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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    WATCH LIVE: Boston Bruins at Detroit Red Wings

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    PROJECTED LINES

    BRUINS

    Forwards

    Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

    Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciAnders Bjork

    Danton HeinenRiley NashDavid Backes

    Tim SchallerSean KuralyNoel Acciari

    Defensemen

    Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

    Torey KrugBrandon Carlo

    Matt GrzelcykPaul Postma

    Starting goalie: Tuukka Rask 

    NHL on NBCSN: Bruins, Red Wings do battle in Atlantic Division clash

    RED WINGS

    Forwards

    Anthony ManthaDylan LarkinTomas Tatar

    Justin AbdelkaderHenrik ZetterbergGustav Nyquist

    Luke GlendeningFrans NielsenDarren Helm

    Martin FrkAndreas AthanasiouLuke Witkowski

    Defensemen

    Danny DeKeyserMike Green

    Jonathan EricssonTrevor Daley

    Niklas KronwallNick Jensen

    Starting goalie: Jimmy Howard

    Senators keep saying just enough of the wrong things

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    Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion addressed a wide variety of subjects today, and he mostly said what needed to be said, but also left the door open just enough to allow all sorts of sadness to slip through.

    Shortly after Erik Karlsson described listing the 10 teams he’d accept a trade to as a “formality” and after he walked back/spun comments about free agency, Dorion came close to saying what he should about the mega-star defenseman.

    The good: Dorion said he wants Karlsson “to be a Senator for life” (via NHL.com’s Chris Stevenson) or at least 10 years (via TSN’s Ian Mendes).

    Not as good: The Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch notes that Dorion did say that the team is listening in calls about all players.

    Now, look, many GMs will say that they’re listening and may even actually scribble down offers, even if they have no intention of making a trade. And, as Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin shows us, a GM could say “I will not trade P.K. Subban (for example)” and then trade him days later.

    Still, with the temperature rising in Ottawa … maybe an even more emphatic “No” would have been more effective here? Just saying.

    Dorion also addressed this doozy of a Kyle Turris quote from Josh Clipperton of the Canadian Press. Here’s what Turris said first:

    “It’s tough because I think management did want to sign me, but I think that the owner didn’t. And that was his decision,” Turris said.

    Yeah, not good.

    There are many rumor swirling around Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, whether he ends up retaining his ownership status or not. It’s no secret, really, that Ottawa has been a budget-conscious franchise at times, which certainly brings into question whether they can stomach paying Karlsson what he actually deserves. Especially if things don’t settle down.

    Dorion did what he could to affirm his shot-calling strength to the media, as Mendes and others report:

    “Everything in the hockey department goes through me, not Mr. Melnyk,” Dorion said.

    Speaking of the hockey department, Dorion also noted that a coaching change won’t happen.

    Personally speaking, this is the area where it’s easiest to see eye-to-eye with Dorion. While Guy Boucher’s leanings, from the 1-3-1 and on, frequently make for yawn-inducing hockey, it’s difficult to quibble with the results. In a way, Boucher might be so effective that he’s put himself in a pickle: by creating a mirage with such a strong run, many likely expected the Senators to keep pulling rabbits out of hats.

    We’ve seen plenty of Jack Adams winners become victims of past successes. In some cases, they got there through sheer luck. With Boucher, it might be a mix of shrewdness and luck, and now that luck is fading away.

    Long story short, firing Boucher would be foolish when he’s likely made Dorion and others look smart.

    Amusingly enough, you could apply a similar logic to the dangers of trading Erik Karlsson. The superb Swede is the sort of talent who can camouflage a lot of issues; moving him would essentially be an admission of defeat, as you’re simply not going to get a fair return in any EK swap. The only sensible situation in which a Karlsson trade happens would be if you went into a rebuild, and it could be a grim one in that.

    Speaking of grim, that remains the best way to describe the current state of affairs for the Senators, who are suffering from dealing with tough situations but also, in some cases, from self-inflicted wounds.

    But hey, much like when Paul MacLean spoke of his kid’s use of Taylor Swift lyrics, at least Dorion’s kid is having a good time with all of this. Kind of:

    That might not be so easy to shake off.

    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.

    Celebrating Lundqvist’s remarkable career as he nears 20,000 saves

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    When it comes to impressive milestones, some numbers register with players, fans, and media more than others.

    With that in mind, it’s not overly shocking that Henrik Lundqvist essentially shrugged his shoulders when he was informed that he’s on the verge of 20,000 saves, which would make him the 15th goalie to do so. NHL.com’s Dan Rosen reports that Lundqvist admits he’s more interested in wins (and you can be certain more interested in a certain large, silver thing you can drink and eat out of.)

    “It means a lot to me to be up there with those names,” Lundqvist said. “The amount of saves, I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about that number. I’m happy I’ve been able to play a lot of hockey throughout my 12 and a half seasons here. That’s pretty much the only thought I get when I hear 20,000 saves.”

    Lundqvist needs four stops to reach that mark, in case you’re counting.

    Rosen recently provided perspective that should really cement that Lundqvist isn’t merely accruing volume: “King Henrik” is slated to allow the lowest total of goals of any netminder who’s collected 20,000 saves. Lundqvist comes into tonight’s game with 1,748 goals allowed, while Jacques Plante is the current gold standard in that regarding, giving up 1,960.

    Lundqvist notes that he’s happy to have played a lot of hockey, and that brings something else to mind: how remarkable a success story he really is.

    It’s easy to forget that the Rangers drafted Lundqvist in the seventh round (205th overall) back in 2000. You don’t hear Lundqvist’s name mentioned all that often when people discuss all-time draft steals, perhaps because goalies are tough to project and possibly also because he took off almost the instant he hit the NHL.

    In 2005-06, Lundqvist managed a sparkling .922 save percentage in 53 games as a rookie, helping the Rangers make the playoffs. He really never looked back, and Hank is really starting to pile up milestones, all while managing a fantastic .920 career save percentage.

    Maybe that’s also part of the reason this is such a “meh” thing for Lundqvist: he’s probably getting bored when it comes to setting high marks.

    Two other interesting goalie milestones

    While Lundqvist has been the model for consistent brilliance for more than a decade, two other veteran goalies are reaching or have reached fairly significant milestones, even as their careers have been far more turbulent.

    In each case, we’re talking about 300 career wins.

    Carolina Hurricanes stalwart Cam Ward already accomplished that task, as his team’s 3-2 shootout win against the Vegas Golden Knights marked his 300th W.

    It’s been an odd career for Ward, who started off hot as the 25th pick of the 2002 NHL Draft. As you almost certainly remember, Ward won the Conn Smythe Trophy as a rookie, taking over for the Hurricanes mid-playoff-run (after a weak regular season for Ward) and helping them to a shocking Stanley Cup. How bizarre is it to realize that both Ward and Lundqvist would diverge after sensational starts to their NHL careers? Considering where they were drafted, many probably would have tabbed Ward to be the guy with great year-in, year-out numbers, yet he’s instead floundered, sitting with backup-like career save percentage of .909.

    Still, he has that championship ring, so there’s at least one area where he’d draw Lundqvist’s envy.

    The third goalie of note was taken before Ward in the 2002 NHL Draft, as Kari Lehtonen‘s walked an odd path since going second overall that year.

    There were flashes of genius during his early days, yet injuries and inconsistency marred his Atlanta Thrashers run with disappointment. His time with the Dallas Stars has been mixed, as he’s gone from a goalie who often carried an over-matched team to a netminder who, along with Antti Niemi, often held the Stars back.

    (Many will, fairly, point out that Lehtonen’s play dipped noticeably after concussion issues, opening another “what if?” door for the occasionally star-crossed goalie.)

    Either way, he aims for win 300 of his own tonight, as he’s getting back-to-back games as the Stars face the Islanders.

    As an aside, one might find it interesting that Kari Lehtonen currently boasts the same average save percentage of .912 between his Stars and Thrashers years. Maybe he’s just been secretly consistent?

    Ultimately, this could be quite the week for goalie milestones, even if certain marks might be met with a shrug by the netminders in question.

    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.

    Rangers, Sabres show personality in ‘Road to Winter Classic’ debut

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    All apologies to Epix, but “The Road to the Winter Classic” series just feels right heading to NBCSN.

    The documentary series that gave us memorable moments like Bruce Boudreau avowing his love for ice cream, Boudreau unleashing a fugue state of locker-room profanities, and also great moments not featuring Boudreau is set to debut at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN tonight, spotlighting the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres as they approach the outdoor extravaganza.

    [2018 Winter Classic: Sabres vs. Rangers]

    For fans who want to see more personality from hockey players, this is manna from heaven. The good stuff goes beyond that, really, as sports documentaries are almost always fun to watch, but it only gets better when the NHL is involved.

    To whet your appetite for well-filmed and well-scored peeks behind the curtain, enjoy some teasers for the first episode.

    In the video above this post’s headline, you’ll note Alain Vigneault and the Rangers discussing things getting back on track as the team adjusts to a different core, including the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk.

    The best stuff, for me at least, comes when there’s humor, and that’s where the next couple of videos shine.

    First, we have some nice self-effacing fun from Zach Bogosian, who provides much of the banter for the Sabres’ charity bowling event:

    Next, here’s some fun-goofy footage of Rangers players taking the subway to practice:

    Note: the NHL should mandate that players wear their uniforms in more inorganic situations, as that’s always fun. Plus it really would align with the advertising practice of having hockey players in their sweaters, even when they’re at restaurants or making toast.

    Anyway, “Road to the Winter Classic” should be a good time, and should find a fitting home on NBCSN. It should pair well with tonight’s Bruins – Red Wings game, which you can read more about here.

    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.