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2012 Avalanche Preview: Avs Aiming For Return To Playoffs

Mark McLarney

Mark McLarney

Mark McLarney writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

Last season was a whole lot of good news and bad news for the Colorado Avalanche. Good news: The Avs managed an 88-point season in 2011-12, 20 points better than their previous campaign. Bad news: They ended up missing the playoffs for the fourth time in the past six years. Good news: An offseason upgrade between the pipes resulted in 68 fewer goals allowed last season, thanks to the net-minding tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Bad news: The team also placed 25th in the league in goals scored with 2.43 per game. Good news: Gabriel Landeskog had an immediate impact in his rookie year, leading the team in goals and capping off the season by winning the Calder Trophy. Bad news: Third-year center Matt Duchene suffered through an injury-plagued season, scoring just 28 points. Despite the team's ups and downs, the Avs were right in the thick of the playoff race with two weeks remaining in the regular season, but posted six losses in their last seven games to end the year with a whimper. Looking ahead, the Avs hope that its core of talented youngsters, led by Duchene, Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly, along with newcomers Steve Downie and Pierre Parenteau, will help the team finally make it back to the promised land of the NHL playoffs.

THE BIG GUNS

Matt Duchene (C): Duchene missed a huge chunk of last season to knee and ankle injuries, playing just 58 games and scoring 28 points (14G, 14A), falling well short of the 67 points he registered in his sophomore season. Assuming he comes back healthy, there's no reason to believe he can't return to being the 55-65 point player he was in his first two seasons. Remember -- at just 21 years old, Duchene has yet to hit his prime and should continue to get better. After last season, many of your fellow fantasy owners will have dropped him a few spots on their depth charts, so be prepared to pick him up on the cheap.

Gabriel Landeskog (RW): Landeskog had an outstanding first season in the NHL in 2011-12, winning the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year. "Landy" tied Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for the rookie scoring title with 52 points and led all rookie forwards in a host of other categories, including plus-minus (+20), shots on goal (270), hits (219) and takeaways (58). Furthermore, he was the first rookie forward in NHL history to score 20+ goals and register 200+ hits. Looking ahead, it will no doubt be difficult for Landeskog to avoid the dreaded sophomore jinx this season. However, at just 19 years old, he hasn't even hit his prime yet and should continue to get better. Expect him to resume his role as top left winger for the Avs next season.

Erik Johnson (D): With 26 points in 73 games last year, Johnson enjoyed his best campaign in three seasons, his first full one with the Avs since being acquired in mid-2010-11 from St. Louis. As he had the season before, Johnson struggled out of the gate but was mostly solid from December on, posting a minus-3 rating on the season, which isn't bad on a non-playoff team. Johnson still boasts a heavy slapshot from the point, but has trouble getting pucks on net, especially through traffic. However, he did lead the Avs in average ice time (20:50) last season and his 155 shots were most among Avs defensemen and sixth overall. The Avs will continue to be patient with the former first-overall draft pick, and his spot on the team's first defensive pairing will be his to lose this season.

ON THE RISE

Semyon Varlamov (G): After acquiring him in a trade last summer with Washington, the Avs entered the 2011-12 season with Varlamov as their new undisputed starting goalie. Varlamov started the season strong enough, with five wins in his first eight games, but tailed off after that, eventually yielding the starting reins to backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere for a stretch. However, after winning the starting job back in mid-February, Varly went 12-8-2 down the stretch with a 2.01 goals-against average and .931 save percentage, cementing his role as the teams' top puckstopper coming into this season. He is still largely unproven as a starter and will have a young and relatively inexperienced squad playing in front of him, but he still has significant fantasy upside.

Ryan O'Reilly (C): O'Reilly had an outstanding season in 2011-12, a year in which he finally came into his own as a top-six player following two seasons playing a checking-line role. With 55 points in 81 games, he led the Avs in scoring and more than doubled his output from his first two seasons. He also continued to show a solid knack for the defensive side of the game, leading the entire NHL in takeaways with 101. Still unsigned as of early August, it's expected the Avs will bring O'Reilly back next year and give him every chance to build upon last season's stellar effort.

Stefan Elliott (D): Elliott, who was called up by the Avs in late November, made his presence felt right away with two goals and an assist in his first three games. However, he tailed off considerably after that, registering just eight points in his next 27 games and found himself a healthy scratch from March 10 onward. Elliott still has a ton of offensive potential, having registered 241 points in 281 games over four years at WHL Kelowna, but may still need some seasoning at the AHL level. Fortunately, the Avs are starved for a game-breaking, puck-moving defenseman to quarterback their power play, so he will be given every opportunity to earn himself that role.

TWO TO WATCH

Pierre Parenteau (RW): Parenteau, who signed a four-year, $16 million deal with the Avalanche in June, is coming off two very good campaigns with the Islanders in which he averaged 60 points per season with just three games missed. He could turn out to be the game-breaking right-winger the Avs have been lacking the last couple of seasons. Parenteau is a good complementary player and should slot into a spot beside either Matt Duchene or Ryan O'Reilly, and that should continue to deliver fantasy points.

Steve Downie (C): After coming to the Avs in February via trade, Downie recorded seven points in his first four games. However, he finished the season on a down note, managing just five helpers over his final 14 games, clearly suffering the results of a shoulder injury suffered March 3 against Pittsburgh. Fortunately, he underwent surgery soon after the season ended and has reportedly made a full recovery. Now with a new contract under his belt -- signed in July -- Downie should be ready to go once training camp arrives. Expect him to reprise his role playing on one of the Avs' top two lines next season.

DON'T OVERRATE

Milan Hejduk (RW): Hejduk suffered through a dismal season last year, recording a career-low 37 points in 81 games. By season's end, the 36-year-old Hejduk was opening pondering retirement, however he decided to re-up with the team for one more season, agreeing to a one-year, $2 million contract in May. He is likely to open the season on the Avs' third line, however Hejduk has shown he's more than capable of handling a top-six role if he can find a way of returning to his previous form.

Paul Stastny (C): Following a breakout season in 2009-10 in which he came just shy of the 80-point mark (79 points in 81 games), Stastny seems to have settled into roughly a 55-point-per-year groove, having recorded 57 and 53 points the past two seasons, respectively. This is surely a disappointment for the Colorado organization, who are paying him like an elite scorer -- $6 million a season with two years left on his contract. However, Stastny, who started the year in his usual spot centering the Avs' second line, finished last season playing a checking-line role. Looking ahead, with the emergence of younger guys like Duchene and O'Reilly, it will surely be difficult for Stastny to work his way back as one of the Avs' top two centers.

TOP PROSPECTS

Duncan Siemens (D): Siemens projects as a top-four, puck-rushing defenseman and will look very good in an Avs jersey someday. However, he will likely need another season or two in the minors before that happens. Siemens had a combined 89 points in 180 games for the Saskatoon Blades over three seasons.

Joey Hishon (C): The Avs' 2010 first-round draft pick didn't play at all last season after sustaining a concussion during the 2011 Memorial Cup. However, after undergoing successful oxygen therapy treatment, Hishon recently proclaimed himself on the road to recovery. Expect a healthy Hishon to compete for a roster spot at the Avs' training camp this fall.

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