Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Pool Outlook for Colorado

I can safely say I wasn't about to write-off the Avalanche at this time last year, but I did write them off closer to the date.  That being said, the Colorado Avalanche were the absolute best-case scenario when it came to finding immediate chemistry among their active roster and brand new coaching staff.  Everything came together early and created the perfect storm of success for this team that had a brand new starting goalie, a number of new young players and some question marks sprinkled through their line-up.  I would have to think that we won't see anything like this for a while.  Any successes like almost winning the division and/or making the playoffs when you're figured to come in last in the conference is a great season.

All of the Avalanche success in the regular season and their two wins in the playoffs does ride on the shoulders of Craig Anderson, who seemingly had to carry the load while riding a unicycle through a valley of fire.   It was going to be just a side story to the season and we would look back on it as a footnote.  Instead, Anderson added some acts to his ride through the valley and made it a show that the Western Conference was dazzled by.  Too bad the attendance numbers were so terrible in Denver or else it would have made for a better story.  Anderson finished up the season as the 4th best goalie in the hockey pool this year, picking up 38 wins, 7 shutouts and 3 assists for 93 points, ranking him 10th in overall pool scoring.  A fantastic year for the new number one in town.

Up front, there was a good mix of old and new faces, which required some of that good chemistry so they would achieve those levels of success I keep talking about.  Paul Stastny had his rebound season that I thought he would, picking up 79 points (20 goals & 59 assists) in 81 games for the Avalanche, lifting himself up to 26th in pool scoring, 18th among forwards.  2006 1st rounder, Chris Stewart, broke out this season with 64 points (28 goals & 36 assists) in 77 games, while 2009 1st round pick, Matt Duchene, made the team out of camp and posted 55 points in 81 games and a Calder Trophy nomination.   Those three were definitely the one's carrying the load for the offense, while Milan Hejduk had an injury-hampered year, picking up only 44 points in 56 games.  Ryan O'Reilly and Brandon Yip were two youngsters that really came out of nowhere for some support and might get a second look in deeper pools next year.

The real soft spot for the better part of the season for the Avalanche was the defense, which had the feeling of being on a rotation of bodies in and out of the line-up all year.  John-Michael Liles outlasted all of them in the scoring sense, but only managed to play in 59 games.  Liles finished with 31 points in those 59 games, but it didn't seem like the coaching staff was too happy with his play.  Kyle Quincey chimed in with 29 points in 79 games as the 2nd-best scoring defender on the team.   I'm not entirely sure about what the expectations from the team were for Scott Hannan, Brett Clark and Ruslan Salei, but I had them pegged a little bit higher for the 2010 season.  This really was the stem of the problem for the Avalanche, especially down the stretch.

Playing goal behind Anderson was a tough test of Peter Budaj's patience, I would have to think.  Budaj was likely going to be the number one goalie for the Avalanche at this time last year, signing his RFA deal later on in the Summer, but the Anderson signing on the open of the free agent frenzy was pretty well the end of that notion.  Budaj only figured into 15 games for the Avalanche, picking up a record of 5-5-2 with a shutout and an assist for 13 points.  It really wasn't much and unless you're really deep in your pool, I don't think Budaj is a viable option, especially with Anderson earning some extra respect and banking it.

2011 Season Outlook
Looking at the group that you see below last year would have probably made you cringe for the season ahead, but looking again right now, it is considered the core of a playoff team in the season passed and you could kind of see how.  There are some key names still to be put back on the list, but I don't think they are too far away.  Things are looking up for the Avalanche, who have to make sure that their young players don't fall into any pits, like the sophomore jinx for some.

Paul StastnyJohn-Michael LilesCraig Anderson
Matt DucheneRyan Wilson
Milan HejdukKyle Cumiskey
T.J. GaliardiScott Hannan
Ryan O'ReillyTom Preissing
Cody McLeod
David Jones

Having a good core and some salary cap flexibility is quite nice and the Colorado Avalanche seem to have it going into the Summer. The 13 players they have signed above are coming in at $30.1 million. This includes Tom Preissing, who only played in four games for the Avalanche before getting sent down to the minors, but he has a solid cap hit of $2.75 million, so I would imagine that with some faces out, he'll get another look in camp.

The first pressing need of the Avalanche will be to get some of their restricted free agents signed, including Chris Stewart, Peter Mueller, Kyle Quincey, Brandon Yip, Kevin Porter and T.J. Hensick.  That group should be worth a pretty penny in total, but management may have to tread lightly on these players, as they are anything but guarantees when it comes to scoring.  Stewart and Mueller have emerged as "good" players, but basing a big new deal on very little is unwise.  That's the biggest question mark for me.

Darcy Tucker, Brett Clark, Peter Budaj, Marek Svatos, Adam Foote, Stephane Yelle and Ruslan Salei are all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in July and I don't know how much consideration the Avalanche are going to give these players before the end of June or before they can shop for some possible upgrades.  Even retirement seems somewhat likely for some, so that has to be taken into consideration. 

I'm kinda bummed because I didn't get a chance to throw Matt Duchene into this piece, as he jumped from the Draft into the line-up, but I don't think we'll have anything like that this year.  The 2011 season should see some guys get a nice promotion, including Ryan Stoa, who indeed see AHL time last year (see last year's One to Watch), while Kevin Shattenkirk will get that look to make a jump this Fall, as he signed his deal after school finished and he's got some high expectations placed on him, so keep a close eye on him at camp.  From what I've read this year, I would give him 50/50 right now to make the Avs line-up out of camp, but some seasoning is usually in order for a smaller puck-moving defender.  The Avalanche have been good at not rushing young players and I expect it to be no different this year.

At the Draft, the Avalanche should not pick any worse than 19th in the 1st round, but just keeping your pick is really just good enough. I could see the Avalanche try to deal their pick this Summer, in hopes that they can snag someone from a cap-strapped team to help out their young core. Otherwise, it will likely just be the best available player, with the chances of picking a goaltender better than some other teams already looked at.

What I said at this time last year: "As a fantasy player, you cannot really predict injuries, which was the biggest hurdle any fantasy team had to jump with staying with the Avalanche in 2010. The number of Avs taken next year will likely be really low thanks to the poor season. Worthy players to take a risk on, however, will remain the same in Paul Stastny, Milan Hejduk and John-Michael Liles. Those three players can be taken higher than they were ranked or you can hope they are still available come their value from last season, if not longer. Otherwise, I wouldn't suggest getting to crazy with picking Avalanche players right now, unless they can make some significant moves in the off-season to really dress up their team."

I see last year, I went the safe route with the team, claiming that Stastny, Hejduk and Liles were your best bets, but that was without knowing who the team would pick up in the off-season, so I think I would stand by those words.  The Avalanche were not very popular at my Draft in September, so that did pan out correctly, but having any idea that they would do the things they'd do was virtually impossible at the time.

Between now and a year from now, the success of the Avalanche depends heavily on the shrewdness of management to handle their flexible cap situation.  If they can spend some money and acquire some complimenting talent to their youth, they should do just fine.  Reliance on their youth and their system would likely be disastrous, but I can't see that happening straight away, especially with the comment of not rushing their youth through their system.  Their drop-off at the end of the 2010 season only leads me to believe that they will be competitive in 2011 and not as dominant as they were to start this past season.  Stastny will be a good pick again, Anderson will drop a little, Duchene may suffer a bit, but not much and their defense may still be their Achilles heel.

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