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By Pierre LeBrun
The Colorado Avalanche missed the playoffs last season for only the second time since their move from Quebec in 1995. But it was the second time in the past three seasons. After more than a decade as a bona-fide Western Conference contender, the Avs are finding out what it's like at the other end of things. And guess what? Those were empty seats you saw last season at the Pepsi Center, lots of them. And that was a certainly a first.
There were sweeping changes; Greg Sherman replaced Francois Giguere as GM and Joe Sacco (not Sakic) took over behind the bench for Tony Granato.
This won't be a quick turnaround. After years of peddling away picks and prospects to stay in contention, it's time to restock the shelves. Joe Sakic retired, which allowed for this process to begin.
"We certainly have entered what you could describe as a new era," Sherman told ESPN.com. "With the retirement of Joe Sakic, and with the drafting of Matt Duchene, this is a time where this franchise is going in a younger direction."
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Avs heading into the new season:
1. Turning the page
The passing of the torch? Sakic said goodbye just after Duchene slipped on an Avs jersey at the draft, the third overall pick and a dandy one at that. The younger faces are overtaking the older ones in Colorado, even if Adam Foote is captain, and especially after the trade of Ryan Smyth to Los Angeles.
"I think what we're going to see is a nice blend of young faces. There's a lot of positives on the horizon, but also combined with our veteran presence led by Adam Foote," Sherman said. "I do believe that there's good things on the horizon for us, but certainly we are going to be a young team. There's not going to be any short cuts. With that being said, there's some young, exciting prospects in our system."
2. New goalie
Just because you're rebuilding doesn't mean you can't also try to remain somewhat competitive in the short term. Did we mention all the empty seats last season? To that end, Sherman has tried to shore up his goaltending -- which was awful last season -- by signing the underrated Craig Anderson. But in a division with goalies like Roberto Luongo, Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Backstrom and Nikolai Khabibulin, it's a daunting task for Anderson.
"He is certainly a person that doesn't lack confidence," Sherman said of Anderson. "I think he looks at the challenge. He's certainly excited for the year. He's competing with Peter Budaj for the job, and Joe Sacco will make that decision. But certainly there's no shortage of outstanding goaltenders in our division. We're pretty comfortable with our guys."
3. Mr. Stastny
Duchene may be the future, but right now, this must become Paul Stastny's team. Just like his dad made this his franchise close to 30 years ago back in Quebec, it's time for the talented 23-year-old, a U.S. Olympic hopeful, to lead this bunch.
"I think that's why Joe Sacco thought it was important that Paul will be one of the assistant captains," Sherman said. "He's entering a new phase in his career. With that comes new responsibility, but we're confident Paul is going to be capable of that."
4. The captain
Few players around the league exude more character and leadership than Foote. With Foote entering the final year of a deal that pays him $3.25 million, it's interesting the Avs would slap the "C" on him, given that his name will surely pop up at the trade deadline when the team is likely out of playoff contention. Foote has a no-trade clause, however, and perhaps he's content with finishing his career as a mentor to young players.
"Adam Foote has spent the majority of his career with this organization; he's won two Cups with the Avalanche, he won an Olympic gold medal with Canada. At the end of the day Adam has deserved this opportunity," Sherman said of naming Foote captain.
"When you look at where we are as a franchise, we have a lot of young guys in that locker room as we head into the new era, and we're supportive of Joe Sacco's decision to have Adam lead those youngsters. Adam knows the standards that his franchise has and he can portray that to these players."
5. Vet blue line
The real strength of this Avs team is on the back end, where Foote leads an experienced and solid corps.
"We feel real comfortable with the group," Sherman said. "With the additions of Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing, along with one of our prospects, Kyle Cumiskey, and then with Scott Hannan, John-Michael Liles, Ruslan Salei, Brett Clark -- that's a solid group. We feel that calming presence on the blue line will help the guys up front, and certainly help out with our goaltending situation."
If the Avs are out of it come the March 3 deadline, look for Salei and Clark -- both in the last years of their deals -- to be on the block. And perhaps others.
6. Lighting the lamp?
The Avs were dead last in the NHL in offense last season, averaging 2.32 goals per game. Then they lost Sakic, Smyth and Ian Laperriere. They replaced them with well, no one. Unless, of course, you count on Duchene making the team and having a big impact, which is possible. And Stastny staying healthy. But it doesn't appear as though the goals will be easy to come by this season.
7. Not-so-special teams
The Avs were 25th on the power play last season and 21st on the penalty kill. They lost key power-play guys in Sakic and Smyth. A healthy Stastny (he missed 37 games last season) should help boost the power play, but there's work ahead of Sacco in these two areas.
8. Duchene debate
So, you're the Avs and you're rebuilding. Do you keep an 18-year-old Duchene and let him learn on the job, or do you give him one more season of junior? Tough call, but Colorado is taking the leap. The third overall pick in this past June's draft will be on the roster once the new season begins Thursday.
9. A scheduling note
The Avs have a brutal start to their schedule, playing 11 of their opening 15 games on the road, including a seven-gamer Oct. 8-21 through Nashville, Chicago, Boston, Toronto, Montreal, Detroit and Minnesota. Mercy!
10. Olympic exposure
The Avs have five players with possible Olympic ties in Hejduk (Czech Republic), Stastny (USA), Marek Svatos (Slovakia), Salei (Belarus) and Budaj (Slovakia).
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 32-45-5
• Division: Last in the Northwest
• Conference: Last in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• Long term, this team will benefit from finally rebuilding. Short term? Ouch. Last in the Northwest and last in the Western Conference.
• The 40-year-old Sacco, a former NHL player, took over behind the Avs bench after four seasons in the AHL as both assistant and head coach of the team's affiliate.
"What I can say with confidence is that what you'll see from him as a coach, his style is pretty straightforward in terms of hard work and accountability and being a team that's hard to play against," Sherman said. "He's worked with our young players the last four years, and that's a plus."
F -- Wojtek Wolski
• The 23-year-old has regressed from 50 points to 48 points to 42 last season.
F -- Paul Stastny
• Also 23, he's remained a consistent point-a-game player, putting up 185 points (63-122) in 193 NHL games. And the best is yet to come.
F -- Milan Hejduk
• The 33-year-old Czech signed a one-year extension Thursday. He's not ready to jump ship!
D -- John-Michael Liles
• Perhaps motivated by the U.S. Olympic camp snub?
D -- Scott Hannan
• He's a terrific all-around blueliner, but you know that career-worst minus-21 rating last season can't sit well with him.
Best Bet: Paul Stastny, F: Alright, Paul, the training wheels are coming off! Stastny has to take on the new role of being the Avalanche's No. 1 center. With the retirement of Joe Sakic, the leadership of the team reverts to Stastny, as it once did to his father, the great Peter Stastny. Despite two straight injury-plagued seasons, the younger Stastny has tallied just shy of a point per game for his career. He'll continue to get a point per game this season, but the peripheral stats won't be there to make him any more than a back-end roster filler.
Risky Move: Craig Anderson, G: A career backup, Anderson will get a chance to see if he is No. 1 material in Colorado, and he will be tested thoroughly playing for last season's Western Conference cellar-dweller. Anderson finished third in save percentage last season and would have led the league if he'd qualified the season before (needed 10 more appearances), so the stats are definitely there. Anderson had more shutouts in his 31 appearances than Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft combined to produce for the Avalanche last season.
But just how will he fare now that he has the pressure of being the No. 1 guy? When he shouldered the load for Florida in November and December last season, he had a 7-3-4 record with a 2.15 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage. Colorado isn't nearly as good as Florida defensively, so No. 2 goaltender numbers are what to expect.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Colorado Avalanche finish this season in Northwest Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.