If there were two “Cinderella” teams in the NHL last season, my votes would go to the Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche. Both teams were nearly-universal picks for the Western Conference basement, with little in name recognition and new coaches behind the bench.
While the Coyotes saw big losses (defenseman Zbynek Michalek) and significant additions (veteran playmaker Ray Whitney), the Avs have been pretty quiet. They at least maintained some of their highly touted young core, though, signing power forward in the making Chris Stewart to a two-year, $5.75 million contract according to Adrian Dater. Each year will amount to a $2.875 million cap hit and will bring the team’s total payroll to a bit under $41 million for the 2010-11 season.
That’s a solid deal for Stewart, at least considering the mediocre market this summer. The Avalanche provided a little more info on the gritty forward in a press release. Here are a few snippets.
Stewart, 22, led Colorado with 28 goals and finished second on the team in scoring with 64 points in 77 games last season. Stewart, who scored 25 of his 28 goals at even strength, also paced the Avalanche in both game-winning goals (5) and shots (221). The Toronto native was +4 for the season and added 100 hits and 73 penalty minutes. Stewart went on to lead the Avalanche with three goals (3g/0a) in six playoff games.
Colorado’s first-round pick (18th overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Stewart made his NHL debut with the Avs in 2008-09, finishing as the club’s top rookie scorer with 11 goals and 19 points in 53 games. The 6-foot-2, 228-pound winger played three seasons of junior hockey with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League and also spent a season-and-a-half with Colorado’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Avalanche experience a little bit of a letdown next season, much like the better-than-expected St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets regressed after surprise playoff runs. Still, Colorado has a nice, young nucleus with forwards including Stewart, Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and T.J. Galiardi. Keeping Stewart in the fold will help them build the kind of core group that could gradually move them from scrappy upstarts to genuine contenders.