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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    Treliving: Flames paid price in Hamonic deal, but ‘you can never have enough top d-men’

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    Two years ago, Brad Treliving acquired Dougie Hamilton at the draft. On Saturday, he picked up Travis Hamonic from the New York Islanders.

    Those are two moves that have significantly helped the Flames build a formidable top-four defense in the Western Conference, and it’s already been suggested it could be in the conversation with Nashville’s group that includes Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm.

    Yes, the Flames paid a price — first and second-round picks in next year’s NHL Draft and a second-round pick in either the 2019 or 2020 NHL Draft.

    But after making the playoffs this season and then making a recent trade with Arizona to acquire goalie Mike Smith, the Flames seem to feel they’re in their window to win now. Today’s move further solidifies that notion.

    “You’ve got to give to get,” said Treliving, the Flames general manager, of the Hamonic deal. “You hate paying the price. But we looked at a lot of things: We looked at the makeup of our team, where he fits. He’s a right shot. We think he fits in real good with our team.

    “I like the looks of our top-four. He moves pucks. He’s a character kid. He’s got some bite to him.”

    The Flames now have their top four defensemen locked into contracts through at least 2020, which was one of the important factors in acquiring Hamonic, according to Treliving. Mark Giordano, who turns 34 in October, is signed through 2022 and Hamilton is signed through 2021.

    Treliving lauded the puck-moving ability of Giordano, Hamilton and T.J. Brodie — who combined for 31 goals and 125 points, led by Hamilton’s 13-goal, 50-point campaign. But, he said, the move to acquire Hamonic brings added toughness and versatility into the group.

    “He checks a lot of boxes for us,” he said. “I think you build up through the middle. This, to me, solidifies our defense. I like our center ice position. There’s depth there and we’ll keep tweaking at it, but I like the looks of that defense.”

    As a result of injuries, Hamonic played in only 49 games last season.

    With the way Hamonic plays, Treliving admitted there may be greater risk for injury, but the Flames don’t have any concerns about that heading into next season.

    The Flames also have some young, up-and-coming defensemen in their system, most notably 20-year-old prospect Oliver Kylington, who fell to 60th overall in 2015, even though there was talk he could be a first-round pick.

    “I think we’ve got some young kids coming. It allows them to progress and develop at their own timeline,” said Treliving. “But you can never have enough defensemen. You can never have enough top defensemen.”

    Snow open to trading picks, prospects to improve roster now

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    CHICAGO — Garth Snow may not be done dealing.

    After trading defenseman Travis Hamonic to Calgary, the New York Islanders’ general manager said the return from the Flames could be used as “currency” to bolster the roster.

    The Isles received a first-round pick in 2018 and a second-round pick in 2018, plus other considerations, for Hamonic.

    “I don’t envision anything happening here in the next two days, though that could always change,” said Snow. “We feel we have a good hockey team. We have a team that’s built for now and for the future. I mean, you look at our prospects and the draft picks, we also have the ability to use some of those assets to bring in a player that can improve our club in the near term.”

    Snow has reportedly had his eye on Colorado forward Matt Duchene, but so far has been unable to make a deal with the Avalanche.

    As for trading Hamonic, Snow said it was made more palatable by the “great depth” the Isles have got on the back end.

    That said, it was a tough, emotional decision.

    “I think the world of him, on and off the ice,” Snow said of Hamonic. “Just a first-class player and first-class person.”

    Snow would not divulge if the move was related to Hamonic’s trade request from 2015.

    “I think he’s in a good place to play for his family, and the Islanders got a solid return,” said Snow. “I think it’s a win-win for both teams.”

    Report: Rangers to hire Lindy Ruff as an assistant coach

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    More coaching news on Saturday.

    Lindy Ruff’s time with the Dallas Stars ended in April following a disappointing regular season, but it appears he’s found another coaching gig in the NHL.

    It is, however, a different role than what he’s been used to for the past 20 years.

    Per Larry Brooks of the New York Post, a deal has not been done yet, however, Ruff will join the Rangers as an assistant coach on Alain Vigneault’s staff. He’ll reportedly replace Jeff Beukeboom and will be in charge of New York’s defense.

    Ruff certainly brings experience, with 1,165 games coached in the NHL. He’s been a head coach since 1997 when he joined the Buffalo Sabres, and hasn’t been an assistant since a four-year tenure with the Florida Panthers from 1993 to 1997.

    The Rangers’ defense has undergone notable changes this offseason, with Dan Girardi getting bought out of his six-year, $33 million contract. With about $20 million now in cap space, New York may not be done making moves to their blue line this offseason.

    The Rangers made a blockbuster trade with the Coyotes on Friday, sending Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to the Coyotes in exchange for the seventh overall pick and 21-year-old defenseman Anthony DeAngelo.

    Vegas parlays second-round pick into prospect forward Keegan Kolesar

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    The Vegas Golden Knights had a surplus of draft picks in the opening two rounds this weekend, and they used one of those to make a deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday.

    The Golden Knights sent the 45th overall pick in this year’s draft to Columbus in exchange for 20-year-old prospect forward Keegan Kolesar, who has spent the last four years with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds.

    In each of the last two years, Kolesar has put up good numbers, scoring a junior career high of 30 goals and 61 points in 64 games in 2015-16. He had 60 points this past season, but played in 10 fewer games due to a sports hernia surgery, so he was on pace to far exceed his totals from the previous campaign.

    He was most impressive for the Thunderbirds in the 2017 WHL playoffs. In 19 games, he scored 12 goals and 31 points. Great production for that time of year. But in addition to those numbers, what may be most intriguing to Vegas is that Kolesar brings tremendous size down the right wing. Standing 6-foot-2 and 223 pounds, his physical play for the Thunderbirds was lauded during their postseason run, which resulted in a Memorial Cup berth.

    “Keegan is one of the most important guys to our success,” Thunderbirds coach Steve Konowalchuk told the Columbus Dispatch. “He could easily have been a co-MVP of the playoffs. Not only does he produce a ton of points, but his physical play has had a huge impact on every playoff series.”

    Having turned 20 in April, Kolesar will be eligible to play in the AHL or NHL next season, per the Golden Knights.