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September 30, 2013 | 10:23am ET
2013-14 Season Preview: Colorado
By Tab Bamford, TheFourthPeriod.com

The 2013 season ended with too many similarities in Colorado.

Another finish at the bottom of the Western Conference, another top-five pick at the draft, and more questions about the make-up of a team with a lot of young talent. Something had to give in Denver.

And it did.

Whether or not the organization would pay to keep their core intact moving forward was answered quickly this summer. Matt Duchene signed a five-year deal, and 20-year-old captain Gabriel Landeskog inked a seven-year deal to keep the faces of the franchise in Denver long-term.

Using Chicago as the model, Colorado hopes to see their young nucleus develop into a team that tastes the postseason soon, and develops a championship pedigree quickly. To help that development, the Avs turned to someone who knows a great deal about winning. Duchene and Landeskog will be joined this year by another face that is familiar to many fans in Colorado.

Patrick Roy is now the head coach of the Avalanche, and -- for better or worse -- he inherits a team that doesn’t lack talent or question marks heading into the new season. How will Roy transition to the NHL level? Will he interact with his roster well, or will “the rings in his ears” keep him from connecting with the young core of his team?

Roy and Joe Sakic hope to see a dramatic turnaround this season from a team that is filled with players that were high draft picks. In a new division with a new coach, will this be the year that the Colorado Avalanche finally leave the cellar of the Western Conference behind?

FORWARDS

Last year, the Avs top scorer was 30-year-old P.A. Parenteau, who posted 18 goals and 43 points. More will be expected from Duchene, Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly and number one overall draft pick Nathan MacKinnon, all of whom will be well compensated by the organization this year.

Paul Stastny will likely remain one of the most popular names in trade rumors, especially with the depth Colorado has at center. Both Stastny and O’Reilly are entering the final seasons of their current deals, which will put additional attention on both players; O’Reilly will be restricted next summer, while Stastny will be unrestricted. The $11 million combined cap hit for those two players could make this season a busy one for the phones of Colorado’s front office.

In an effort to add some more veteran depth around the young core, the Avs brought back Alex Tanguay in a summer trade that sent David Jones and Shane O’Brien to Calgary. Tanguay, who will turn 34 in November, has only played 104 games over the last two seasons, so his health (and the two seasons that remain on his contract) will be something to keep an eye on this year.

Also keep an eye on prospects Joey Hishon and Michael Sgarbossa, who will join MacKinnon in battling for a spot on the NHL roster.

DEFENSEMEN

To say the blue line disappointed last year in Denver would be an understatement. The trade to acquire former first overall pick Erik Johnson has become a well-documented disaster of biblical proportions, and Johnson putting up only four points in 31 games for Colorado last year only compounded the problem.

How bad were the defensemen in Colorado last year? Nine different defensemen dressed for the Avs last year, and they combined to score only five goals in the regular season. Tyson Barrie’s two goals and 13 points in only 32 games led all Colorado defensemen; seven of the nine defensemen that played for the Avs last year had fewer than seven points.

Cory Sarich was brought in with Tanguay in the trade with Calgary to help this unit, but the Avs have to get more (read: anything) from their defensemen for the 2013-14 season to be anything but a repeat of the last few years.

Johnson, Sarich, Jan Hejda, Matt Hunwick, Ryan Wilson and youngsters Barrie and Stefan Elliott will be asked to step up this season. And, for many of the team’s defenseman, this season is an important one financially; three players -- Sarich, Hunwick and Andre Benoit -- will be unrestricted free agents next summer, while Barrie and Elliott will be restricted.

MacKinnon could become a superstar forward for the Avs in the future, but the issues the organization has on the blue line will make the selection of MacKinnon over Seth Jones a lightning rod similar to the deal that sent Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart to St. Louis for Johnson a couple years ago.

GOALTENDING

The Avs will bring back their tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastian Giguere for another year. Last year, the pair was as underwhelming on the ice as they were lightning rods in the postgame media; Giguere called out a few teammates in April for being more concerned with their weekend plans than that night’s game.

With Roy installed as the head coach, the pressure to perform will be immense for these two. Varlamov, 25, is a restricted free agent next summer and Giguere is in the final year of his deal (career?) as well. Waiting in the wings are prospects Sami Aittokallio and Calvin Pickard, both of whom will put pressure on the veterans to improve.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Not surprisingly, the team holding the number one overall draft pick didn’t have a very good year on special teams. Colorado finished the 2013 season ranked 24th in the NHL on power play (15 percent) and 20th overall on penalty kill (80.3 percent).

One area where the Avs were actually strong last year was at the dot while with a man advantage. Stastny and Duchene combined to win 55.1 percent of their power play faceoffs last year. The addition of Tanguay will hopefully help bolseter the unit; he brings 59 career PP goals with him, including two last year in Calgary.

The penalty kill is a significant concern for Colorado heading into the season. Only two teams -- Buffalo and Florida -- allowed more power play goals than the Avs (36) last year, and Varlamov’s .868 short-handed save percentage must improve for the team to get out of the draft lottery.

PREDICTION

The changes made to team schedules and the four-division alignment could help the Avalanche improve this year; they’ll have the opportunity to play fewer games against common opponents. But the schedule isn’t going to score goals, play defense or win games in Denver this year.

Colorado took a few risks this summer. They locked-up Duchene and Landeskog long-term in spite of their limited success in the NHL, hired Roy in spite of his lack of NHL coaching experience, and opted to select MacKinnon first overall over Jones in spite of their need for an impact defenseman.

It’s time for the young core in Colorado to click. The organization made significant financial commitments to a couple players this summer, showing other youngsters that the organization is willing to compensate players that succeed. With only ten players signed after the 2013-14 season, this is a critical season for more than half of the NHL roster.

Roy and Sakic have history in Colorado, and the presence of the Hall of Fame netminder on the bench will sell a few tickets. But the product on the ice has to improve for the arena to fill on a nightly basis.

Will the Avs be a playoff team in the spring? It’s possible, but not likely. The roster in place provides plenty of reason to believe Colorado will be better than last year, but there are still too many holes that haven’t been filled for the Avs to jump into the postseason conversation.

Tab Bamford is the Chicago Correspondent and a Columnist for The Fourth Period.


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