury and bottomed out when players like Tomas Fleischmann(notes) and David Jones(notes) left the lineup with different ailments leaving the Avs to finish the season with 358 man-games lost to injury.
Anderson would later be dealt to Ottawa and Colorado would fill their need in goal by acquiring Semyon Varlamov(notes) from Washington for two draft round picks and signing veteran J.S. Giguere over the summer. GM Greg Sherman also pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal sending rookie Kevin Shattenkirk(notes) and Chris Stewart(notes) to St. Louis for former No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson(notes) and Jay McClement(notes).
Colorado had a top-5 pick for the second time in three Drafts and selected Swedish winger Gabriel Landeskog(notes) No. 2 overall putting another up-and-coming star in the system. Matt Duchene(notes) enters his third NHL season looking to continue moving on his upward swing.
Sherman was serious about improving his team in the offseason, but how will the product on the ice respond?
John-Michael Liles(notes) was entering the final year of his deal and after months of talks was finally dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Day 1 of the Draft in June. Tomas Fleischmann -- who's fully recovered from a blood clots in both of his lungs that caused him to miss 36 games for the Avs in '10-11 -- inked a 4-year, $16 million deal with the Florida Panthers on July 1.
In the back, Jan Hejda(notes) (4-years, $13 million) and Shane O'Brien(notes) (83 PIMs, 164 hits) will attempt to replace the points and toughness left behind by Liles and the retiring Colorado legend Adam Foote(notes).
At forward ... There' are plenty of reasons to expect this group to be fun to watch. Matt Duchene (27 goals, 67 points) is poised to become Colorado's first 30-plus goal scorer since Joe Sakic(notes) potted 36 in 2006-07. Paul Stastny(notes), an aging but still productive Milan Hejduk(notes) and David Jones -- who broke out with 27 goals last season and is on a 1-year deal -- all joined Duchene in the 20-goal club. Add in the potential for Landeskog and there'll be plenty of goals coming from Avs forwards looking to improve on their team total last year that was 18th in the NHL.
The bottom lines include muckers and grinders in T.J. Galiardi(notes), Daniel Winnik(notes), Jay McClement, Cody McLeod(notes) and Kevin Porter(notes), who can also chip in offensively. Chuck Kobasew(notes) comes over from Minnesota and a potentially returning Peter Mueller(notes) adds to Colorado's depth down the roster.
It didn't matter whether or not Colorado scored first last year (18-11-4 when they did, 29th in the NHL), but taking leads into the third period earned them 34 out of a possible 36 points, fifth in the NHL in that category. Comebacks weren't really much of the Avs' repertoire as they were dead last when trailing after the first period, winning just four of 41 games.
On defense ... Only one Colorado defenseman scored more than three goals for the team last season and that was the now-departed Liles. A full year from Erik Johnson (8 goals, 29 points), a healthy Kyle Quincey(notes) and the addition of Jan Hejda from Columbus should help the Avs get somewhat of an increase in offense from the back.
In goal ... The price was high to acquire Varlamov and Sherman will be reminded of the two draft round picks sent Washington's way any time the Russian netminder struggles. But anything will be better than what was in goal last season for the Avs. Behind Varlamov will be 34-year old J.S. Giguere who is coming off hernia surgery and has struggled the last four seasons with a 40-44-17 record.
"Cliffhanger."Colorado is also hoping for an avalanche of thrills.
It's not the one playoff appearance in three seasons that would put the jobs of Sherman and head coach Joe Sacco on the chopping block, it's the inconsistent nature of the results. Sixty-nine, 95 and 68 are the Avs' point totals in the last three years. Colorado had never posted a season (as the Avs) under 95 points until three seasons ago. Is this the year of the uptick?
Greg Sherman will have plenty of cap flexibility in the season as the Avs have been at the bottom of the of the salary chart the past few years. He'll have to be shrewd in his move-making this season as only Duchene, Landeskog, Kobasew, Hejda, O'Byrne, Varlamov and Giguere have contracts for next season. The majority of the roster will be playing for jobs in 2012-13.
Even with the expectations of living up to a No. 2 overall pick, allowing Landeskog to ease himself into the lineup will benefit him long-term. At 6-1, 204 lbs., the 18-year old Swede is coming off a monster season in Kitchener (OHL) and has plenty to prove on the wing after a successful junior career. He was the first European-born captain in Kitchener's history, so the Avs also have themselves a budding leader to add to their mostly young room.
"Yeah, I know a thing or two about an Avalanche, having totally outraced one with my extreme sports moves while romancing European woman. That's right, I said women! And why am I listed here anyway? XXX is an anti-hero, not a villain. Then again, so is Riddick. Then again, so is that meathead from 'Fast and Furious.' But not that guy who got bit by a duck. He's a hero, bro."
The way David Jones was playing, had he not missed 5 games last season, he easily could have hit the 30-goal plateau. But coming off a 27-goal breakout season, the pressure is on for Jones to continue being a key offensive contributor. Colorado's 18th ranked offense can't afford Jones' offensive output from a year ago to disappear.
Colorado ranked dead last in goals allowed last year averaging 3.5 a game. With Sherman having overhauled the goaltending position and tinkered with the defense, the changes need to pay off. A parade isn't expected in June, but given management's response to last season with the changes made in the offseason, progress now has to be shown.
Sherman's moves, especially in goal, will make the Avs better than their 29th finish last season, but there's still some growing to do. The offensive depth isn't there and Colorado is still waiting for that go-to guy when a goal is needed. That should be where Duchene steps in as he continues his NHL maturity and takes his talents to the next level.
(Is this also the year he develops in the team's next captain?)
It'll be another playoff-less spring, but the steps are slowly moving in the right direction.