2011-2012 season preview: Colorado Avalanche

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2010-2011 record: 30-44-8, 68 points; 4th in Northwest, 14th in West

Playoffs: Did not qualify

After making the playoffs two seasons ago, everything went wrong for the Avalanche last season. With injuries and poor goaltending being the main culprits, the Avs hope good health shines through and that offseason moves will help move them out of the basement of the Western Conference and back into the playoff race.

Offense

Scoring wasn’t a total failure for the Avalanche last season. They were 18th in the league in goals and had 20-plus goal seasons from Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, Milan Hejduk, and David Jones. Five other players scored in double digits, but one was dealt away to St. Louis in Chris Stewart. This time around, they’ll look for a healthy season from T.J. Galiardi and hope that 2011 first-round pick Gabriel Landeskog can jump in right away and give them another scoring threat on the wing.

Duchene and Stastny are a solid duo for their top two lines, but they’ll need depth guys like Kevin Porter and Brandon Yip to play bigger and better and hope that new guys Chuck Kobasew and Joakim Lindstrom can add help to the mix. At the least they’ve got solid defensive forwards in Jay McClement and Daniel Winnik.

Defense

Defensively, the Avs were an abject nightmare last season. Injuries plagued their blue line, losing the likes of Kyle Quincey, Kyle Cumiskey, and Adam Foote for huge chunks of the year. Foote is retired and John-Michael Liles has also left. The Avs beefed up adding Shane O’Brien and Jan Hejda to join Erik Johnson to try and lead the way. Quincey and Cumiskey are healthy again while Ryan O’Byrne, Ryan Wilson, and Matt Hunwick round out a deep but questionably talented group. Johnson will be good but they’ll need everyone to play strong together to get success.

source: APGoalies

Goaltending was a mess last season after the Avs dealt away the questionably motivated Craig Anderson to Ottawa for Brian Elliott to join the poorly played Peter Budaj. Everyone stunk and the bad defense didn’t help that. Colorado made a gutsy, yet highly questionable, trade for Semyon Varlamov from Washington to get a new starting goalie with a winning record. They’ll have to hope Varlamov’s injury history is behind him as well as Jean-Sebastien Giguere will back him up. Giguere is a long time removed from his great years in Anaheim after struggling in Toronto. How well Colorado does hinges on Varlamov’s play and health. Look out.

source: APCoaching

Joe Sacco enters his third season as Avalanche coach and after shocking onlookers by getting the Avs to the playoffs in his first season, things blew up badly last time around. Sacco will have to hope the team’s collective health holds up and he can hold the team together. If Colorado gets off to a bad start this season with their new defense and goaltending in place to correct the problems they had last season, the cries to fire Sacco will grow loud in Denver.

Breakout candidate

It’s not to say there’s a lot of pressure on Landeskog in Colorado, but if he can prove his worth as an 18 year-old fresh out of junior hockey and be the scoring force on the left wing for the Avs, it’ll give them a legit weapon to light up the scoreboard. At 6-foot-1, 204 pounds he’s NHL-sized to play the wing and if he can develop chemistry with fellow youngster Duchene or veteran Stastny, they’ll have some legitimate giddy-up in the Avalanche attack. He’s got the tools to be a special player.

Best-case scenario

The blue line doesn’t fall apart with injury problems while Varlamov takes being sent out of Washington personally and shines in goal. The offense produces the offense they’re capable of while Duchene and Stastny become 30-goal scorers and set-up men for their wingers Jones and Hejduk who put up solid 25-goal seasons. Landeskog has a year impressive enough to get in the Calder discussion and the Avalanche take advantage of an iffy division and get in the race for the bottom of the Western playoff picture.

Reality

Things are so very tenuous in Denver this season. If things break right and none of the players break themselves, there’s talent enough here to take a shot at the playoffs in Sacco’s system. With such a questionable defensive unit and goaltending that has the potential to be either fantastic or a mess, the Avs are a team that could drive their fans insane from the highs and lows. The question here is how long with the highs or lows last and which ones show up more often. They’re either going to be in the running for the eighth seed in the West or totally out of the picture. Hang onto your butts Avs fans, the ride could be bumpy this season.

Panarin trying to ‘find chemistry’ with new teammates in Columbus

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Artemi Panarin faced his old team, the Chicago Blackhawks, on Tuesday.

It was only preseason and Panarin didn’t register a point in just over 22 minutes of ice time, and 8:17 on the power play.

But there was an interesting nugget to come from his media availability following the game — Panarin’s first against his old team following this summer’s blockbuster trade between the Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets.

From the Chicago Sun-Times:

Panarin was loose and comfortable, occasionally chatting in English and frequently devolving into giggle fits with teammates Vitaly Abramov and Matiss Kivlenieks, who tried in vain to interpret for him. In fact, Panarin said he was ‘‘glad’’ to be with the Blue Jackets, where he’ll have more creative control on the ice. As dynamic as he and Patrick Kane were as linemates, Kane is basically a center playing wing, dominating the puck.

With the Blue Jackets, Panarin can be that guy.

‘‘I can play a little bit more with the puck,’’ Panarin said through the interpreters. ‘‘Just kind of express myself on the ice a little bit more.’’

In two NHL seasons, both with Chicago, Panarin has been a scoring threat, reaching the 30-goal mark twice. Now with Columbus, Panarin is on a two-year contract worth a total of $12 million and will be eligible for unrestricted free agency when this deal concludes, per CapFriendly.

With the Blackhawks, Panarin spent plenty of time alongside Kane and it appears there has been suggestions that his offensive production was inflated as the result of playing on a line with Kane.

That suggestion has annoyed Panarin. Still, he joins a Blue Jackets team already equipped with a strong nucleus of young players that made considerable progress with a franchise-setting regular season in 2016-17.

“We’ll see how the season will go,” Panarin told the Chicago Tribune. “Beginning of the season maybe I’ll need to make some adjustments, but I just try to find chemistry with my new partners. It’s still in progress.”

NHL hopes to make inroads in China with preseason games

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SHANGHAI (AP) As the Vancouver Canucks held their first practice in Shanghai before their exhibition game with the Los Angeles Kings, a dense fog settled over the ice. The humidity in the arena was high and the players could barely see the puck.

Large dehumidifiers were rolled in and the mist eventually cleared, but the NHL has perhaps a bigger visibility problem in China – a country with little tradition of winter sports, hockey included. The league is hoping to turn that around with a major push in the country, beginning with its first two preseason games between the Canucks and Kings in Shanghai and Beijing this week.

The timing couldn’t be better for the NHL. With Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the government is putting a massive emphasis on developing winter sports. Hockey training programs and youth leagues are expanding across China, and the nation’s first professional team, the Kunlan Red Star, plays in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

With interest on the rise, the NHL believes it now has an opportunity to crack a market that has traditionally been more fixated on basketball and soccer.

“You don’t quite know what to expect the first time the game is coming here, but I’ve always believed that hockey is a game you need to see live,” Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens said after Wednesday’s practice. “And once you see it live, you become hooked as a fan.”

A glance at the numbers shows just how far the NHL has to go. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has just 1,101 registered players, compared with nearly 556,000 in the U.S. and more than 631,000 in Canada.

And the fan base in a nation of more than 1.2 billion people is still in its infancy. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the NHL has just 47,000 followers, some of whom are obviously new to the sport. (One posted a question about the temperature of the arena and what was suitable to wear to the game.) The NBA, which hosted its first preseason exhibition games in China in 2004, boasts more than 33 million followers on Weibo.

“We’re learning a lot about how to market here and we’re learning a lot about how tickets are sold,” says David Proper, the NHL’s executive vice president of media and international strategy. “We’re just viewing this as Year 1 of a multi-year project and in Year 1 we may not knock it out of the park . but we can still build over time.”

Media exposure certainly helps. State broadcaster CCTV now televises five games per week to Chinese audiences and the Internet giant Tencent streams 14 games per week on its digital platforms, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The NHL also has an influential partner on the ground in Zhou Yunjie, the billionaire founder of a Chinese drinks packaging company who has devoted significant time and resources to building the game he fell in love with as a youth in Beijing. Zhou’s company, ORG Packaging, is the presenting partner for this week’s exhibition games.

“Hockey was actually quite common in northern China back in the ’60s and ’70s, so there is a foundation among the kids in those areas,” Zhou told The Associated Press at his company’s newly opened hockey training base in a Beijing suburb, which includes a fully stocked gym, physical therapy room and a hotel for players attending training camps.

Zhou said China’s hockey revival should focus on both universities and a professional league, using the North American, northern European and Russian systems as models.

“It will take time before ice hockey really becomes like a religion with young people as it is in the West,” he said. “But ice hockey will definitely catch on with lots of kids.”

One thing that will certainly help is developing a home-grown star similar to Yao Ming in basketball and Li Na in tennis. There are promising signs on this front, too.

Song Andong became the first China-born player to be drafted in the NHL two years ago, selected by the New York Islanders. The 20-year-old Song has committed to play at Cornell this season.

On Monday, the Vancouver Canucks signed 21-year-old Sun Zehao to an amateur tryout contract to serve as the team’s third goaltender for the China preseason games.

“He’s working with our goalie coach,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “He liked how quick (Sun) was, how competitive he was. . I just think it’s a great experience for him.”

The NHL should also get a boost in China as excitement builds for the 2022 Olympics. The league angered its players by deciding not to interrupt its season to allow them to take part in the 2018 Games in South Korea in February. That stance may change for 2022 in the much larger Chinese market.

To some, skipping the Pyeongchang Olympics is a missed opportunity to gain a bigger foothold in China.

“With 2022 coming up, winter sports are taking the leading focus of all sports in China right now – more so than football,” said Mark Dreyer, founder of the China Sports Insider website. “They’ll be promoting the Korea Olympics more than ever before.”

For now, the league is focused on taking its first baby steps in China, giving spectators in Shanghai and Beijing a good show.

“It’s going to be pretty cool, especially for people who have never really experienced it before,” Kings forward Tanner Pearson said. “It’s going to hopefully start something good here.”

 

Report: Up to eight teams have recently expressed interest in Duchene

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Another day, another development in the ongoing, lengthy Matt Duchene trade saga.

“Many teams are interested and many teams have been talking with (general manager) Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche. Up to as many as eight teams over the last stretch of days,” said TSN’s Darren Dreger during Insider Trading.

“But the reality is none of these teams think they’re getting him. If you look at the Ottawa Senators, Pierre Dorion has been among the more aggressive and you look at the need he has with Clarke MacArthur out and Colin White out. But I’m pretty sure Ottawa doesn’t think they’re getting Matt Duchene. And the same applies to Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver, the Los Angeles Kings, the Nashville Predators and the Columbus Blue Jackets.”

Yesterday, it was reported in the Ottawa Sun that the Senators were making quite an aggressive push to try to land Duchene, the Avalanche center who has been for months the focus of trade speculation following yet another disastrous season for Colorado’s NHL team. That said, the same report added that the two sides aren’t close.

Duchene has two years remaining on his current contract — five years, $6 million annual cap hit — before he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency.

The Senators are dealing with a list of injuries up front right now, including the aforementioned MacArthur and White, the prospect center who got only a small sample of NHL playing time this past spring after his college season ended and he turned pro. The former did not pass his physical at the beginning of camp and the latter was announced as being out six to eight weeks with a wrist injury.

Last week, Duchene reported for training camp and gave a brief statement to reporters but didn’t take questions. He has since spoken to Mike Chambers of The Denver Post, calling his future with the Avalanche “day to day.”

“I’m not going to predict the future on my longevity here,” Duchene told The Denver Post. “I’m day by day. I’m just enjoying playing hockey. A lot got blown out of proportion. I said what I wanted to say then. Nothing’s changed since Thursday. I’m here to get better, I’m here for those reasons — that I said on Thursday.”

Trocheck’s upper-body injury not believed to be ‘anything serious’

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Vincent Trocheck scored a goal during Tuesday’s exhibition game versus Nashville, however the 24-year-old forward had his night limited by an upper-body injury.

Trocheck recorded 6:49 of ice time — the vast majority of that taking place on the power play — in the first period and missed the second and third periods.

Per reports, Trocheck was to have the injury re-evaluated today.

“He had an upper-body injury, I don’t think it’s anything serious,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner told 560 WQAM Sports Radio on Wednesday. “I expect him back for practice in the next couple days.”

Originally a third-round selection in the 2011 NHL Draft, Trocheck enjoyed a breakout season in 2015-16 with 25 goals and 53 points, emerging as one of Florida’s promising young forwards.

He followed that up with 23 goals and 54 points last season. That point total led the Panthers, a team that was decimated by injuries to a number of key players, particularly Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau.