The Colorado Avalanche's seasons have been a roller coaster ride of late. In 2008, the Avs reacquired stars and fan favorites Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote and made a strong late season push to make it to the playoffs. They upset the Minnesota Wild before eventually falling to the hated Detroit Red Wings. In 2009, they finished at the bottom of the Western Conference and third from the bottom overall. The silver lining was of course the high draft pick that turned out to be Matt Duchene and then Ryan O'Reilly in the second round. Their rookie year, the Avs were back on track making the playoffs and giving the #1 seed Sharks a run for their money. It seemed as if these young rookies as well as new goaltender Craig Anderson were propelling the Avs in the right direction. However, last year, Anderson suffered a couple injuries and never quite regained his 2009-10 form. On February 18th, 2011, Anderson was traded to Ottawa for fellow goalie Brian Elliott. Elliott would prove to not be the Avs answer in goal to say the least. The Avs would finish the season in the penultimate spot in the standings. They drafted highly touted prospect Gabriel Landeskog with the second overall pick. A Swedish-born player, who played juniors in Canada, Landeskog was considered by many the most NHL-ready of the 2011 draft class. Barring an injury or an absolutely terrible camp, Landeskog will almost certainly be on the Avs opening night roster. He has a highly impressive junior career including becoming the first European-born captain of the Kitchener Rangers, but as Alexandre Daigle, Ryan Leaf, Jamarcus Russell, and Patrick Stefan will tell you, it not about what you do before you're drafted, it's all about what you do afterward!
The Landeskog pick certainly makes sense. He's pegged as a power forward, a position the Avs were in dire need of after trading away up-and-comer Chris Stewart. The controversial trade sent Stewart and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis for former #1 overall pick Erik Johnson, Jay McClement, and a first round pick. Expect big things from Johnson. Considered by some to be a bust already, Johnson is only 23-years-old and missed an entire season due to a freak ACL injury. In fact, many people are picking Johnson to take the reigns as Avs captain following the retirement of captain Adam Foote. Avalanche Executive Advisor/Alternate Governor Joe Sakic compared Johnson to former Av Rob Blake. With Johnson no doubt leading the defensive corps, the blue line also boasts a returning Kyle Quincey, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury. He'll be in the final year of his contract with a lot to prove. Although the Avs have traded away promising defensemen like Shattenkirk and Colby Cohen, 2009 draft picks Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie are expected to bolster the Avs defense in the very near future. The Avs also signed big free agents Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien. Both these guys will add tremendous size as the Avs blue line was very small last year. While the Avs did trade away veteran and fan favorite John-Michael Liles, Elliott is said to have skills that will make Avs fans forget about Liles and Shatty. Finally, the Avs first round pick from the Stewart-Johnson trade turned out to be Duncan Siemens, a defensman who's been called the toughest player in the WHL. At only 17, Siemens will probably spend one more year in juniors, but expect him in an Avs uniform making an impact very soon.
In addition to drafting Landeskog, the Avs signed former Minnesota first round pick Chuck Kobasew to add depth to their forward ranks. At center, the Avs have Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, and Ryan O'Reilly. Those are three very solid centers. 2010 first round pick Joey Hishon might have a chance to make the team as well and may be converted to a winger since the top three center spots are filled. Hopefully, the Avs will see more of the Peter Mueller who was acquired in 2010 and was phenomenal in his 15 short games with the Avs before a couple of concussions put him out of action for over a year.
The old cliche is that a team is only as strong as its goaltending. Craig Anderson is now gone. Longtime backup Peter Budaj is now gone. Brian Elliott is now gone. In a bold move, the Avs traded their 2012 first round draft pick for former first round pick and once goalie of the future in Washington, Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov claimed the #1 job from former Av Jose Theodore a couple years ago, but was unable to retain it last year due to injuries. Ironically, Tomas Vokoun, the veteran all-star many picked to sign with Colorado, ended up going to Washington. Many people have criticized the Avs' acquisition of Varlamov, especially at the price of a first round pick, but Varly could certainly experience a breakout year similar to Craig Anderson in 2009. He says his injuries are behind him and being a former first round pick, he has the talent to be a legitimate #1 goalie. The Avs also picked up former Conn Smythe winner and Stanley Cup champion Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Although he's been injury plagued the last couple of years, Giggy still has some gas left in the tank and will be a good veteran mentor for the younger Varlamov. The Avs new goaltending tandem will be solid.
In conclusion, I expect the Avs to be good. Sure, I'm an Avalanche optimist, but I do think they have what it takes to get back into the playoffs this year and give their young guys some playoff experience. I think this year, we'll see a team more like the 2007-08 and 2009-10 teams rather than the 2008-09 and 2010-11 teams. I don't think the Avs are quite a Stanley Cup contender yet, but perhaps a first round upset and a berth into round 2 of the playoffs. Keep in mind, the Avs core guys are still in their early 20s. Finally, here's a look at Giggy's new Avs mask.