Avalanche forge on with blend of young and old

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

The Colorado Avalanche were on the verge of missing the Stanley Cup playoffs in consecutive seasons last spring for the first time since 1995, when they were known as the Quebec Nordiques and a hot stretch and infusion of former faces at the trade deadline seemed to change the course of the franchise.

The re-acquisition of Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg also prompted a return through the turnstiles for a number of loyal fans who had taken a temporary hiatus for the first time since the well-supported franchise relocated from Quebec to Denver.

Which way it will go from here will be determined as decisions made in the offseason have been met with criticism and doubt.

It's funny. The Avs found themselves among the final eight teams still standing while Edmonton was a non-playoff qualifier, but respective moves made by both franchises have vaulted the Oilers ahead of the Avalanche in the court of public opinion this summer.

The Avs are taking a $4.5-million chance that veteran forward Darcy Tucker still has enough feistiness left to be effective for two seasons, and that the $800,000 spent on goalie Andrew Raycroft will help to solidify a position that is drawing the largest amount of scrutiny.

The concern is for some of the pieces lost. Jeff Finger (Toronto) wasn't a household name, but the steady defenseman logged 20 minutes a game and was a plus-12. Left wing Andrew Brunette (Minnesota) was the team's second-leading scorer (59 points) while appearing in all 82 games. Brunette, in fact, didn't miss a game all three years he played in Colorado.

The biggest potential loss, depending on how well or poorly the remaining goaltenders perform, is Jose Theodore (Washington). During the second half of last season and into the playoffs, Theodore finally started to resemble the goalie who won the Vezina and Hart Trophy in 2002 with Montreal.

Management told Joe Sakic to take all the time he needed, and it turns out that was a good thing since Super Joe admitted if the Avalanche had rushed him into making his choice by the draft or start of the free-agent period, he would have opted to retire instead of sign a one-year deal for season No. 20.

Injury sidelined Sakic to 44 games last year, which may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. He didn't have near the mental and physical wear and tear to overcome during the offseason, and he did manage 40 points (nearly a point-a-game pace) so there is reason to expect he could be productive in a top-line role the Avs will ask of him again.

Last season: 44-31-7, 95 points, second place Northwest Division, sixth place in the Western Conference. Rode a second-straight, strong last quarter to secure the playoff spot the Avalanche barely missed the previous year and were primed to pull off an upset. Colorado knocked off division rival and the No. 3 seed Minnesota Wild in six games but put up little resistance during a four-game sweep in Round 2 at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, who won the deciding fourth game in Denver 8-2.

Imports: LW Darcy Tucker (2007-08 team: Toronto Maple Leafs), G Andrew Raycroft (Toronto Maple Leafs), RW Brian Willsie (Los Angeles Kings), LW Per Ledin (Sweden), D Daniel Tjarnqvist (Russia), C Nathan Smith (Pittsburgh Penguins), C Marty Sertich (Dallas Stars), C Matt Hendricks (Boston Bruins).

Exports: G Jose Theodore (Washington Capitals), D Jeff Finger (Toronto Maple Leafs), LW Andrew Brunette (Minnesota Wild), D Kurt Sauer (Phoenix Coyotes), RW Brad Richardson (Los Angeles Kings), D Johnny Boychuk (Boston Bruins), C Wyatt Smith (Tampa Bay Lightning).

Three keys to the season: Focus will be in the crease where the big question is how will the goaltending duo of Peter Budaj and Raycroft perform. Budaj has yet to seize the No. 1 spot in his three years with the team. His .903 save percentage and 2.57 goals-against-average don't scream for him to start, and he certainly needs to improve his save percentage when the team is short-handed (.859) as well as during overtime (.667). The intriguing addition is Raycroft, who is reunited with goalie coach Jeff Hackett. The two were teammates in Boston just as Hackett played in Montreal the season Theodore collected his hardware. The hope is Hackett can resurrect Raycroft's fortunes as he did with Theodore. If so, and if Budaj uses the fact he lost the No. 1 job last season as motivation this season, maybe the tandem isn't as bad as everyone thinks.

Second, there has to be a marked improvement in special teams. The Avalanche were better than only two others teams with an ineffective power play (14.6 percent conversion rate). And they were 20th on the kill, although five playoff qualifiers were worse, so maybe that's not as big of a concern. There is one theory that the power play suffered because weapons such as Ryan Smyth, Paul Stastny and Sakic missed considerable amounts of time due to injuries. And defenseman John-Michael Liles wasn't as effective as in the past. What ever the reasons, there's no question the unit has to improve.

Third, Tony Granato is getting a second chance to coach the Avs. One of the better men in a game of great guys, Granato coached Colorado to a 72-33-17-11 record from 2002-04 (first- and second-round playoff losses) then stepped down to make way for Joel Quenneville, who he now replaces.

Granato, 44, was a team-first player during his 13-year career, and he figures to bring that attitude and what he learned from his first go-around, along with the knowledge of what Colorado has in the organization, to guide the Avalanche. He'll have to be fair and tough. If he sees some of the veterans not getting it done as in the past, Granato will have to make the right choice on a nightly basis.

On the hot seat: Smythe scored 14 goals and injuries limited him to only 55 games last season, the first of a five-year, $31.2-million deal he signed in July 2007 to play in Denver. He expects more from himself, and the Avalanche will demand it. Smyth is 32-years old now, and with 843 games under his belt, the question is how will he hold up physically during the remaining four years of his deal? Smyth plays a physical style, goes into the dirty areas to set screens and score, and maybe it's taking a toll. Smyth is determined, however, so don't look for him to shy away from the challenge or those areas he's accustomed to going on the ice.

Poised to blossom: Wojtek Wolski not only has the coolest NHL name since Zarley Zalapski, but also he has an opportunity to play a top-six forward role as second-line left wing. Considering the struggles of the power play, he could get rewarded with ice time there as well. Wolski has posted nearly identical numbers during his first two full seasons (50 and 48 points, respectively) as the 22-year-old native of Zabrze, Poland, has 162 games of NHL experience.

Analysis and prediction: How much the veterans have left – namely Sakic, Foote and Smyth – and how the goaltending plays out will tell the tale. Even with the loss of Finger, the defense isn't bad, and that may be the Avs' forte. The Northwest Division has been very balanced the last couple of years, so that should be a battle in itself. Colorado is definitely a bubble team, and intangibles such as injury and good fortune could be the difference between slipping in or barely missing the cut. Bottom line, the Avs are looking at 10th place in the rugged West.

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