Ranking the Northwest Division: Colorado

Colorado
Colorado

Avalanche fans enjoyed their third straight 95-point season in a row last year, leading to a six seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In the first round the Avs faced Minnesota, beating the Wild in six games. In the second round Colorado was not as fortunate. The Detroit Red Wings swept the Avalanche en route to winning the Western Conference and the Stanley Cup.

This season is one of many questions that will need to be answered. First off, will Joe Sakic play? If not, how will the team fare without the only captain it has ever had? Also, will Peter Forsberg heal and decide to return for another NHL season? If so, will they be able to reach the 95-point plateau once again?

These questions will take time to answer. But for the fun of speculation, I’ll try and settle the disputes right now.

Defense:

The defense could afford to improve a little. It wasn’t bad last year, finishing in the middle of both the Northwest Division and the Western Conference. But with the mystery surrounding Sakic’s return, a better defense can’t hurt what may be a bleaker offensive situation.

Adam Foote
Adam Foote

That said, the first two moves made in the off-season were to re-sign defensemen. 27-year-old John Michael Liles was re-signed to a four year contract. He saw a drop in production offensively last year, but is still one that is undoubtedly worth keeping around.

The other signing reigned in Adam Foote for two years. He came back to Colorado at the trade deadline, a place where he had previously won two Stanley Cups (1995-96 & 2000-01). He is still a decent defensive defensman, and was able to finish last season with a plus-2. At 37, Foote will likely end his career as an Av.

Once the free agent signing period began, Colorado began to lose defensemen. Jeff Finger, a player that manned over 70 games last year, signed in Toronto. Also, Dale Purinton, Jeff Jillson and Kurt Sauer became free agents and have yet to be signed.

Two AHL-level defensemen were inked by the Avalanche in Daniel Tjarnqvist and Aaron Mackenzie. Darcy Campbell was re-signed as well, and will remain the Cleveland with the Lake Erie Monsters (AHL).

With all that being said, it appears Colorado’s blue line will be very similar to the makeup of last season. Jordan Leopold will likely be the guy to replace Finger. The rest of the corps is back and healthy.

Overall depth may become an issue, but I doubt it will seriously impact the team.

Offense:

The Colorado Avalanche’s offensive situation is tricky to predict. Some players are staying, some are going, and some don’t know what they are going to do. Free agency brought a few changes, but how this team eventually fills out is a total mystery right now.

LW

Left wing was a very deep position for the Avs. Three guys ended the year with 35 points or more, and had Ryan Smyth been healthier that number would have been more like 45.

Tucker
Tucker

Of the three, the man that will not be back is Andrew Brunette – and he will be sorely missed. Finishing the season with 19 goals and 40 assists, he was the leading scorer among all wingers and finished second on the team overall.

To replace Brunette, Colorado sought out the services of former Toronto Maple Leaf Darcy Tucker. Toronto bought out his contract and will have to pay him $1 million a season for six years.

Tucker’s numbers have steeply declined since the resume of play after the lockout. He put up 18 goals and 16 assists, but his impact is felt more in an agitator role. Tucker isn’t afraid to fight, with 100 PIM, and will add a nice, gritty aspect to Colorado.

C

The center position could really suffer, or be just fine depending on a few decisions. First off, as I noted at the beginning of the piece, Sakic’s return is crucial.

Sakic only played in 44 games last year, but averaged nearly a point a game (40 pts.). Therefore, he is still making a significant impact on the team even at an old age. It appears, from news sources in Denver, that he is still in a ‘team first’ frame of mind. Avs fans can only hope such is the case.

The other big question mark surrounds Forsberg. From what I have seen reported, his rehabilitation
will last in to at least the beginning of the season. Forsberg has suffered from lower body injuries in the past couple of years, and it is now believed that a muscle problem in his foot may be the source of his woes.

In the meantime, while we wait to hear the decisions of Sakic and Forsberg, Colorado will plan to replace both veterans. With eight players seeing time at center last season, the Avalanche have experience at the position. However, without the previous two the talent pool will be far more shallow.

As it looks right now, Paul Stastny, T.J. Hensick, Tyler Arnason and Ben Guite will be the four centers. They combined for 135 points last season, which is quite a capable foundation to build from.

There is also a foundation building in the AHL at center. Nathan Smith, 22 goals and 28 assists for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (AHL), was acquired during free agency along with the re-signing of Cody McCormick.

RW

Milan Hejduk
Milan Hejduk

Milan Hejduk leads the way along the ride side, accompanied by fellow right-wingers Marek Svatos, David Jones and Ian Laperriere.

Hejduk finished the season 54 points (29 G – 25 A), which is a decline from his production the previous season. However, every season seems to be different with Hejduk.

He has scored as many as 50 goals in a season before, and has also had career low seasons for point production in the range of 40 points. If he gets to play the majority of a season with Sakic or Forsberg there is a good chance at his numbers improving.

Jones is the player to watch at right wing. In his rookie season, he posted six points in 27 games. However, at 6’2″, 220 pounds, Jones has the size to be a power forward type of winger. It all depends on his personal drive.

An addition during free agency is Brian Willsie, who played 53 games in Los Angeles last season and posted 12 points (4 G – 8 A).

Goalies:

The goaltender position should be hotly contested. With Jose Theodore leaving for Washington DC, Peter Budaj was the lone goalie listed on the roster. In response, Andrew Raycroft was signed in free agency.

Raycroft played in only 19 games last season, finishing with a 2-9-5 record and a 3.92 GAA. He will have to have a significant change in play in order to win the starting job. The fact that Budaj played well for the Avalanche doesn’t help his chances.

Budaj went 16-10-4 in 35 games last season, with a 2.57 GAA and .903 SV%. At 25-years-old, it may be his time to take a starting role in the NHL.

My Take:

First off, Sakic will be back. I know, I’ve changed my tune in the last two days. However, the more I read the more I am convinced he is still in the frame of mind that he is apart of a team. And when he decides to return it will be all the more reason for Forsberg. So that greatly helps the center position.

The wings seems to be rather capable. Tucker will be a welcome element to the Avs. The majority of both the left and right wings are back, so I expect to see the same kind of production. Also, I really think that Jones is going to have a breakout season.

And finally, in net will be Budaj. He earned it after playing well last season. Raycroft’s numbers were putrid last year, and should have to sit and wait for a chance to prove himself again.

This team will be in the playoffs.

~Chris @ Pittsburgh Puck Talk

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