As the surprise team of the NHL during the 2010 season, it was easy for the Colorado Avalanche to sneak up on teams. They were young, talented, and very anonymous. A career backup goalie, a few old defensemen, and a swarm of rookies led the Avalanche to a surprise playoff appearance, where they played the veteran San Jose Sharks to a draw before losing in six closely fought games.
They say it's harder to repeat success than to discover it. That is the challenge this Avalanche team faces for the upcoming season. They will no longer be considered easy points in the standings. So how do they avoid the dreaded sophomore slump? Is it possible for them to take a great leap forward into Stanley Cup contenders?
They enter the season even younger than last year, after replacing veterans like Brett Clark, Ruslan Salei and Darcy Tucker and signing young players like Chris Stewart, and Peter Mueller to two-year deals and giving defensive prospects like Jonas Holos and Kevin Shattenkirk opportunities to join the club out of training camp.
So can a team with an average age of barely 26 years possibly hope to contend? For a good parallel, you don't need to look much farther than the Avalanche's opponent on Opening Night, the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks found themselves in a similar before their recent run of success. They had drafted two stud forwards in the first round (Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane), they had an experienced forward averaging a point a game (Martin Havlat) and an untested goalie in net (Antti Niemi). The Blackhawks barely missed the playoffs their first year together, were defeated in the conference finals their second year, and won the 2009 Stanley Cup in their third year together. Their average age? 26.2 years old, youngest in the league.
The Avalanche have the potential to follow a similar blueprint. They have two first round talents in Matt Duchene and Chris Stewart, they have an experienced center in Paul Stastny, and they have a talented goalie in Craig Anderson, now entering his second year as a starter. They are surrounded by a bevy of under-25 talent like TJ Galiardi, Brandon Yip, Peter Mueller, and Ryan O'Reilly. Just like Chicago in 2009, Colorado's average age this season is the youngest in the hockey at 26.16 years old.
Furthermore, there isn't a looming juggernaut within their division. Calgary, Edmonton and Minnesota are all in varying stages of a rebuild, and Vancouver hasn't done much to separate themselves from the rest of their rivals. All the pieces are in place for the Avalanche to take a step towards contender this season.
The key is staying healthy. While many pundits call the Avalanche overachievers last season, the simpler argument is they underachieved by a great deal because their best players couldn't stay on the ice. Milan Hejduk should play more than 56 games this season. Peter Mueller won't have his career renaissance interrupted by concussion after only 15 games. Brandon Yip will enter the season on the Avalanche roster, not in Lake Erie. The most stunning element of the 2009-2010 Avalanche wasn't that they made the playoffs, it's that they survived, and thrived, with so many injuries along the way. Regression to the mean can only help the club this season.
There is one striking difference in comparing these two young teams; their fortunes are going to diverge after this coming season. The Chicago Blackhawks have locked up their core to long-term, expensive contracts that are impeding the organization's ability to maintain financial flexibility. They have committed $41 million to just six players for the next two seasons, with several of these contracts going on for several more years. Though there is nothing wrong with signing long term deals with talents like Toews and Kane, it's signing defensemen like Brian Campbell and Duncan Keith to long term deals that will prove difficult for the Blackhawks to manage.
By comparison, the Avalanche have exactly one player signed to a long-term deal: 24 year old Paul Stastny. The rest of the team is committed to reasonable, short term deals. This allows GM Greg Sherman to maintain flexibility with payroll while giving his young players a couple of years to show who is deserving of a long-term commitment, instead of basing salaries on a single season of performance. They are allowing their players to grow and develop together without risking the long-term future of the franchise.