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By Pierre LeBrunThere are teams who become preseason darlings by prognosticators (think Chicago, Edmonton this season), and there are other clubs who get the popular vote as the sinking ship. And, in the West, the negative predictions for the Colorado Avalanche are widespread. It has to do with losing starting goalie Jose Theodore and second-leading scorer Andrew Brunette to free agency and not really replacing them. Many pundits have the Avs missing the playoffs after making them last season. "We'll fly under the radar, that's fine," star winger Ryan Smyth told ESPN.com. For that to happen, the Avs will need to get better-than-expected goaltending from the Peter Budaj/Andrew Raycroft duo and perhaps, just as important, stay healthy. Smyth, Joe Sakic and Marek Svatos were among the many long-term injury casualties last season in Colorado. OFFENSE
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in Colorado is the fact that captain Joe Sakic has decided to sign on for at least one more season. Unfortunately, he took his time to make the decision and it put GM Francois Giguere in a tough spot. While there is no doubt the GM would have liked a much more timely answer (either way), Francois knew that pushing Sakic would only alienate him and lead him to say he wasn't coming back. Giguere played it perfectly and was rewarded with another year of Sakic's leadership and production. New coach Tony Granato is back for his second tour of duty with the Avs and is no doubt feeling even better prepared as a result of observing not only the players, but also what worked and what didn't under Joel Quenneville. He will have the hard-working Darcy Tucker to work with and Tucker will add spark and emotion, as well as carry a big chip on his shoulder, creating an "us-against-the-world" atmosphere. The biggest question is in net, where Peter Budaj will be expected to be the No. 1 goalie. The same expectations existed last season, but Jose Theodore stole the job. This season's back-up is Andrew Raycroft. The Avs will need excellent efforts from both to remain in the playoff mix. Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
Answer: "Everybody is speculating about Budaj and Raycroft and are they going to be the answer," said Smyth. "You know what? They're both hungry. They're ready to show people."Budaj is only 26. Perhaps there's still ceiling room there for his upside. Either way, he's clearly the key for the Avalanche this season. He needs to rebuild his confidence after losing his job to Theodore last season. A quick start is paramount. Otherwise, the doubting will continue.