The Colorado Avalanche surprised everybody a year ago, climbing from the basement of the Western Conference all the way to the postseason.
Now, a year into the reign of goaltender Craig Anderson and young phenom Matt Duchene, the Avs are ready to take the next step. If you're consulting our preseason NHL power rankings, it looks like they have a solid chance at making the playoffs again.
Our hockey bloggers predicted the Avs to finish in 8th in the West, right in the same exact spot they finished a year ago. Was last year a fluke, or are the young Avalanche ready to build upon an impressive 2009-10 campaign? We try to find out, with help from our bloggers at Mile High Hockey, by looking at Five Burning Questions surrounding the team this season.
1. Stan Kroenke is transferring ownership of the Avalanche to his son, Josh, as a condition of purchasing the St Louis Rams. What impact will that have on the team?
MHH: Probably not much. Stan has generally let team President Pierre Lacroix handle the hockey stuff in Denver and Josh will probably do the same. Josh is already heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the Denver Nuggets, but isn’t expected to dabble too much in the hockey arm of the family business.
2. What will be the Avs’ biggest weakness this year?
MHH: The Avalanche gave up a ton of shots last year; no goalie faced more of them than Craig Anderson. Top shot blocker Brett Clark departed via free agency, the guys that are still around aren’t getting any younger and the only new faces on the squad this year will be rookies like Kevin Shattenkirk. In other words, I hope Anderson got plenty of rest this summer, because he is going to see a ton of action.
3. Along with Clark, the Avalanche allowed several players to depart via free agency. Who will be missed the most?
MHH: D, none of the above. Darcy Tucker, Ruslan Salei, Clark, Matt Hendricks, Chris Durno and Marek Svatos all left the Avalanche this summer. Of the group, Hendricks is the only one the Avalanche attempted to re-sign (reportedly). All had some bright moments with the Avalanche, but none were high-impact players last year and their departures won’t change the makeup of the team too much. Of course, it would have been nice if the Avalanche had used some of the freed up cap money in the free agency market…but that’s another question entirely.
4. Should the Avalanche have acquired a free agent or two this summer?
MHH: The company line is that the Avalanche are rebuilding and want to make sure the youngsters get plenty of playing time. They also and don’t want to find themselves in cap trouble down the road when the current young guns are due for big raises and no do they want a repeat of 2005 when a new CBA and salary cap cost them key players (only Stastny is signed beyond the 2012 expiration of the current CBA). The reality, though, is that the Avalanche could have added a veteran winger and defenseman without mortgaging their future. If the young players continue to improve under the tutelage of Joe Sacco (who should have been coach of the year), the Avs will be okay. If the kids start experiencing growing pains, the lack of activity in free agency could prove costly.
5. Who will be the Avs’ breakout player this year?
MHH: I’m picking former Golden Gopher Ryan Stoa. Stoa was the 34th player taken in the 2005 draft, one spot after Dallas’ James Neal and 10 spots head of Paul Stastny. He looked tentative in his first call-up last December, but looked much more confident in a late-season call-up, scoring two goals in the final two games of the season. The injury to Peter Mueller opens up a big hole at the already-thin left wing position for the Avs, which should give Stoa an *ahem* golden opportunity. If the Ryan Stoa we saw in April is for real, he could end up having a solid season with the Avalanche.