Last season, the Colorado Avalanche took a great leap forward, skipping the normal growing pains of a rebuild and dove right into a surprising playoff run, eventually losing to the San Jose Sharks in six closely fought games. The suddenness of their success shocked the league and made them one of the teams to watch for the 2010-2011 season. With the start of training camp right around the corner, it's time to take a closer look at where the team stands heading into the new season.
The Colorado Avalanche entered the offseason with over 25 million dollars of cap space, one of the youngest teams in the league, and high expectations. Fans expected the playoff success to translate into free agent spending and an accelerated rebuilding process. Colorado was one of the few teams with enough cap space to sign elite talents such as Ilya Kovalchuk, and yet they sat idly by to the frustration of their fanbase.
With owner Stan Kroenke making the long-expected plunge into NFL ownership and transfer of the team to son Josh Kroenke, the finances remained static. There was no big splash, no signing to instantly push the team into a contender status. Instead, GM Greg Sherman chose to keep the young core intact, signing Chris Stewart, Peter Mueller, and Brandon Yip to contracts and pushing the team just barely over the salary floor.
The Colorado Avalanche roster includes 14 players who will be 25 years or younger when the season starts, the most in the NHL. They also enter the season with the most cap space of any NHL team and only one player signed past 2012 (Paul Stastny). They are young, talented, and have a very bright future ahead of them. But what about the upcoming season? With a feisty playoff exit last May, many casual fans expect a step forward. While there are many reasons to believe such a step forward is probable (another year of experience, fewer injuries), there are also plenty of reasons to remain hesitant.
Craig Anderson's workload. Goalie Anderson enjoyed a breakout season in his first as a full time starter, but he began to tire in the weeks before the playoffs. He was Superman last season, but it's difficult to expect him to match his tireless efforts for another year.
- Regression. Though the young talent showed resilience through injury and the ability to ignore adversity, there are new pressures on their shoulders this season. They are expected to perform this season, and the new burden is proving that last season was not a fluke. With such a young group of players, it may be a challenge to overcome those expectations.
- Defense. Last year, the Avalanche allowed 32 shots on goal during the average game, with a veteran group of defensemen. With Adam Foote another year older, and veterans like Clark and Salei gone, it's up to a much younger group of defensemen to carry the load this season. Players like Liles and Hannan need to earn their salaries this year as their performance may make the difference between playoffs and disappointment.
- Peter Budaj. Though he only played in 15 games last year, he was very consistent and posted very similar numbers to Craig Anderson. Not only does a healthy and effective Budaj take pressure of Anderson, it allows Coach Joe Sacco to feel confident switching the players out and giving more rest to his workhorse goalie. And if Anderson were to get hurt, the season would rest on Peter Budaj's pads.
- Peter Mueller and David Jones. Both players showed flashes of breakout seasons before injuries took them out of the picture. If Mueller (concussion) or Jones (torn ACL) were to return healthy and approach their levels of production from last year, it turns the Avalanche offense into playoff caliber. If both of them are healthy, it makes the Avalanche division contenders.
- Coach Joe Sacco. Though no longer a player, Sacco may have the greatest influence on how his team plays. He did not receive nearly enough credit for the coaching performance he gave in his first year in the NHL, guiding a young, inexperienced, and oft injured team into the stacked Western Conference playoffs. His message connected with his team this year, and it will be vital for the upcoming season for him to manage expectations.
- T.J. Galiardi. Galiardi was the best Avalanche on the ice during the playoff series against the Sharks (non-Anderson division). His frenetic style and ruthless energy caused havoc and created holes in the San Jose defense. Colorado has desperate need for an unstoppable player at Left Wing, and Galiardi has the potential to be that gamechanger. If he scores 25+ goals this season, this offense will be a sight to behold.
Top 5 Players To Watch
While there are many reasons to remain cautious about the upcoming season, the following players could be key in ensuring another successful year within Pepsi Center.
As an Avalanche fan, who do you see as the key to another successful season? What are your expectations for this team heading into camp? Vote in the poll and make your opinions known in the comments section below.