The Colorado Avalanche missed the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons but, thanks to development of young players, there is reason to be optimistic.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Avalanche and what they could do to get back to the postseason.
The Avalanche have a core of talented young players under the age of 25 -- Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly, Matt Duchene, Steve Downie, Peter Mueller, Erik Johnson, Stefan Elliott, Semyon Varlamov included -- so that's the strength of the organization, but if they are going to take the next step and become a consistent playoff contender, they need to augment their young talent.
GM Greg Sherman will be a busy man this summer, with nine restricted free agents expected to take up a sizeable portion of Colorado's cap room. Fortunately, the Avs have been frugal and, with all these unsigned players, have the most cap room in the league by a large margin.
That kind of financial flexibility could open up opportunities for the Avalanche to get active in the trade of free agent markets this summer. Ideally, a move to add a high-calibre defenceman would likely have the most immediate impact, but any additions of proven NHL talent can't be dismissed for a team with a core that is relatively unproven.
And that's not intended as a knock. Young teams go through the process of building and it takes time before they are ready to compete at a playoff level year-in and year-out.
The challenge for the Avalanche is that it's starting to look like the process is ready to move beyond building into more refinement -- combining internal improvement with smart acquisitions to make the Avalanche a competitive team.
Drafting high for several years is a way to stockpile talent, but it's not the only way to build a roster and the Avalanche traded away this year's first-round pick (last summer to get Semyon Varlamov), so they too have expectations that it's time to turn the corner and it's time to do something about achieving those goals.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Greg Sherman/Joe Sacco
The Avalanche could not have asked any more of rookie sensation Gabriel Landeskog, the second overall pick in the draft who not only led the team with 22 goals and a plus-20 rating, but he played against top-quality oppositon and had the team's best shot differential (plus-8.2, per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, per www.behindthenet.ca).
Since 2000, there have been 13 rookies (20 years of age or under), who scored at least 20 goals and 50 points and it's an impressive list that includes Landeskog's teammates Matt Duchene and Peter Mueller, as well as Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jeff Skinner, Ilya Kovalchuk, John Tavares, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brad Richards and Anze Kopitar, so even if Landeskog isn't necessarily destined to score like Ovechkin or Kovalchuk, he is likely to improve his scoring numbers while playing an outstanding two-way game.
With 53 points in 79 games, Paul Stastny's 0.67 points per game was the lowest output of his career, yet he presents a conundrum for a team at the bottom-end of the salary scale. One one hand, Stastny might be a candidate for trade, but the Avalanche may not be able to move him unless they take significant salary back, since Stastny is a $6.6-million cap hit and the Avalanche are most likely a long way from the floor (whatever that may be under the next CBA).
36-year-old winger Milan Hejduk finished with a career-low 37 points last season (scoring one goal in his last 25 games) and was a double-digit minus for the third time in the last four seasons, yet he just signed a new contract for next season. Expectations will be low, but the 11-time 20-goal scorer could still contribute in a supporting role.
The only other forward signed for next season is Chuck Kobasew, who struggled, scoring 14 points along with a minus-10 rating in 58 games. He also had the worst shot differential among Colorado players with at least 20 games played, but the 30-year-old does have three 20-goal seasons to his credit and, even if he's not at that level now, he should be able to contribute in a depth role.
As if Ryan O'Reilly wasn't a big enough surprise when he made Avalanche as an 18-year-old second-round pick in 2009-2010, he had a breakout season in 2011-2012, leading the Avalanche with a career-high 55 points while playing the most among Avalanche forwards. O'Reilly's offensive upside may not be top-end, but his overall value, as a playmaker and checker, makes him extremely valuable.
Picked up from Tampa Bay, Steve Downie added a new element to the Avalanche forward lines and he was productive (13 points, plus-9 in 20 games). In the last three seasons combined, Downie is one of three players (Scott Hartnell and Steve Ott are the others) that have accumulated at least 100 points and 400 penalty minutes and Downie is the only one with 100 points and 500 penalty minutes.
While Downie at least had some offensive track record before arriving in Colorado, Jamie McGinn had a career-high 12 goals in 61 games with San Jose before he joined the Avs and scored seven goals in his first eight games with his new team as he responded well to his increased role. If he's going to be able to duplicate his 20-goal season in the years to come, that's a bargain pick-up.
Peter Mueller has gone through a lot of ups and downs in his career for a 24-year-old, with concussion problems bringing most of the lows. After missing the entire 2010-2011 season, Mueller played 32 games last season and contributed 16 points. He's skilled enough to produce more (like 20 points in 15 games for Colorado when he was acquired in trade from Phoenix in 2010) and that has to be the hope, but he's missed so much time, it's difficult to expect too much.
After two strong seasons to start his NHL career, 21-year-old Matt Duchene endured a trying 2011-2012 season, with injuries limiting him to 58 games and, strangely enough, he played a career-low 16:17 per game when healthy, leading to a meagre 28 points in 58 games. A gifted player who should be an offensive leader, Duchene has to get more ice time next season; otherwise, it's a waate of his talents.
Playing limited minutes (12:30 per game) with the Avalanche over the last two seasons, Mark Olver has chipped in 16 points in 42 games, enough to figure that he has the inside track on a full-time job next season. Olver's size works against him, but he's been an effective energy player who can provide some offence nonetheless.
26-year-old Kevin Porter played so little (9:11 per game in 35 games) last season that it's conceivable he wouldn't get a qualifying offer. He's had a few decent spurts with Colorado, but is going to be hard-pressed to establish a regular role.
Even after re-signing their restricted free agents, the Avalanche will have the cap room to be signifcant players in the free agent bidding, which means that, theoretically, they could take a run at Zach Parise, but that seems far-fetched. At the same time, Alexander Semin, PA Parenteau or Mikael Samuelsson are a few wingers that might be able to provide scoring help.
When it comes to checking roles, the Avalanche may want to consider the likes of Samuel Pahlsson, Jim Slater, Torrey Mitchell or Jesse Winchester for a fourth line centre role, while an enforcer like Krys Barch or George Parros may be worthy of interest if Cody McLeod moves elsewhere.
With the Avalanche in need of improved puck skills on the blueline, it's not surprising that Stefan Elliott earned an opportunity last season. After starting out with nine points in his first 18 games with the Avalanche, Elliott had four points in the last 21 games, so there is further development needed, but he's a viable power play quarterback.
Veteran defenceman Jan Hejda is often underrated, and it's easy to point to his career-worst minus-17 and say that he didn't meet expectations, but Hejda took on the difficult checking assignments and started the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone (according to www.behindthenet.ca). Given the circumstances, what Hejda provides is at least adequate, if not better.
Ryan O'Byrne is in a similar position. He doesn't play quite as much as Hejda, but tends to face difficult opposition and is deployed frequently in the defensive zone.
While Ryan Wilson's minutes aren't as challenging as some other Avalanche defenders, he was very effective last season, the only Avalanche blueliner to finish better than plus-2 on the year. Both Wilson and O'Byrne are unheralded types that aren't huge difference-makers, but are good enough for a regular spot in the top six.
24-year-old Erik Johnson scored a career-low 26 points last season, while playing a career-low 20:50 per game. Perhaps the Avalanche aren't inclined to give any defenceman a heavy workload, but if Johnson isn't capable of handling more responsibility, then Colorado's needs on defence are even more pronounced.
If Colorado is inclined to deal from a position of strength (ie. their forward depth), then they most assuredly need to target a first-pair defenceman. Barring any blockbusters, however, the Avalanche still have the cap room to afford a significant addition or two on the blueline.
Ryan Suter would be ideal, but presuming that he might be a tad difficult to land, Colorado could look to Matt Carle (who played collegiately at Denver), Dennis Wideman or Brad Stuart, all of whom are capable of handling significant minutes.
Prospects Tyson Barrie and Cameron Gaunce are knocking on the door, too, but with a relatively young group, the Avalanche don't need to rush them.
In 2007-2008, Jean-Sebastien Giguere recorded a career-high save percentage of .922, then he went though three mediocre seasons before bouncing back last season. Though Giguere was in a backup role -- his 32 games played marked a low-mark since 1999-2000, before he was an established NHLer -- his play did help the Avs get through some stretches when Semyon Varlamov was not playing so well.
Varlamov played in a career-high 53 games last season, annointed the number one coming out of training camp, but struggled in November, December and January, leaving him with a tale of two seasons. In those three months, Varlamov was 9-13-1 with a 3.21 goals against average and .887 save percentage. In October, February, March (and April), he was 17-11-2, with a 2.13 goals against average and .931 save percentage.
Improved consistency from Varlamov would obviously be ideal, but the Avalanche have a tandem that gives them a chance to be competitive at the very least.
||6-22-28, +12, 57 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||5-27-32, -1, 49 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||6-21-27, +17, 75 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||11-25-36, -7, 67 GP
||25-37-2, 3.59 GAA, .906 SV%, 64 GP
||Ilves Tampere (SML)
||2.82 GAA, .910 SV%, 11 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||13-24-37, +8, 53 GP
||47-55-102, +21, 66 GP
||Boston University (HE)
||20-14-1, 2.60 GAA, .923 SV%, 35 GP
The 11th overall pick last summer, Duncan Siemens has size, toughness and can skate, so there could be a shutdown role for him at the next level. He may not find himself quarterbacking the power play, but Siemens can provide value with his defensive contribution.
Tyson Barrie earned a late-season call-up to Colorado after scoring 32 points in 49 AHL games. He's not big, as defencemen go, but is a smart, competitive player that should challenge for a roster spot next season.
There's a lot to like about Cameron Gaunce, a defenceman who has put up points, penalty minutes and a plus-rating in junior and the AHL. Gaunce, 22, has two AHL seasons under his belt, and could probably use a third, but he'll be poised to jump in case of injuries or faltering play by any other young blueliners.
When the Avalanche selected Joey Hishon 17th overall in 2010, it came as a surprise because he was coming off an injury-plagued season, but Hishon followed up with a terrific year in 2010-2011, somewhat validating the selection, before suffering a concussion at the Memorial Cup. He hasn't played since and that lost year of development obviously hurts, but if the 20-year-old can get healthy and shows what he can do in the AHL this year, he could get his prospect status back on track.
An aggressive winger with good size, Brad Malone isn't likely to be a scorer in the NHL, but he has the game of a pro-style bottom-six forward and earned a nine-game audition with the Avalanche last season. He could be close to a job.
The Avalanche have a lot of young goalies on the way, but there is such uncertainty at the position that it should breed competition. Calvin Pickard, a second-round pick in 2010, may have the highest pedigree, but he's played a lot (241 games in four junior seasons) behind some poor Seattle clubs. The 20-year-old could use some time with a stronger team in front of him and he should get at least a couple of years in the AHL to develop.
Finnish goaltender Sami Aittokallio has been bouncing back and forth between junior and the SM-Liiga in Finland, but he's also excelled in international play for the juniors, so the 19-year-old has shown enough promise to compete for the status of the team's top goaltending prospect.
Picked up from San Jose at the trade deadline, 22-year-old winger Mike Connolly was productive enough during his first pro campaign to think that there could be a little offensive upside to this energy forward.
Another asset acquired from San Jose, Michael Sgarbossa was the leading scorer in the OHL last season and even if he's not a big scorer in the NHL, he's improved so steadily thus far, that it's easy to have expectations of continued improvement once he arrives in the pros.
Kieran Millan was a four-year starter at Boston University, playing 138 games, so the 22-year-old is ready to take on pro shooters but, even after a strong senior season, he's hardly a sure thing.
Winger Garrett Meurs, goaltender Kent Patterson and Swedish sleeper Joachim Nermark are others to keep an eye on long-term for the Avs.
No first-round pick.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Avalanche have approximately $21.5M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 8 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Avalanche roster on Cap Geek here.
Needs: Two top nine forwards, one top pair defenceman, another defenceman.
What I said the Avalanche needed last year: Two-three top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, starting goaltender.
They added: Gabriel Landeskog, Joakim Lindstrom, Chuck Kobasew, Jan Hejda, Semyon Varlamov, Sean-Sebastien Giguere.
TRADE MARKET Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene, Peter Mueller, Ryan Wilson, prospects.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.