Puck Daddy - NHL

NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.

Last Semester (see also Avs eulogy): Finished sixth in the Western Conference (44-31-7, 95 points). The Colorado Avalanche overcame an injury-plagued season, added some familiar faces at the deadline, knocked out the Minnesota Wild in six games and then were absolutely corn-holed by the Detroit Red Wings in the second round. Seriously, the last time we saw something that gruesome involving the Avs and the Winged Wheel, it was sandwiched between the top of the boards and Claude Lemieux's forearm.

Homecoming King (Top Player): Paul Stastny led the Avalanche with 71 points last season at 22 years old. But Joe Sakic is just two years removed from a 100-point season when he was 36. Now 38, Sakic left Mats Sundin alone on the fence at the end of August and decided to suit up for another year with the Avalanche. Think he's got enough left in the tank? Sakic tallied 18 points in 20 games after returning from a wonky groin, and then added another 10 points in 10 playoff games.

Granted, some of the credit should go to Swedish lifemate Peter Forsberg's decision to sign with the Avs, and his absence will be felt this season (at first). But he also wasn't there two seasons ago when -- once more, with feeling -- Joe Sakic had a 100-point season. The NHL is a more interesting place with him in it. He's a guy you root for.

Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): If your sophomore slump is four goals and two points, then your junior year is primed to be extraordinary. Wojtek Wolski posted 18 goals and 48 points for a Joel Quenneville team that wasn't exactly going to make anyone forget the Gretzky Oilers for its offensive ingenuity. Wolski may have been happier than anyone else in the locker room that Sakic decided to return, keeping him from having to likely shift to center in Sakic's absence. Now, he could play on either Sakic's or Stastny's wing. Career highs in goals and points should be anticipated.

Two other names to keep an eye on: Marek Svatos, an incredibly talented but ultimately fragile player, and sparkplug T.J. Hensick, who'll seek increased ice time this season.

Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): By far, Jose Theodore's best year in a Colorado uniform came in his contract season. If that wasn't enough to give the team pause, Theodore's spectacular flameout in the Detroit series nearly squandered a season's worth of good will. Paris Hilton's a sure thing; Theodore repeating the best GAA and save percentage he had since 2004, not so much.

While Andrew Brunette endeared himself to Colorado fans, there's no doubt he had lost a little bit on the fastball last season and a change in scenery was in order.

Also, a dog is as genetically similar to a large-mouthed bass as Jeff Finger is to being a $3.5 million a year defenseman. He's not the flop some have made him out to be this summer; but it was money better left unspent from an Avs perspective.

Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Darcy Tucker comes in from the Leafs to pretty much fill Brunette's role, but he's far more contentious than his predecessor. In a conference that's seen one franchise bully its way to a Stanley Cup, adding a warrior like Tucker gives the team some legitimate snarl. And the fact that he chose the Avs over several other suitors was a vote of confidence.

Daniel Tjarnqvist is a good depth defenseman, but overall Colorado was rather quiet this off-season on the free-agent and trade market. To hear Avs fans tell it: Too quiet.

Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): Tucker had 100 penalty minutes last season; that would have placed him third on the Avalanche behind the bruising Ian Laperriere (140) and Cody McLeod (120). Overall, Colorado had 48 fights last season.

But honestly, the unanimous winner for class clown has to still be Scott Parker, who earned 70 penalty minutes in 25 games last season. As Brendan Witt will tell you, Parker can get a little ... uh ... enthusiastic during the game.

Teacher of the Year: Tony Granato replaces the guy who replaced him. Some NHL cities might call this a "retread," but Avalanche management has been vocal that Granato was simply the best man for the job. Or at least knew what they wanted to hear in the interview. Will his coaching style allow some of the team's young offensive talent more room to create, and be less restrictive than former coach Joel Quenneville's at-times rigid system? Hopefully.

The Custodians (Goalies): It's mandatory to take a shot at the state of the team's post-Theodore goaltending tandem of Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft. But the more Budaj plays, the better he's been. And if goaltending coach Jeff Hackett could decode Theodore's myriad of malfunctions, maybe Raycroft is salvageable too. Joe from Mile High Hockey, a Budaj advocate, had this take:

Peter Budaj has earned the role as starting goalie of the Avalanche.  He endured unfair distrust and punishment under Joel Quenneville, and patiently waited his turn while an undeserving Jose Theodore got all the playing time.  He's still young, and there will be a lot of pressure on him, but he's way better than Andrew Raycroft and should be allowed to start at least 50 games---win or lose.

The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): Adam Foote wanted to play in Colorado last trade deadline, and recommitted to the Avalanche this summer with a two-year deal. He looked like a different player upon returning to the Avs in the second half of 2007-08.

With Kurt Sauer and Jeff Finger moving on via free agency, the retention of John-Michael Liles was an important move this summer. There's a lot to like in the balance of this group: Physical hockey from Foote, Scott Hannan and Ruslan Salei, combined with players like Liles and Jordan Leopold. Brett Clark is pretty good at everything and great at nothing. Tjarnqvist and young Kyle Cumiskey will also be in the mix.

Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): It's hard to call a player "a potential flop" when he's coming off the season Ryan Smyth had in 2007-08. Because last season was already such a flop. But the expectations are there for Smyth to turn it around this season, getting back to being a 60-70 point player and a dangerous threat. Granato will undoubtedly slot him with better offensive talent than Quenneville did -- please, no more Tyler Arnason -- which will help. But Smyth looked fragile and unconfident last season. A good start is mandatory, or else this could be another lost season.

One guy I'd leave off this list: Milan Hejduk. The dude's been on an every-other-good-year thing, like that old theory about the quality of "Star Trek" movies. So expect him to crack 70 points and score 30 goals. Because that's the trend.

AV Club (Media): TV guy Mike Haynes is battling back from brain aneurysm surgery. Yikes. The Denver Post has two of the most controversial writers on the Avs beat: Blogger/beat guy Adrian Dater and columnist Terry Frei. On the Web, we visit Mile High Hockey, Jibblescribbits, Avslova, Jerseys and Hockey Love, In the Cheap Seats and Avs Talk.

Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Health determines whether this team contends in the West or gets swallowed up by the unbelievable competition in the conference. Sure, "stay healthy" is stupid cliché coach-speak. But not when a team lost as many significant man-games to injury as Colorado did last season. They need Smyth healthy. They need Sakic healthy. The can't afford to lose one of their top defenseman for a significant period of time. And, most of all, the fortunes of this team change dramatically if good health shines upon Peter Forsberg later in the season.

2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Forwards: B+ (A-minus with Forsberg back)
Defense: B
Goaltending: C+
Special Teams: C+ (unless Granato can figure out how to get that power play humming)
Coaching: C
Management: C+

Prom Theme: "Hey Joe" by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. For the simple fact that the majority of Avalanche fans might not have given a toss about this year's team had Joe Sakic decided to retire. His return as a top-line center energized the fan base, and for at least one more season gave hope that "getting the band back together" could potentially mean Sakic's name on the Stanley Cup again.

Expected Graduation: The Western Conference is very, very tight. But this group was good enough to make the cut last season through all of its injuries and adversity. I'm a little more concerned than most that Granato's coaching style will leave Budaj and Raycroft a bit more exposed than Theodore ever was. It comes down to goaltending and health: If Colorado has both, they'll make the cut as a 6-through-8 seed. If one of these factors isn't there -- and I include Forsberg's availability in "health" -- then Sakic's swan song suddenly stops sadly. (Five times fast ... go ahead, I double-dog dare ya.)

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