What a difference a year makes. In October of 2009, expectations could not have been lower for the Avalanche, thanks to a 32-45-5 record the year before, good for dead last in the Western Conference. Furthermore, the team was without its long-time captain and franchise cornerstone, Joe Sakic, who had announced his retirement following that disastrous season. On the positive side, the long-term outlook was bright, thanks to a group of highly-touted youngsters such as third-overall draft pick Matt Duchene, but make no mistake - another year of finishing without a playoff berth was a near certainty.
Fortunately for the team, and Avs fans alike, not everyone got the memo. Thanks in part to stellar play from first-year starting goaltender Craig Anderson, and the efforts of those aforementioned rookies led by Duchene, the Avs got off to a 10-2-2 record in October and never really looked back, finishing the regular season with a 43-30-9 record and a return to the playoffs. The team bowed out after Game 6 of their first round matchup with San Jose, but not before earning back a good deal of respect and lost credibility from the fans and media alike.
Since then, things have been relatively quiet in Denver, with the team refusing to make a big splash this summer in the free agent market. Instead, GM Greg Sherman stated the team would concentrate on re-signing their core of young restricted free agents, led by Peter Mueller, Chris Stewart and Kyle Quincey. "Our plan of building from within is the plan," Sherman said in a July report by the Denver Post. "I feel very strongly about the group of players that we have." As of late August, contract talks involving Stewart and Mueller were still ongoing, but both players are expected to be in uniform for the start of the season.
Otherwise, the team looks pretty much set at just about every position. Anderson will be back as the team’s No. 1 netminder, backed up by veteran Peter Budaj. Down the middle, the Avs have one of the strongest trio of centermen in the NHL with Paul Stastny, Duchene and fellow sophomore Ryan O’Reilly. Meanwhile, elder statesman Milan Hejduk returns for one more season, followed by a young nucleus of wingers including the aforementioned Stewart and Mueller, along with the likes of TJ Galiardi, David Jones and Brandon Yip. On defense, the team boasts a solid – if unspectacular – top-six of John-Michael Liles, Kyle Quincey, Kyle Cumiskey, Scott Hannan, Adam Foote and Ryan Wilson.
Overall, the future appears to have arrived early for the Avs, who, thanks to last year’s success, will be expected to at least match last year’s result of locking up a playoff spot, with a secondary goal of advancing deeper into the postseason.
THE BIG GUNS
Paul Stastny (C): Following an injury-shortened 2008-09 season that limited him to just 45 games, Stastny missed just one regular season contest last year, allowing him to notch 79 points in 81 games. This point-per-game level of production is what fantasy owners expect out of Stastny each year, and anything short of that is a disappointment. And make no mistake – Stastny – who is signed through 2013-14 – has both the talent and the supporting cast to take a run at his first-ever 100 point season. Draft him with 80 points in mind, with plenty of room for upside.
Chris Stewart (RW): Stewart, just 22 years old, surprised everyone last year by exploding for 64 points, good for second on the team. He also led the Avs in the goal-scoring department with 28. What’s even more impressive is that Stewart’s hot streak really only began in December, when an injury to Milan Hejduk prompted coach Joe Sacco to give Stewart a look on the top line. Stewart never looked back after that, scoring 52 points over the next 54 games and adding three goals in Colorado’s first-round playoff loss to San Jose. From a fantasy perspective, there is always the risk of a sophomore slump with a player like Stewart, but given his skill set and strong supporting cast, we see more upside than downside. He looks like the real deal.
Matt Duchene (C): At just 18 years old, Duchene enjoyed a very successful rookie season with the Avalanche, finishing third in scoring with 55 points, and second in goals with 24. Among NHL rookies, he finished first in points, and tied for first in goals. Despite this, he finished third in voting for the Calder Trophy for the NHL's top rookie, behind winner Tyler Myers and second place man, Jimmy Howard. With his skill set and stellar supporting cast, Duchene has excellent fantasy upside heading into this season. He is expected to return as the team’s second-line center alongside Hejduk and Mueller.
Craig Anderson (G): Last season, Anderson went from unproven NHL starter to franchise savior in a very short period of time. Coming off a 15-7-5 record in a backup role with Florida the year before, Anderson started 14 straight games for the Avs in October, posting a 10-2-2 record and dispelling all doubts about his ability to shoulder an everyday starting role. He wobbled from time to time in the succeeding months, possibly due to overuse, but Anderson nevertheless finished the season in fine form, with a 38-25-7 record, 2.64 GAA and .917 SV%. This season, Anderson will return as the Avs' undisputed main man between the pipes. He has more than enough talent to produce the kind of numbers he did last year, but the guys in front of him must do their share.
ON THE RISE
TJ Galiardi (LW): Galiardi was one of a handful of young Colorado forwards to step up last year. Following a season with just four points in limited action, Galiardi earned the recognition of new coach Joe Sacco and responded with 15 goals and 24 assists in 70 games, spending much of that time on the team’s top line. Overall, Galiardi is an instinctive playmaker with a great head for the game. He is extremely smart, patient and creative with the puck, and his great on-ice vision helps him find the open man, especially proven goal scorers like linemates Stewart and Stastny. Assuming Galiardi can stick for a full season with these guys on the Avs’ top line, a 50-plus point season is not out of the question.
Kyle Cumiskey (D): Cumiskey went from being a bubble player on the Avs' roster early last season to being one of the team's top six defensemen, at one point stealing John-Michael Liles' job right out from under his nose. Cumiskey finished the season with 20 points (7 G, 13 A) in 61 games, and was fourth among Avs’ defenders in power-play ice time per game (2:00). With the recent departures of Brett Clark and Ruslan Salei, there is now a huge opportunity for Cumiskey to step forward and prove he deserves a top-four role for the Avs this season. Keep an eye on this young blueliner as he continues to develop.
TWO TO AVOID
John-Michael Liles (D): Liles spent much of last year in coach Joe Sacco’s doghouse, and following a sub-par first three months of the season was frequently a healthy scratch. By mid-season, Liles’ name was frequently the subject of trade rumors, but the Avs could not find any takers for his hefty contract of $4 million a season. In the end, Liles wound up posting a disappointing 31 points on the season, including a mere six goals. Looking ahead, Liles should remain one of the Avs’ primary puck-moving, power-play defensemen this season almost by default. However, with the continued emergence of Kyle Cumiskey, and young guns like Kevin Shattenkirk and Cameron Gaunce waiting in the wings, Liles will be under pressure to raise his level of play, and his scoring totals. His track record the last three seasons does not immediately suggest an ability to do that.
Kyle Quincey (D): Offensively, Quincey took a step backward last season, posting just 29 points in 79 games, compared to 38 points in 72 games the year before. He started the season like gangbusters, with nine points in his first 10 games but tailed off considerably the rest of the way. This resulted in coach Joe Sacco reducing his ice time from roughly 26-27 minutes a game in October-November to 20-21 minutes in March-April. He also saw less time on the power play as the year wore on. Quincey has all the tools to be a top-producing NHL defenseman but he has trouble putting it all together on a nightly basis. If you do feel compelled to take a chance on him, wait until the later rounds of your draft before doing so.
Ryan Stoa (C): Last October, before Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly had really had a chance to prove themselves, many observers felt Stoa had an excellent chance to finally crack the Avs’ roster. However, he came into camp a little on the sluggish side and opened the season in the AHL with Lake Erie. He was subsequently called up a couple of times as an injury replacement, scoring three points in 12 games, but concerns about his lack of foot speed and physical presence continued to dog him. This season, it seems the only real shot he has at a roster spot would be the fourth line center position, which is not where fantasy gold is usually found. He will likely need another year or two of seasoning before he’s worthy of any attention.
Kevin Shattenkirk (D): Acquired 14th overall in the 2007 entry draft, Shattenkirk has always seemed to be at least one more year away from landing in the NHL. However, after a very successful stint at Boston University, it was finally announced he would turn pro after last season, and the promising young rearguard eventually signed an entry-level contract with the Avs in April. Shattenkirk is still considered by many to be one of the Avs' top defensive prospects. Undersized but highly competitive, he is a skilled passer and plays a deadly transition game. He's got plenty of offensive skill and should find himself quarterbacking the Avs' power play one day. With the Avs in desperate need of more firepower from the back end, it’s possible he could skip the minors and land with the big club right away, but chances are he will spend a year with AHL Lake Erie before making the jump.