Colorado Avalanche season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:35 PM ET
ESPN.com

Colorado Avalanche

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

The Colorado Avalanche have sold out every game since arriving from Quebec City in 1995. They have made the playoffs every season and won two Stanley Cups in that time. Those halcyon days are at an end. Although they have one of the brightest coaches in the game in Joel Quenneville and a surefire Hall-of-Fame captain in Joe Sakic, this is a team in decline. Yes, they managed to qualify for the playoffs last season and even won a round against Dallas. But after years of raiding the farm to bring in high-priced free agents, the Avalanche have depth questions at every position, and barring a minor miracle, they will miss the playoffs. New GM Francois Giguere will have his hands full trying to stay competitive while trying to build for the future. It's a thankless job he's been handed with the retirement of longtime GM Pierre Lacroix, who remains as president, given the cap crunch the Avs face.

Offense: The Avalanche had six 20-goal scorers last season and the best of the lot, Alex Tanguay, was dealt to Calgary for defenseman Jordan Leopold because Giguere couldn't afford to keep him. Rob Blake and his steadying power-play expertise and 37 points are also gone. That leaves Sakic, who still led the Avs in scoring with 87 points, but turned 37 this offseason, Milan Hejduk and talented rookie Marek Svatos, who might be the key to the team's success. If Svatos can stay healthy, he can fill the void created by Tanguay's departure. But that's a big if. Wojtek Wolski was a nice story when he arrived fresh out of junior for the playoffs and helped the seventh-seeded Avs upset heavily favored Dallas in the first round. But the arrival cost Colorado a year of Wolski's entry-level deal and only time will tell if it was worth it. Paul Stastny, offspring of Hall of Famer Peter Stastny, will make a case for himself. The Avs had the ninth-best power play last season, but may not be able to count on that productivity with the departures of Blake and Tanguay.

Defense: This is where things get ugly for the Avs. Leopold is a capable defender who fell out of favor with Darryl Sutter in Calgary. He and John-Michael Liles are good pals, which should help ease his transition. Leopold will miss the first three weeks of the season recovering from offseason hernia surgery and his mobility and durability will be a question mark. After those two players, the cupboard is pretty barren. Ken Klee, Patrice Brisebois, Ossi Vaananen and Brett Clark will leave the Avs vulnerable to aggressive forechecking, meaning the Avs will likely spend a lot of time in their own zone making life miserable for Jose Theodore, who's trying to forget his recent past.

Goaltending: Speaking of the enigmatic netminder, Theodore was Lacroix's last big-time gamble as GM, bringing in the struggling former Hart and Vezina winner for David Aebischer, who never could quite fill the starter's role vacated by Patrick Roy. Theodore was fine and outplayed Marty Turco in the first round of the playoffs, but let's be honest: Pretty much anyone who plays Turco in the playoffs does that. Theodore, who continues to make headlines for unwanted reasons, like hanging out with pop diva Paris Hilton, will need to be a whole lot better for longer periods of time if the Avs are going to stay in the playoff hunt. If he can return to form, all things are possible. But it looked too often last season like that ship has sailed.

Coaching: Joel Quenneville is considered a defense-first kind of coach (maybe because he was a defenseman during his NHL career), but he's got the smarts to let the Avs' forwards attack with their skill and speed. He is a no-nonsense coach who deserves credit for getting the most out of Andrew Brunette (24 goals) and the finicky Brisebois. (Let's see how he does with Tyler Arnason.)

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
12th A lack of depth, especially along the blue line, will put too much pressure on Theodore. The Avs will drop to fifth in the Northwest and out of the playoff picture, finishing 12th in the West.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Down
Stock down (but just a little). The sellout streak remains intact heading into the regular season, but it seems only a matter of time until empty seats start showing up with more regularity as the Avs begin their first downturn since coming to Denver.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
The Avalanche still have one of fantasy's best, a top-50 player, in Joe Sakic. The 17-year veteran is coming off a 32-goal, 87-point season. The problem is his supporting cast. Milan Hejduk and Marek Svatos are potential 50-goal men, but both are surrounded by questions (Hejduk, his disappointing 2005-06; Svatos, his recovery from shoulder surgery. The biggest question of all is goalie Jose Theodore. With little support from his defense, the former Hart Trophy winner is more risk than reward. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Avalanche:
1. Wojtek Wolski, 20, LW, (Brampton OHL)
Statline: 56 GP, 47 G, 81 A, 46 PIM
2. Paul Stastny, 20, C, Denver (WCHA)
Statline: 39 GP, 19 G, 34 A, 79 PIM
3. Ryan Stoa, 19, C, Minnesota (WCHA)
Statline: 41 GP, 10 G, 15 A, 43 PIM
4. T.J. Hensick, 20, C, Michigan (CCHA)
Statline: 59 GP, 5 G, 16 A, 87 PIM
5. Brandon Yip, 21, RW, Boston Univ. (HE)
Statline: 39 GP, 9 G, 22 A, 59 PIM
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Colorado Avalanche
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record43-30-9 (95 points)
DivisionFinished second in Northwest
ConferenceFinished seventh in West
PlayoffsLost 4-0 to Anaheim in second round

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Paul Stastny
Although he's just 20, Stastny will get a shot to make the Avs, who are dreadfully thin down the middle. He had 53 points in 39 games for NCAA power Denver.
Winger: Marek Svatos
The flashy Slovak had 31 goals in 61 games before a shoulder injury ended his season. Whether he can return to form and stay healthy will say a lot about the Avs' playoff chances.
Defense: Karlis Skrastins
The Latvian defender will have to take a big step forward in terms of ice time and leadership as the Avalanche try and overcome the departure of the imposing Blake. Skrastins was second in the league in blocked shots.
Goalie: Jose Theodore
It's hard to imagine that just a few short years ago, Theodore was the toast of Quebec. A god. Now, he's trying to revive his career with a team that is on the brink of a serious decline. Talk about a challenge.

Key Moves
If Jordan Leopold can rebound from his offseason hernia surgery, he is a top-four defender who will help fill Blake's role as a leader and producer. Ken Klee, who floundered in New Jersey, and Tyler Arnason, who couldn't even crack Ottawa's playoff lineup, come over as free agents and are an indication of the Avs' decline.

SportsNation
Rating the Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche finished seventh in the Western Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Avalanche in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
Vote now, SportsNation!

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