Return of Roy, Arrival of MacKinnon beacons of hope for Avalanche
Andre Benoit, Nate Guenin, Nick Holden, Cory Sarich, Alex Tanguay.
David Jones, Shane O'Brien, Aaron Palushaj, Greg Zanon.
Last year: For the first time since the Quebec Nordiques' futility streak more than 20 years ago, the Avalanche failed to make the Stanley Cup playoffs for three straight seasons. And things were as bleak off the ice as they were on the ice.
Not only were wins becoming scarce, but the team also had to start the lockout-shortened campaign without Ryan O'Reilly. Without a contract, the restricted free agent centre stayed home as both sides dug in their heels on tough contract negotiations. And the first party to blink was the Calgary Flames, who got O'Reilly to sign a two-year, $10 million offer sheet.
The Avs quickly matched Calgary's move, but O'Reilly's return did little to spark a struggling team at both ends of the ice. P-A Parenteau arrived as a free agent the previous summer and the move paid off handsomely with 18 goals and 43 points for share of the team lead in scoring with Matt Duchene. But the offensive production dropped off considerably from there as O'Reilly's first-half absence and captain Gabriel Landeskog's injuries took their toll.
With a struggling blue line corps and goaltending, the Avalanche weren't impressive on defence either, with a penalty kill ranked near the bottom of the league and Semyon Varlamov registering a 1-14-2 record on the road. Changes were definitely on the way.
This Year: To build a winner for the future, the Avalanche are turning to winners from their past.
The biggest changes made early in the offseason were in their front office, with Hall of Famer Joe Sakic promoted to executive vice-president of hockey operations and being given a big say on just about everything.
With Joe Sacco gone, the club turned to former franchise goaltender Patrick Roy as their new head coach and he'll also have plenty of input as well. Roy brings an impressive coaching resume from his Memorial Cup-winning stint with the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts along with a legendary will to win - as proven with his four Stanley Cup rings and three Conn Smythe trophies.
With a young core and plenty of room for improvement, the Avs brought in a couple of veterans via trade to help keep the dressing room steady. Forward Alex Tanguay is another proven winner from the team's more glorious days, while Cory Sarich is a solid stay-at-home blueliner who won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Their other monumental move came on draft day as the Avalanche, holding the first overall pick for the first time since 1991, selected centre Nathan MacKinnon from the Halifax Mooseheads. MacKinnon is pretty much a lock to start the season in Denver and will have plenty of support from Duchene and Landeskog - who both signed long-term contracts over the summer.
The Long and the Short – How will a full 82-game slate affect the Avalanche's performance after a shortened season?
While the Avalanche boast a young group of players in need of experience, most of their core have already gone through the 82-game grind and save for the draft, struggling in a 48-game season didn't change their fortunes for the better.
Going back to a full 82 will certainly give Sakic and Roy more time to assess what they have as they work to rebuild a winner.
On the Books – What off-season moves did the Avs make to get themselves back in cap shape?
There was once a time when the Avalanche were one of the league's top-spending teams, actively shopping through trades and the free agent market for players to complement Sakic, Roy and Peter Forsberg.
But things changed dramatically since the implementation of the salary cap, as the Avs quickly sunk into the bottom third of the NHL in terms of payroll.
While Colorado is not a team that spends to the ceiling, they didn't dump any big contracts with their compliance buyout option. The Avalanche bought out depth defenceman Greg Zanon and the $750,000 paid in each of the next two seasons won't break their budget.
Sakic quickly identified Duchene and Landeskog as important franchise pieces by signing them to long-term deals. And that leaves O'Reilly and Stastny as question marks throughout the season. Stastny is entering the final year of his five-year, $33 million contract and if the Avs stumble through the season, he could be trade bait.
O'Reilly's situation is a lot different. His next contract with the Avalanche will have to be worth at least $6.5 million - his salary for 2013-14 - annually to retain his rights. And because of the offer sheet the Avs matched last season, O'Reilly cannot be traded from Colorado for a full calendar year - until Feb. 28. Either way, they're paying him a lot of money and will be expecting a lot of bang for their buck.
Long Division – A look at the intriguing possibilities ahead for the Avalanche after realignment.
Moving to the NHL's revamped Central Division will be interesting for the Avs, who were struggling last season alongside Calgary and Edmonton in the Northwest. This season, new rivals Chicago and St. Louis are expected to be the teams to beat and Minnesota squeaked into the postseason as well.
The Avs could be left in a dogfight with Dallas, Nashville and Winnipeg for the third playoff spot.
Locking up one of the 'wild card' spots will also be a challenge, as Anaheim, Los Angeles, Vancouver and San Jose - all in the Pacific Division - made the playoffs last year as well.
Fantasy - Scott Cullen's Player to Watch
Steve Downie, RW - He suffered a torn ACL in his second game last season and may still be working his way back to full health when the season starts, but there are few agitators that can be as productive as Downie, who was one of three players (Scott Hartnell and Steve Ott were the others) from 2009-2010 through 2011-2012 to record at least 40 goals and 400 penalty minutes.
Downie is expected to start on the right wing with No. 1 overall pick Nate MacKinnon, which should be a good opportunity to score a little bit while not facing the opposition's top defensive units. Forward depth is a decided strength for the Avalanche now and Downie is part of the reason.
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Pressing Question: Will the Avs’ front-office revamp have an on-ice effect?
Over 15 seasons, Jean-Sebastien Giguere has been on his share of winners and losers. He led the Anaheim Ducks to a Stanley Cup in 2007 and was the Conn Smythe Trophy recipient when the Ducks lost to New Jersey in the final in 2003. He was also a member of some bad teams in Hartford and Calgary.
So when the Avs struggled down the stretch and postseason hopes were all but lost, few were surprised when he ripped his teammates for caring more about partying in the offseason than about setting a better standard for next season.
"Some guys are more worried about their Vegas trip at the end of the season than playing the games, than playing every minute of the games," a fuming Giguere told the Denver Post. "It's embarrassing. I'm embarrassed to be here right now. Quite frankly, I don't care about your Vegas trip right now."
That said, most of last year's team remains intact. With Sakic in a more prominent role and Roy running the dressing room, you can be sure they'll try to turn around that bad culture.
Will having Sakic and Roy be enough to turn things around for the better this season, or will the Avs have to do more?
- Colorado Avalanche Preview by Kelvin Chow, TSN.ca