2007-08 Team Preview: Colorado Avalanche
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The Starting Line
By Scott BurnsideNo one team wished more for the regular season to last a little longer than the Colorado Avalanche. After a disappointing start, the Avs chased the Calgary Flames down the stretch with a 15-2-2 closing run, and Colorado even had one more win than the Flames. But the Avs' ninth-place finish in the West ended a streak of 11 straight postseason appearances for the franchise and marked the first nonplayoff season since the team moved west from Quebec. In some ways, the decline was to be expected following years of general manager Pierre Lacroix mortgaging the team's future to stockpile veteran free agents in the free-spending years before the lockout. What is surprising is the rapid fashion in which new GM Francois Giguere has re-established the Avs as a playoff team. Buoyed by the play of Calder Trophy nominee Paul Stastny and fellow rookie Wojtek Wolski, Giguere went out and shored up his defense with Scott Hannan and injected more leadership and grit in the form of longtime Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Smyth. The goaltending is still a bit iffy, but solid enough that the Avs could very easily jump back to the top of the heap in the ultra-competitive Northwest. OFFENSE
The Avs finished in a tie with Nashville as the most prolific offensive team in the Western Conference, a bit of a surprise given the departure of mainstays Rob Blake and Peter Forsberg, among others, in recent years. The good news is the Avs' scoring is nicely spread out. They had five 20-goal scorers and Smyth should add to that total (he had 36 last season). Stastny was the biggest surprise, setting a rookie record with a 19-game points streak. The Avs didn't get much help offensively from the back end beyond John-Michael Liles, who continues to impress with his puck-moving abilities and hockey smarts. Jordan Leopold, who played in only 15 games thanks to a variety of injuries, should help at both ends of the ice. One wonders if captain Joe Sakic can repeat his 100-point performance, but we wondered whether he could do it last season, too. It didn't seem to bother the future Hall of Famer. The Avs boasted the fourth-best power play in the league, and there's no reason that should change much. DEFENSE
If you can point to one element of the Avs' game that likely cost them a playoff berth, it was their defensive play. In a conference that boasted some of the league's best defenses, the Avs ranked 18th, and that wasn't quite good enough. Their penalty-killing unit was 23rd and that will have to improve, and should, with the addition of the tough-nosed Hannan. While Liles has taken strides since the lockout, the past two seasons have been less than ideal for Leopold. A member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2006, Leopold ran afoul of Darryl Sutter in Calgary and ended up being dealt to Colorado for Alex Tanguay. Leopold had just two goals in 2005-06 and then suffered through an injury-plagued campaign last season. He needs to get back on track for the Avs to get better on the back end. GOALTENDING
There are two schools of thought regarding starting netminder Peter Budaj. Either he's pretty much topped out and will never be more than a B or B-plus goalie, or he's slowly building himself into a top-level netminder who could take the Avs deep in the playoffs. This season will go a long way in determining which school of thought prevails. Budaj was solid enough, posting a 31-16-6 record in his second season as the de facto starter in Colorado. One of the issues for Budaj will be the perpetual shadow cast by backup Jose Theodore, the former Vezina and Hart Trophy winner who is now being paid $6 million to open the door at the end of the Avs' bench. That's not good money management in the cap world, and you can bet Giguere will be looking for a taker for Theodore and his contract. Good luck. COACHING
Joel Quenneville has long been considered one of the top coaches in the NHL, and with good reason. Still, the big prize, or even a trip to the big Stanley Cup finals, has eluded the Windsor, Ontario, native despite having very good teams in St. Louis. He isn't likely to get to the Cup finals this season, but it may not be that far off with this Avs team. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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• Record: 44-31-7
• Division: Fourth in the Northwest
• Conference: Ninth in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
PLAYERS TO WATCH
He may have endured a number of off-ice setbacks (hanging out with Paris Hilton being the least innocuous of the lot), but Theodore is still considered a positive force in the Avs' dressing room. And you can't help but wonder if he gets another chance if he could deliver the goods. Defenseman: Scott Hannan
Once considered a mainstay of the Canadian Olympic scene, Hannan has seen his stock fall slightly in recent years. A change of scenery may be the best way to reinvigorate a solid career. Forward: Marek Svatos
The Czech native had 32 goals in his rookie season in 2005-06, but saw his production drop dramatically last season when he was limited to 15 goals in an injury-plagued campaign. If he returns to form, it may not matter who plays in net for the Avs.
MORE FROM BURNSIDEBuzz Cut
Does last season's end of a string of home sellouts mark a period of decline in Denver's hockey interest, or will the fans return en masse to see a much-improved Avs team? Where They Will Finish
The Avs will finish first in the Northwest Division and third in the Western Conference.
SPORTSNATIONWhere do you think the Colorado Avalanche will finish this time around? Who will lead the Avs in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!