Avs' silver lining has a cloud

Sure the Avalanche have a bevy of scorers, but can they keep the puck out of their own net?

Originally Published: September 24, 2001
By Mike Heika | Special to ESPN.com

Pierre Lacroix must have a guardian angel.

The Colorado Avalanche general manager continued to trade away his good young talent year after year in order to make a big move that would push his team over the top. And while those moves often worked, they left the Avalanche with a bare cupboard and a top-heavy budget this fall.

And with Patrick Roy deciding to step into retirement, there was a real chance for a reality check in Colorado. The role players were gone, the defense was dwindling and all of the money spent on Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Rob Blake made big-time free agent acquisitions unlikely. That's when Lacroix woke up and found his problems solved.

PROJECTED CONFERENCE FINISH. . .
3rd
STRENGTH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
How about the most talented top six forwards on one team since the days of the Edmonton Oilers. There will be nights when this team scores eight or nine goals and you would be smart as a fantasy player to load up on any one of the top-line skaters.

WEAKNESS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It's not so much as a proven weakness as it is an uncertainty. The goaltending pair of David Aebischer and Philippe Sauve has simply never had to carry a team and play with this kind of pressure. The odds are against them succeeding wildly, but stranger things have happened in the NHL.

BEST OFFSEASON MOVE . . . . . . . . . . .
You mean in the NHL or in all of sports? C'mon, Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya for the combined price of $7 million is the deal of the century. Even if it is only one season, this allows for something very special in the Rockies.

WORST OFFSEASON MOVE . . . . . . . . .
It's difficult to criticize any of the moves GM Pierre Lacroix made over the summer other than to say he didn't do enough to support the defense or the checking lines. He's putting a lot of trust in Andrei Nikolishin and that might not be well-founded.

PLAYER TO WATCH . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Paul Kariya. There are about 10 players to watch on this team, but you could see the pain in Kariya's face last season when he was asked over and over why he wasn't scoring in the playoffs. This guy took $1.2 million to prove a couple of points -- 1. He wants to have fun again. 2. He wants to win on his terms and not in a system that doesn't take advantage of his skills. Expect a huge season.

FANTASY FIX. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
David Aebischer: Perhaps no player in the league has as much fantasy potential on as limited a resume as Aebischer -- the man tabbed to replace Patrick Roy. Nobody expects him to duplicate Roy's numbers, but he could post 30-plus wins with a great GAA if he holds off rookie Phil Sauve for the full-time job.
AT A GLANCE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2003-04: Schedule | Roster
2002-03: Schedule/Results | Stats
Agent Don Baizley constructed a plan to the liking of two of his clients, and he presented it to Lacroix: The Avalanche could have Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya for the sum of $7 million for one season. The duo, which recently cost the Mighty Ducks $18 million per annum, liked what Colorado had to offer and said they wanted to come to the Rockies.

Now, the Avalanche are again one of the most talented teams in the league and are ready to make another run at the Stanley Cup.

Adding Kariya and Selanne to an already talented lineup makes the Avalanche an instant threat to win the goal-scoring title. In addition, it makes them an interesting target for any goaltender who wants out of the situation he is in. That way, if Colorado finds its young goalies aren't working out, there should be a number of solutions presented.

Again, credit Lacroix for building an organization which embraces its players.

Now, for the down side of this drill. The GM still has a tendency to want to bolster his reputation as a deft hockey man to the rest of league and that is reflected in his choices of coaches. Tony Granato is heart-and-soul guy, but he lacks the experience of other bench bosses in the West, and that might come back to bite the Avalanche.

What's more, their defensive depth is weak and their role playing forwards could be better. But that's splitting hairs when the other team is trying to score five goals just to keep up.

Offense

It is nothing short of amazing.

The critic can say that Selanne and Kariya weren't unstoppable in Anaheim, but they never had Joe Sakic at center. They also never had a first line ahead of them that scored 105 goals the previous season.

If you're a coach, how do you check this group? Do you play your top defensive pair against Alex Tanguay-Forsberg-Milan Hejduk and your checking line center against Kariya-Joe Sakic-Teemu Selanne? Do you load up on one line and hope your second tier players are good enough to stop the other? And what if you get caught with your third defensive pair on the ice against either one?

When you look at trying to stop this thing, the problems could be multifaceted for opponents.

Hejduk scored 50 goals last season. Tanguay still has room to improve on his 26. Sakic is technically coming off a bad year and Kariya was good last season (81 points), but not near as good as he can be.

The only complaint you can lodge against these units is that they don't have a real hungry puck-getter, and that's going to force a few changes in personalities throughout the season. Bottom line, they'll have to share the dirty work and not get too caught up in who's getting the big numbers.

The Avalanche power play was good last year (68 goals) but not great. It probably needs to be better to help keep teams from roughing up the fly boys. And again, put yourself in the position of the opposing coach who has to stop not just one Grade A unit, but two. The potential for success is amazing.

Defense

The top of this group is a bit fragile, but still very talented. Rob Blake has put together back-to-back seasons of 77 or more games and is showing a little durability to go along with his maturity. He is a solid two-way player and can still deliver the big hit when has to.

Adam Foote is one of the meanest defensemen in the NHL and also is coming off a solid season. And Derek Morris is a little inconsistent but improving at age 25. If those three stay healthy, the Avalanche shouldn't have any problems on the blue line.

However, one injury to a top-three player and that means players like Martin Skoula, Karlis Skratskins and Chris McAllister all have to be scaled up.

The Avalanche are weak at the bottom after losing a few key veterans. Greg deVries (Rangers) will be missed and Bryan Marchment (Maple Leafs) actually played a solid conservative game in his time in Colorado. In addition, you have to wonder just how much support the defense is going to get if the forwards are always trying to cheat up. This could be one team that has a real problem with gap control.

A sign of their growing defensive problems could have been their penalty kill numbers last season. The Avalanche allowed 63 goals on 359 chances (82.5 percent) and ranked 21st in the league. With the defense thinner and Patrick Roy retired, those numbers could get even worse.

Goaltending

This is the fly in the ointment.

Lacroix believes he has a couple of winners in David Aebischer and Philippe Sauve, and he believes it's time to allow them to prove that to him.

Aebescher's record is pretty solid. He has been a backup for three NHL seasons and has a 32-25-3 record with a 2.18 GAA and a .917 save percentage. Sauve is a rookie, so he's a little more of a risk.

Still, with the looming expiration of the CBA, Lacroix will have plenty of options out there in a couple of months. And maybe that's what he's waiting on. He's always loved to pull the trigger late in the season and there should be plenty of teams that want to deal a high priced goalie before the landscape changes.

The Catch-22 in this situation is what if Aebischer plays lights out during the regular season? What if he is a Vezina Trophy candidate and forces the Avalanche to pass on the trade deadline?

Is this team ready to go into the playoffs with a goalie who has limited postseason experience carrying a team that has so much riding on one season?

That could be the real dilemma.

Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.