Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Empire Strikes Back

Ok, so the Avs did not have a good season.  That's an understatement.  After exceeding all expectations in 2009-10 with a Calder Trophy candidate (Duchene), Jack Adam candidate (Sacco), and a goalie who finished top 5 for the Vezina and almost made the roster for Team USA (Anderson), not to mention a playoff berth and a great series with the Sharks where the Avs were a couple of bounces from taking the series, the Avs finished the 2010-11 season in 29th place.  Ironically, they were picked my many experts to finish there in 09-10.

I'd like to think of the 09-10 season, the 10-11 season, and the upcoming 11-12 season as a trilogy; more specifically, the original Star Wars trilogy.  Episode IV: A New Hope ended happily with the rebels destroying the Death Star.  That was the Avs season last year, in which they made the playoffs and took the Sharks to the limit.  This season was Empire Strikes Back.  Han Solo is frozen in Carbonite, Luke Skywalker just got his hand cut off and found out that Darth Vader's his dad.  The Avs lost 474 man-games to injury and finished 29th out of 30 teams.  I may be a glass half full kind of guy, but I expect the Avs to return to the playoffs next year and return balance to the Force, like in Return of the Jedi.

Easier said than done.  One can argue that the Avs success of a year ago can be attributed to teams not taking them seriously.  Whether that's the case or not, the Avs will have to make some changes this summer and compete at a higher level next year.  First off, there will be some free agents come July 1st, who the Avs should certainly get locked down before then.  The biggest is Milan Hejduk.  He has publicly expressed his desire to stay here in Colorado and I expect the Avs to get him signed.  With the retirement of Foote, he is the last veteran leader on the team.  In fact, Hejduk (35) and Liles (30) are the only players over the age of 30 currently on the roster.  Needless to say, the Avs are a very young team.  The million dollar question of course is, are they a young, up-and-coming team as the 09-10 run would indicate or are they a young, inexperienced team who will be cellar dwellers of the NHL for the foreseeable future like the Oilers and Islanders have been for a while.  I certainly believe the former.

The next issue the Avs will address is the NHL draft.  Last night's lottery turned out to be an underwhelming one for the Avs.  The Devils defied odds and jumped from 8th to 4th.  The Avs were of course unable to grab the 18.8% change of winning the #1 overall pick.  Therefore, they will get the 2nd pick and St. Louis' 11th pick.  The #2 overall pick will be an interesting one.  This will be the highest the Avs have picked since moving to Denver.  The top 3 prospects are Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson, and Gabriel Landeskog, a center, defenseman, and left wing respectively.  While there's not really a clear-cut #1, Edmonton is expected to pick Nugent-Hopkins.  That would work out for the Avs as center is probably the one position where they are stacked.  Duchene, Stastny, O'Reilly, Dupuis, and McClement provide talent and depth up the middle.  Not to mention the Avs first round pick from 2010, Joey Hishon, who is also a center.  I suspect that if he's ready for the big show this year or next, he would be moved to wing like previous Avalanche centers-turned-wingers Alex Tanguay and Wojtek Wolski.  I could see Hishon on left wing with O'Reilly in the next year or two and they were childhood friends growing up. 

Anyway, that leaves an interesting pick between Larsson and Landeskog, both top Swedish prospects.  Landeskog is enticing because he is being described as a "power forward."  Since trading Chris Stewart, the Avs are clearly without one.  David Jones has size, but his injury history cannot bode well for him trying to play a "power" game.  If Landeskog is NHL-ready this year, which most #2 picks are these days, he could very realisticly play with Duchene or Stastny.  Larsson, however, is a 6'3", 200lb. D-man.  The Avs were dead last in team defense and penalty killing last season, so a chance to improve their defense is very hard to pass up.  Plus, could Johnson and Larsson on the points be the next Bourque/Blake combo or Proger/Niedermayer in Anaheim?  Way too early to say, but it's a tempting thought!

In 2009, they said Tavares, Hedman, and Duchene were all can't-miss picks.  The Avs picked 3rd, so Matt Duchene pretty much fell into their lap.  It was a win-win for the Avs and Duchene.  I love that pic of a young Duchene wearing what looks to be a Forsberg jersey, standing in his room covered in Avs memorabilia including framed Sakic and Roy jerseys.  Mark my words, Duchene will be (if he's not already), the face of the Avalanche franchise.  Hopefully, whatever hole they choose to fill with Larsson or Landeskog, will be the can't-miss variety as well. 

My last topic of the day involves the captain's "C."  For the second time in three seasons, the Avs have seen their captain retire.  Sakic was the best player in Quebec/Colorado franchise history and Foote was its most reliable, toughest stay at home defenseman for nearly two decades.  Big shoes to fill!  I think Paul Stastny is probably the front runner to inherit the "C."  Milan Hejduk is certainly a candidate as well, but Stastny is a lot younger and could potentially hold the captaincy for many years to come.  Adrian Dater of the Denver Post picked Liles as his candidate.  Another good choice, but he's never even been a full-time alternate.  Moreover, Stastny is the obvious choice and a very good one, but I would love to see it go to Duchene as well.  He seems like the kind of guy who would truly chersh the "C" and even at the age of 20, be responsible enough to handle the pressures and responsibilities.  I would also like to see the four rotating alternate captains from years past.  Back in the day, on any given night, you could see Forsberg, Foote, Blake, Bourque, or Drury sporting the "A."  If Stastny's given the "C," I would like to see "As" on the sweaters of Hejduk, Duchene, Liles, and Johnson.  All those guys have proven leadership and captain capabilities in their own right.  Ironically, at the end of last season, Jay McClement wore the "A" the most often when Foote and Stastny were hurt.  He had 1 goal and 4 points in 24 games with the Avs.  I don't want to knock the guy.  The Avs brought him in for his defensive play and penalty killing.  As I mentioned previously, they finished dead last in both.

I'll leave you with this, my ideal lineup for the Avs' 2011-12 season:

Winnik/O'Reilly/Jones (Galiardi)
McLeod/Dupuis/McClement (Koci, Yip)

Quincey/Elliott/Barrie (Cumiskey)


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