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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    Blue Jackets defeat Coyotes in shootout, but only after Mike Smith made franchise-record 58 saves

    GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 07:  Goaltender Mike Smith #41 of the Arizona Coyotes during the preseason NHL game against San Jose Sharks at Gila River Arena on October 7, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Sharks 3-1  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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    PHOENIX (AP) Columbus pummeled Mike Smith with a franchise-record 60 shots, Alexander Wennberg scored with 2:16 left in the third period and the Blue Jackets beat the Arizona Coyotes 3-2 in a shootout Saturday night.

    Smith set a franchise record with 58 saves, but the Coyotes still lost their third straight.

    Cam Atkinson and Sam Gagner scored on Smith in the shootout while Curtis McElhinney stopped both Arizona shooters. Boone Jenner also scored for Columbus, which has won three straight.

    Shane Doan got his 399th career goal and Radim Vrbata also scored for Arizona, which was playing its eighth overtime game in 23 contests.

    Doan put Arizona ahead 2-1 at 11:04 of the second when he redirected Michael Stone‘s lobbed shot from just inside the blue line along the right boards.

    Wennberg tied it at 2 by backhanding the puck between Smith’s pads off a pass from Brandon Saad.

    The Blue Jackets needed only 13 seconds to take the lead in the first period. Jenner took a pass from Jack Johnson between the hashes and fired over Smith’s glove.

    Smith made 47 saves between the two Columbus goals and 21 in the third period alone.

    After failing to take advantage of a two-man advantage late in the first, the Coyotes evened the score on Vrbata’s rising shot off McElhinney’s blocker from the left faceoff circle for a power-play goal 63 seconds into the second period.

    Smith helped preserve the lead with 5:30 left in the second, stopping Saad’s breakaway attempt with a sprawling pad save.

    McElhinney finished with 32 saves.

    Related:

    Why the Blue Jackets are the NHL’s biggest surprise

    Panthers lament slow start versus Sens, as debate over controversial Gallant firing continues

    NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 20:  Keith Yandle #3 of the Florida Panthers skates against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 20, 2016 in New York City. The Panthers defeated the Rangers 3-2 in the shootout.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    It’s been one week since the shocking and controversial firing of Gerard Gallant. The decision made by the Florida Panthers continues to be a hot topic of debate.

    Don Cherry weighed in on it Saturday. As you might expect, he wasn’t in favor of the decision. Meanwhile, the Panthers lost 2-0 to the Ottawa Senators in a game that completely swung in favor of the hosts in the span of just 19 seconds.

    Erik Karlsson and Derick Brassard scored early in the first period, giving Ottawa a two-goal lead and that was the only scoring of the evening.

    On taking over from Gallant, interim coach Tom Rowe said, per the Sun Sentinel: “This isn’t a knock on Gerard, because he did a great job.

    “I just thought some guys weren’t bringing it the way they’re capable of bringing it every single night. A little too much inconsistency. They’d come out one period and play great. Another period they just sit back a little bit too tentative.”

    That second paragraph is interesting.

    Against the Senators, the Panthers had a slow start, illustrated by their 19-second lapse leading to the Ottawa goals. The Panthers found their game in the second period but tested Mike Condon with only 24 shots on goal by the end of the night.

    They also couldn’t capitalize on a five-on-three power play in the second period.

    “It’s a tough one to swallow,” said Keith Yandle, per the Miami Herald. “They had a good start, and sometimes you have to weather the storm throughout courses of games, and they did a good job in the first 10 or 12 minutes. If you look at the second period we were better.”

    There were anxious moments for the Panthers, as defenseman Aaron Ekblad took a puck to the face in the second period. He missed about two minutes of game time, but did require stitches, according to Rowe.

    Avs’ D-man Johnson suffers broken fibula, out six to eight weeks

    DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 11:  Erik Johnson #6 of the Colorado Avalanche in action against the Winnipeg Jets at Pepsi Center on November 11, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
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    Another loss for the Colorado Avalanche, but the news following this latest defeat is much worse.

    Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson has suffered a broken fibula and is out six to eight weeks, the team announced following Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Dallas Stars.

    Johnson left the game because of the injury and didn’t return.

    This development occurred later in the same day the team’s captain Gabriel Landeskog skated briefly with his teammates, leading to the possibility that he may travel with the Avs on their upcoming road trip.

    It’s obviously devastating news for Colorado, which recently had its effort ripped by coach Jared Bednar. Issues with consistency and work ethic have been around since Patrick Roy was in charge.

    The Avalanche have struggled since the beginning of the season after a late-summer coaching change, but they now occupy last place in the Western Conference with five straight losses.

    Johnson has 11 points, which ties him with Tyson Barrie for the team lead among defenseman in that category.

    In addition to playing 22 minutes a night, which is a substantial loss because he plays on both the penalty kill and power play, he’s also one of only two blue liners with the Avalanche to have even-strength puck possession numbers greater than 50 per cent.

    The difficult times for the Avalanche continue.

    Video: Caggiula (finally) scores his first NHL goal

    EDMONTON, AB - SEPTEMBER 26:  Drake Caggiula #36 of the Edmonton Oilers skates against the Calgary Flames on September 26, 2016 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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    Drake Caggiula had to wait to make his NHL debut because of a hip injury suffered in pre-season. He had to wait even longer for his first NHL goal.

    On Saturday, the wait for the latter ended.

    Playing in just his eighth career NHL game, the North Dakota product and NCAA Frozen Four MOP — pursued by at least half a dozen teams as a college free agent — ripped home a wrist shot from the slot on the power play for career goal No. 1 in the big league.

    That goal gave Edmonton a 1-0 lead over the visiting Anaheim Ducks.