Things were looking up for the Colorado franchise entering the 2010-11 season. After a surprisingly strong 43-win, 95-point campaign the year before, the Avalanche looked to be picking up where they left off by posting a 21-15-5 record in the first half of the year, led by the strong play of sophomore center Matt Duchene and a host of other promising young forwards. However, things went quickly off the rails in the second half, beginning with a couple of 10-game losing streaks following the All-Star break. Indeed, the Avs won just once between January 26 and March 17 en route to a dismal 9-29-3 second half and a 30-44-8 record overall.
So what happened? Firstly, the Avs were hit incredibly hard by the injury bug last year, losing players like Peter Mueller (concussion), Kyle Cumiskey (concussion), Kyle Quincey (concussion, shoulder), T.J. Galiardi (wrist), Tomas Fleischmann (lung) and Adam Foote (leg) for long stretches at a time – the entire season in Mueller's case. Secondly, the Avs were a mess both defensively (31.8 shots allowed per game) and in goal (287 goals against – most in the NHL). The team's second-half swoon prompted a couple of desperation-like trades by GM Greg Sherman, moves that saw him deal struggling goalie Craig Anderson to Ottawa for Brian Elliott, and a blockbuster deal that sent power winger Chris Stewart and budding d-man Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis for Erik Johnson, Jay McClement and a draft pick. The trades did little to improve the Avs' fortunes, however, and the team finished out of the playoffs for the second time in the past three seasons.
The good news is, there is cause for optimism entering the upcoming season. During the summer, Sherman did manage to address the team's needs for stronger goaltending by acquiring Semyon Varlamov from Washington, along with free agent veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere. On the blue line, the team parted ways with diminutive puck-moving d-man John-Michael Liles, making room for bigger, stay-at-home defenders like Shane O'Brien and Jan Hejda. Furthermore, up-and-coming rearguards like Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie could also have an impact.
While the Avs promise to be better defensively and between the pipes this season, there are still plenty of question marks up front. Paul Stastny, who had a subpar campaign last year (22 G, 35 A) and was surpassed by Duchene as the team's top-line pivot, needs to have a bounce-back year this season. Milan Hejduk is coming off yet another 20-goal season, but at 35 years old, age could start to become a factor. David Jones, who scored 27 goals last season, will have to prove that he can continue to avoid the injury bug that has plagued him far too often in the past. The same can also be said for Mueller, who had a promising debut with the Avs two seasons ago but will need to shake the effects of post-concussion syndrome in order to duplicate that feat.
THE BIG GUNS
Matt Duchene (C): Last season, Duchene celebrated his sophomore campaign by leading the Avs in total points (67), and tying for first in goals (27) and assists (40). His supporting cast became a tad weaker last season following the departures of linemate Chris Stewart and budding defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis. However, this did not seem to slow him down much, as Duchene still managed to score 20 points (6 G, 14 A) in his last 23 games following the trade. This season, expect more of the same from Duchene as he continues his rapid development into one of the NHL's elite players. A point-per-game season should be well within his grasp this year.
Paul Stastny (C): Stastny took a major step back last season scoring-wise, recording just 57 points (22 G, 35 A) in 74 games after posting a career-high 79 (20, 59) in 81 games the previous season. Normally when a player experiences a drop-off such as this, it's often indicative of some sort of nagging injury that prevents him from playing to his potential, but at this point, this does not appear to be the case with Stastny. All fantasy leaguers can really do is shrug and chalk it up to one of those seasons where the bounces just didn't go his way. Including his career-best 2009-10 season, Stastny has two other years of almost point-per-game production (2006-07 and 2007-08), so we'd be surprised if he didn't revert back to his usual high-scoring self this season. He will likely drop down a few slots in most fantasy draft lists this season, so be ready to grab him on the cheap.
Milan Hejduk (RW): It looks like the 35-year-old Hejduk will finish his career in Colorado after signing a one-year, $2.6 million dollar contract with the Avs back in May. Hejduk scored 22 goals in 2010-11, the 11th consecutive season in which he has scored 20 or more, and added 34 helpers. Despite his advancing age, he remains a decent late-round fantasy option in most formats. Playing with young guns like Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny - and perhaps incoming second-overall draft pick Gabriel Landeskog - does nothing but add to Hejduk's fantasy appeal.
Erik Johnson (D): After two and a half underwhelming seasons in St. Louis, the Blues finally decided to pull the plug on Johnson, their first overall draft pick in 2006, sending him to the Avs in a deal that saw Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk go the other way. The Avs are hoping that a change of scenery will do Johnson some good, and that he finally develops into the blue-chip, puck-moving defenseman he was projected to be. In order to achieve that, he will have to do better than the 30-plus point seasons he's been putting up the last three years. For now, he will continue to be the No.1 guy on the Avs' blue line and run their power play, but with blue chip prospects like Stefan Elliott, Tyson Barrie and Duncan Siemens rising quickly through the ranks, Johnson is running out of time to prove he can be The Man in Denver.
ON THE RISE
David Jones (RW): Jones, who has been plagued by injuries over most of his short career thus far, finally managed to play close to a full slate of games last year, scoring a career-high 45 points (27 G, 18 A) in 77 games. As long as he stays healthy, Jones should resume his role as the Avs' second-line right winger this season. Big and rugged with a heavy shot and decent speed, Jones could be a 40-goal scorer someday if he develops some durability. He could be a late-round bargain in deeper fantasy leagues this season.
Peter Mueller (LW): Mueller, who has not played since April 4, 2010 after suffering the first of two serious concussions last year, resumed skating in August and is expected to be ready for training camp in September. Assuming he's healthy, Mueller is expected to fill a top-six role with the Avs this season. In a glimpse of what he is capable of, Mueller scored 20 points in 15 games after being traded to Colorado from Phoenix late in the 2009-10 season, so be sure to pay close attention to his progress as the fall session approaches.
Semyon Varlamov (G): The Avs, who finished last season with a goaltending tandem of Brian Elliott and Peter Budaj, addressed a glaring need by acquiring Varlamov from the Capitals in July. Varlamov split time with Michal Neuvirth last season, posting some very respectable numbers (11-9-5, 2.23 GAA, .924 SV%) and proving that he can be relied upon as a starting netminder in the NHL. Unfortunately, he's coming to a team that averaged 31.8 shots against per game last season - eighth most in the NHL - so he'll have his work cut out for him. We don't recommend you rely on Varlamov as your starting fantasy netminder this season, but his numbers ought to be good enough for you to draft him as a solid No. 2 guy.
TWO TO AVOID
Brandon Yip (RW): Yip really struggled defensively last season, posting a minus-22 rating which was second-worst on the team. As a result, he was frequently benched by coach Joe Sacco and found himself as a healthy scratch on several occasions. Yip managed 22 points on the season, three more than he tallied the year before, but it took him more than twice as many games to accomplish that feat (71 games versus 32 in 2009-10). This season, Yip is entering the final year of a two-year contract and will need to turn things around in a big way in order to make himself a part of the Avs' long-term plans.
Chuck Kobasew (RW): After spending two seasons in Minnesota, Kobasew signed a two-year, $2.5 million contract with the Avalanche in July. Still just 29 years old, the Avalanche get a veteran winger with speed and a rigid work ethic in Kobasew. On the downside, he has averaged just 56 games over the past two seasons, with injuries largely accounting for the abbreviated campaigns. He scored just 16 points for the Wild last year and will likely open this season on one of the Avs' checking lines.
Gabriel Landeskog (LW): Landeskog, Colorado's second overall pick in this year's draft, is considered one of the few prospects thought to be NHL-ready now, and is expected to battle hard for a roster spot come training camp. Don't be surprised if he pulls a Matt Duchene and lands in the NHL straight from the junior leagues. Last season, despite an ankle injury that limited him to just 53 games with the Kitchener Rangers, Landeskog led his team with 36 goals and finished third with 66 points. Those of you in keeper leagues, snap this guy up quick if he's somehow still available.
Stefan Elliott (D): Here's one reason the Avalanche felt comfortable trading Kevin Shattenkirk to St. Louis last season. The Avs' second-round pick in the 2009 NHL draft, Elliott was named the WHL's defenseman of the year on Wednesday after leading all defensemen with 31 goals and 81 points. He is also the first WHL defenseman to score at least 30 goals in a season since 2006-07. 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.