After a strong 2009-2010 season, surprisingly finishing second in their division and gaining a playoff berth, the Colorado Avalanche look to take a leap forward and win their first Northwest Division title since before the lockout.
Let's preview three main storylines to follow this upcoming season.
Can Colorado Win the Northwest Division?
Remember when the Avalanche set a record by winning nine consecutive division titles? Their run from 1995-2003 was a period of divisional success that is unmatched in professional hockey. Unfortunately, every streak has to end. Since the lockout, the Avalanche have failed to win a single divisional title.
The Northwest Division (as currently constructed) has one elite team (the Vancouver Canucks) and three other teams either completely rebuilding (Edmonton) or staying stagnant (Minnesota and Calgary). Though the Avalanche are officially in the middle of an organizational rebuild, their success last year places them in a class by themselves.
Vancouver is clearly the class of the division, with one of the best goaltenders in the world, Roberto Luongo, and one of hockey's premiere lines, anchored by the Sedin brothers. The Canucks won the division handily, tallying 103 points, and performing well in the playoffs, taking the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks to six hard-fought games. Make sure to read SBNation's Vancouver Canucks preview.
Both Colorado and Vancouver played the remaining teams in their division evenly, with the Avalanche collecting 19 of 36 points against Calgary, Edmonton, and Minnesota while Vancouver racked up 21 of 36 points. The reason the Canucks took home the division crown last seaon while Colorado had to squeak past Calgary for the final playoff seed? Vancouver went 4-1-1 against Colorado in 2010, claiming nine of a possible 12 points against their division rivals. The Avalanche will likely control their own division fate this season based on how well they match up against Vancouver. If they stay competitive in those games, the Northwest Division title will go down to the final week of the season.
Do the Avalanche Have Enough Depth?
Last season, Colorado started the season with a bang, only losing one of their first 13 games in regulation. Then, injuries began to plague the team. Milan Hejduk, David Jones, Adam Foote, Marek Svatos, many of the Avalanche top players fell due to injury and Colorado depended on players from their minor league club to keep the team afloat. Young players like Brandon Yip and Ryan Stoa were called up to fill in the missing ranks. Some, like Yip, played themselves onto the playoff roster and made an immediate impact.
Even though many of these players filled in admirably, the overall talent level and sheer number of injuries steadily brought the Avalanche from their early season heights into a dogfight against Calgary just to make the playoffs. It's very unlikely the club will suffer a similar epidemic of injuries this season. But what is the contingency plan in case lightning strikes twice?
The answer can be found in the last round of preseason cuts. Defensemen Craig Cohen and Kevin Shattenkirk are likely the first players called up from Lake Erie in case of injury. Many felt that Shattenkirk would be on the Opening Night roster, but it seems the front office wants him to receive more playing time and encourage his development. Forward Ryan Stoa was also shockingly sent down. The 2005 second round draft pick had a perfect opportunity to make the roster after Peter Mueller's concussion, but failed to live up to Joe Sacco's expectations in camp and during the preseason. He's a very talented player, selected as a potential breakout candidate by Mile High Hockey, and Stoa will certainly get his chance at the first sign of injury. Barring catastrophe to any of the top six forwards, the Avalanche should have enough in-house talent to remain competitive.
Will the Avalanche attendance numbers rebound?
Though Colorado outperformed all expectations last season, there is one glaring cause for concern; home attendance numbers. Even though the Avalanche were competitive all season, their attendance numbers plummeted to a franchise low. There are many reasons for the decline (make sure to read this excellent roundtable discussion on Mile High Hockey) but the problem hangs over the new season. A 9.6% drop in attendance figures can certainly be explained by the economy, but a 5.5% drop in television ratings -- while the team is actually winning -- is major cause for concern.
In sports economics, there is normally a one season delay in attendance figures. Therefore, a winning team will reap the economic benefits of their campaign the following season. But how much of a boost can we expect for an Avalanche team that exited in the first round of last season's playoffs? A team that no longer has a Joe Sakic or Peter Forsberg-sized name to attract casual dollars into Pepsi Center? This may be the biggest storyline to follow this season, as attendance figures will directly impact the Colorado front office's ability to re-sign and maintain their young core of talent. If attendance figures continue to fall off, the long term rebuilding project will suffer and the Avalanche run the risk of perpetual mediocrity.