2010-2011 NHL season preview: Colorado Avalanche

mattduchene3.jpgLast season: (43-30-9, 95 points, 2nd in Northwest Division, 8th in Western Conference) The Avalanche were last year’s Cinderella story of sorts. They got off to a hot start and just kept winning games. Analysts were shocked by this considering how poorly they finished the year before and the fact that they kept getting outplayed yet not outscored by opponents. The team struggled towards the end of the season and nearly missed out on the playoffs.

Head coach: Joe Sacco’s first season in Colorado made for one hell of a debut. After coming into the job with no NHL coaching experience, he made the most of his aggressive defensive style and counter-attack with a very young team, many of whom he coached in the AHL in Lake Erie. While he can thank goalie Craig Anderson for helping cover up a lot of team mistakes, the Avs played hard every night and made the most of their opportunities flying under the radar. Colorado won’t be able to afford to do that this year as everyone is well aware of who they are.

Key departures: F Marek Svatos, F Stephane Yelle, F Darcy Tucker. Losing the inconsistent Svatos looks big on paper, but in reality he wasn’t much of a factor in the fortunes of the team anymore. Yelle and Tucker don’t matter very much either. Tucker’s departure appears to be a welcome one for Avs fans.

Key arrivals: F Daniel Winnik. He’s the only one. Seriously. These Avs aren’t quite so loose with the purse strings.

Under pressure: It’s a bit unfair to do, but Anderson is under the most scrutiny here. He faced the most shots (2,233) in the NHL last year and played in 71 games. Posting a ridiculous .917 save percentage with a 2.64 goals against meant that he was more than capable of doing his job but counting on having a guy without much of a track record doing that again is asking a lot. The Avs will need Anderson to be as good as he was last year to get into the playoffs again.

GYI0060240972-anderson-bahr-getty.jpgProtecting the house: It’s all on Anderson as outlined above. He’s the key to the Avs success and if he’s able to do what he did last year, they’ll be in good shape. You can’t help but wonder if there’s going to be some regression to the norm. Judging by Anderson’s statistics in his last two years as a backup in Florida with last season in Colorado, what we see is what we likely get. That bodes well for Colorado. Backing him up once again is Peter Budaj and Denver’s favorite goaltending whipping boy could be destined for another year of light relief work and spot starting.

Defensively, things are the same as they were last year. John-Michael Liles will do his part to improve his game while Adam Foote will try to make sure age doesn’t expose his game. Kyle Quincey, Kyle Cumiskey, and Scott Hannan round out the top five. Looking at the sixth spot, you likely have a competition between Ryan Wilson and Boston University stud Kevin Shattenkirk, who could be the surprise of the year for the Avs if he makes the team.

Top line we’d like to see: Peter Mueller-Matt Duchene-Milan Hejduk. Ideally, we’ll get to see this line at some point this season, but it won’t be at the start. Mueller is out dealing with another concussion, a blow that really does put the bite on the Avs offense. Duchene will look to avoid the sophomore slump after having a stellar rookie season, one where he didn’t play like an 18-year-old fresh out of juniors. Hejduk, while he’s not the goal scorer he used to be, is still one of, if not the best, on the Avalanche at filling the net. Staying healthy would allow him to get back to being a 30+ goal scorer.

Oh captain, my captain: Adam Foote remains the leader of the team. He’s the oldest player on the roster and he’s got the Avalanche legacy to show for it. When he was chosen for the “C” last year, some thought it would be Paul Stastny’s time to be the leader but it’s Foote’s job for now. Having the elder statesman lead the way in Denver probably isn’t the worst idea.

Street fighting man: Should he ever end up in the lineup, there’s only one man who can be this team’s fighting figurehead and it’s David Koci. Koci is the league’s most basic enforcer in that his sole job is to beat the tar out of someone on the other team. He’s ferocious, he has no qualms about fighting and that’s about it. Guys like Chris Stewart and David Jones as well as Foote will throw down on occasion, but they aren’t there to make a living out of doing so.

Best-case scenario: The defense tightens things up so Anderson doesn’t have to stand on his head night in and night out. Duchene avoids the sophomore slump and scores 30 goals while Mueller can come back and stay healthy and produce. Stastny continues being the team’s best assist man and gets Hejduk back above 30+ goals. Young players like Stewart, T.J. Galiardi, Brandon Yip and David Jones can each stay healthy and evolve into the power forwards Joe Sacco is looking for and the Avs return to the playoffs taking advantage of a poor division only to run into a buzz saw top-three team in the playoffs.

Worst-case scenario: Anderson’s statistics in goal come back to earth and the Avs have to rely on their offense to keep them in games. Duchene struggles with Mueller being unable to come back to normal after his concussion problems. The team’s young forwards all plateau while Stastny is left with virtually no one to pass to. John-Michael Liles gets run out of town as the scapegoat for all the team’s woes and the team misses the playoffs.

Keeping it real: This is a team that could go either way. They can either build off the success from last year and keep things going in the right direction, or they can slide back to the pack the way they did towards the end of last season as other teams seemed to figure them out. As Anderson goes, so go the Avs. It’s a tired bit to hang everything on what the goalie does, but that’s really the case here. The top two lines here can be good, but missing Mueller really touches on the Avs biggest problem being depth. It’s going to be an up and down year and this team can either sneak in at the bottom of the playoffs or just miss out. It’ll be close.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst chance and five being the best, the Avs are a 2. I don’t say this because they’re a bad team nor are they entertaining. They’ll be OK and they’ll certainly be enjoyable to watch (for fans of either team in a given game). I’m worried about Anderson having an off year. I’m worried about the team’s depth. I’m worried that the horseshoe they’ve carried around for the last year is eventually going to run out of good luck. They’re just not built to be a Cup winner.

(Anderson photo: Brian Bahr – Getty Images)

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    The most important question to ask yourself in any fantasy hockey league

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    In many cases, the most pressing questions you’ll ask yourself as a young fantasy hockey manager – when you have all that glorious time – is “How do I finally win this league?”

    (Sometimes, you’ll be more specific, asking “How do I beat my best friend/colleague/frenemy/potential romantic partner/all of the above?”)

    Time can change a lot of things, and sometimes life foists different priorities upon your mind. You might find yourself more interested in less glorious things like taking care of debts or aiming for promotions. This pivots, then, to what I believe is the most important question a potential fantasy GM must ask: “How much work do I really want to do in this league?”

    Every week, PHT plans on running at least two fantasy-focused columns, and the beauty of these is that they can appeal to fantasy owners of all types. Joey Alfieri’s add/drops can be helpful to those who crunch spreadsheets like potato chips, but it can also be a one-stop guide for those who don’t have time to go deep on every Rotoworld column.

    Speaking of Rotoworld, it’s a fantastic resource for fantasy hockey and other sports. Check out Gus Katsaros’ bit on struggling forwards such as Joe Thornton as just one great example.

    This Thursday space is going to serve as an open-ended discussion of fantasy hockey: the narrow triumphs, crushing and seemingly arbitrary defeats, and tactics that may lie a little outside of the box.

    In this specific case, here are a few suggestions if you possess the rare (but valuable) self-awareness to realize that you might not always be able to give your team(s) your maximum attention.

    Lean on workhorse goalies

    In many cases, it’s wise to fight the urge to take big name goalies in fantasy. Instead, you are often better off loading up on true difference-makers, whether they be the true high-scoring defensemen like Brent Burns or game-breaking forwards who still might be around in, say, rounds 3-5.

    It’s a little different if you know you’re not going to monitor every goalie battle, or merely want to keep things simple.

    A workhorse such as Braden Holtby shoots up your rankings in this case. On the other hand, someone facing a backup threat (say Steve Mason vs. Connor Hellebuyck) might not be worth the hassle.

    Old over new

    It’s exciting to identify the next breakthrough stars. Young players can be exciting because they have the chance to make those quantum leaps. The lockout that knocked out the 2004-05 season was memorable in that way:

    Eric Staal in 2003-04: 31 points in 81 games

    Eric Staal in 2005-06: 100 points in 81 games

    Being able to forecast those leaps provides one of the most precious sensations in fantasy: feeling smart.

    On the other hand, that takes its fair share of research, aside from instances where you’ve specifically keyed on prospects that interest you. Rookies can be big risks in fantasy drafts because of the threat of them only getting a “nine-game audition” before their teams avoid burning years off entry-level deals.

    (Note: this might not apply to the Edmonton Oilers.)

    If you know you don’t have time to make contingency plans and/or don’t want to study points per minute to try to find the next Viktor Arvidsson, you might just want to stick with more stable, established veterans.

    Rotoworld Podcast: Can’t Stop Kucherov

    Avoid the Gaboriks

    Injuries can be random in sports, hockey included. Just ask Steven Stamkos, whose poor luck seems borderline freakish. Hockey history is dotted with painful “What if?” questions about icons like Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux down to nice scorers such as Ales Hemsky and Marian Gaborik.

    (Sami Salo, meanwhile, likely often asked “Why me?”)

    Injuries can be especially deflating for less-hands-on types, so maybe shy away from, say, Kris Letang.

    Find some quick references

    Following PHT is a good start to stay abreast of some of the largest developments in the NHL.

    If you’re trying to make quick decisions, Rotoworld’s injury page can provide a quick reference so you know if someone might come back soon versus a case that might be murkier.

    There’s a solid chance of a future column discussing some resources that might help those in a bind in drafts or even setting lineups. Stay tuned.

    ***

    It’s possible to win your league even if you’re not making weekly tweaks like some of your more obsessive competitors.

    The key is to be practical … and lucky. Yeah, luck is a pretty nice thing to have in fantasy, and life. Here’s to a fun 2017-18 from a fantasy perspective, regardless of your level of commitment.

    (Although, don’t be that person who totally abandons a team, leaving a bunch of players with season-ending injuries in your starting lineup. That’s bad form.)

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Deutschland Cup roster provides early look at U.S. men’s Olympic hopefuls

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    The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea are 111 days away and we got our first look at some of the names who will compete to be on the ice on the men’s side vs. Slovenia for USA Hockey’s opening game.

    There were 29 players named to the U.S. roster for next month’s Deutschland Cup where the Americans will take on Slovakia, Russia and Germany. Tony Granato will serve as head coach and Chris Chelios, Ron Rolston, Scott Young and Keith Allain will serve as assistants. Of the 29 players, 21 have played in the NHL and are names you probably recognize.

    FORWARDS
    Ryan Stoa
    Mark Arcobello
    Chad Kolarik
    Andy Miele
    Brian O’Neill
    Brian Gionta
    Jim Slater
    Dan Sexton
    Broc Little
    Sean Backman
    Drew Shore
    Ryan Malone
    Ryan Lasch
    Robbie Earl
    Garrett Roe

    DEFENSEMEN
    Chad Billins
    Bobby Sanguinetti
    Tom Gilber
    Ryan Gunderson
    Noah Welch
    Matt Gilroy
    Jonathan Blum
    Matt Donovan
    Mark Stuart
    Dylan Reese
    Mike Lundin

    GOALTENDERS
    Ryan Zapolski
    Brandon Maxwell
    David Leggio

    The biggest names on the roster are 38-year-old Gionta and 37-year-old Malone, who have 1,653 games of NHL experience between them. It’s a veteran list, with an average age of 31.

    “There’s a lot of guys here that know how to play and have been successful players and have found a niche for themselves in their career at various stages,” U.S. general manager Jim Johannson told Stephen Whyno of the The Associated Press. “The Deutschland Cup for us is a little bit to find some separation of these guys, whether that’s pure pace of play or performance.”

    USA Hockey submitted a list of 81 eligible players to the IIHF and there is the possibility of seeing a handful of NCAA and AHL players not playing in the Deutschland Cup skating in Pyeongchang. A final 25-man roster is expected to be announced around Jan. 1.

    Canada previously announced two pre-Olympic rosters over the summer and participated in the Sochi Hockey Open and Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov in August.

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    Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

    Where do LA Kings go after Jeff Carter injury?

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    The Los Angeles Kings continued their hot start to the season Wednesday night but lost a big piece of their offense in the process.

    During their 5-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens, forward Jeff Carter suffered a lower-body injury in the first period and did not return. A team source told Jon Rosen of LA Kings Insider that it’s “going to be a little while,” and TSN’s Bob McKenzie Tweeted Thursday morning that Carter was cut by Jeff Petry’s skate and he’s hearing it will be “multiple weeks” before a return is possible.

    Carter has three assists in six games this season and has been key cog in the productive “That ’70’s Line” with Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. The Kings are off their best start in franchise history at 5-0-1 and are the only remaining NHL team yet to lose in regulation.

    With Carter now gone for the foreseeable future, where does this leave LA’s center depth? After Anze Kopitar, it’s quite a drop off. And you wonder if the short-term solution here is signing Brooks Laich, who wasn’t signed after attending training camp on a tryout deal but has continued to practice with the club. He’ll come cheap and as long as they don’t need to fill that void for far too long, Laich is a veteran who’s familiar with the organization. He’s a decent first try to take over that spot before general manager Rob Blake needs to look down on the farm or to someone on the outside.

    Blake, who’s expected to address Carter’s situation sometime on Thursday, has time to figure out his next move(s) with the Kings off until Saturday when they begin a six-game road trip.

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    Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

    US women’s hockey team gets Wilma Rudolph Courage Award

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    NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. women’s hockey team received the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award on Wednesday night at the Salute to Women in Sports hosted by the Women’s Sports Foundation.

    In April, the hockey team won its fourth consecutive world title and seventh in eight tries. The U.S. beat Canada 3-2 in overtime in the title game in Plymouth, Michigan. The team had threatened to boycott the world championships on home ice last spring before USA Hockey agreed to improved salary and benefits.

    Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice received the Billie Jean King Leadership Award at the 38th annual gala. Rice, a professor at Stanford and former tennis player and figure skater, was recently selected to lead an NCAA commission to study college basketball after a federal investigation uncovered bribery and fraud.

    Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer also was honored. The longtime Cardinal coach reached 1,000 NCAA career victories in 2017.

    Minnesota Lynx star Maya Moore and Olympic swimming sensation Katie Ledecky were selected sportswomen of the year.