One of the great surprises of the 2009-2010 NHL season, the Colorado Avalanche are positioned to have more good seasons ahead if they can augment a roster already stocked with young talent.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Avalanche and what they can do this summer to remain in the Western Conference playoff picture next season.
While there is naturally a lot to like about a team that improved from 69 points in 2008-2009 to 95 points last season, that kind of improvement doesn't guarantee further improvement the next season.
Naturally, the Avalanche will expect their young players to improve, and they should, but it's also fair to say that a lot went right for the Avalanche last season, with a lot of players performing at levels that they hadn't previously achieved in the NHL.
That is a function of how young the team is, with players at a certain stage in their development, but it does present the possibility that at least some of the young players aren't going to exceed last year's production. It doesn't always go up, up and up for every talented young player after a good showing as a rookie. Just ask Peter Mueller.
"I think we're headed in the right direction," Avalanche coach Joe Sacco told the Denver Post. "We're going to be young, we're going to be full of energy and we're going to play to our identity. I really see a lot of upside here."
Sacco has every right to be encouraged about the results in his first year running an NHL bench, and a team with strong goaltending and strength down the middle has a solid core.
If there is one area, in particular, that stands out as an area of need, it's defence. The Avalanche surrendered more than 32 shots per game and their 4.2 shot deficit per game was worst among all playoff teams.
For his part, GM Greg Sherman recognizes what awaits the Avalanche next season -- there will be no sneaking up on the opposition as they may have last season.
"Expectations will be higher next year, but that's a challenge we'll gladly take on," Sherman told the Denver Post.
Ah, the perils of a young and improving team: heightened expectations, which is most definitely better than the alternative of expecting mediocrity.
Now, it's up to these young Avs to build on the momentum they started last season.
Greg Sherman/Joe Sacco
24-year-old Paul Stastny isn't a point-per-game player, but he's darn close, finishing with 79 points in 81 games last season and tallying 264 points in 274 career games. His vision and offensive instincts are his greatest strengths and it helps make those on his line more productive.
Providing some experience -- a link to the franchise's Stanley Cup era -- Milan Hejduk played in a career-low 56 games thanks to a variety of injuries but a knee injury, in particular, kept him out for a good chunk of the second half. Even so, the skilled finisher put up at least 20 goals for the tenth consecutive season.
Even the loftiest projections weren't likely to have Matt Duchene stepping into the Colorado lineup immediately and leading all rookies in scoring.
After an adjustment period to start his career (seven points, minus-8 in first 21 games), Duchene was a solid performer (48 points, plus-9 in 60 games) and his role increased as his rookie year progressed. The 19-year-old now forms a potent 1-2 combination down the middle with Stastny, but it may not be long before there is the enviable question over which one is responsible for which spot on the depth chart.
Before suffering a season-ending knee injury at the end of November, David Jones had erupted for a shocking 10 goals in 23 games. The 25-year-old has the size and speed to be a solid checker, but if he's even capable of 20 goals a year, that would be a welcome boost to the Colorado attack.
Though he didn't have the fanfare of some other Avalanche rookies, left winger T.J. Galiardi earned a trusted place in the lineup, playing more than 20 minutes a game from February through the end of the season. He's never been a big scorer, but his relentless, in-your-face game makes Galiardi a handful for opposing defencemen to deal with.
Rare is the second-round pick that is able to make an NHL team immediately, let alone play a regular role for their entire rookie season, but that's what two-way centre Ryan O'Reilly did.
He did go through some long goal-scoring droughts (one goal in a 37-game midseason stretch and one goal in 26 games to end the regular season), but O'Reilly earned immediate respect for his hockey smarts and work ethic.
Scrappy winger Cody McLeod saw his goal total drop from 15 in 2008-2009 to seven last year, but he fought a career-high 18 times. For a guy who drops the mitts that often, playing nearly 13 minutes a game may have been asking too much, as McLeod's minus-13 rating was tied for worst on the team, so a more defined role could suit him.
There was some uncertainty about Chris Stewart following the 2008-2009 season, but there's no doubting the impact he can have after his breakthrough 28-goal, 64-point season.
A 22-year-old power forward, who can be a real load to handle in the corners and in front of the net, Stewart is a nice complement to a playmaker like Stastny.
Brandon Yip burst onto the scene as a 24-year-old rookie and scored 11 goals in his first 22 games before going goalless in his last ten games, though that stretch was sandwiched around an absence due to a shoulder injury.
Even if Yip isn't going to keep that goal-scoring pace as a matter of course, he could be a top-nine forward with more scoring potential than might have been expected when he came out of Boston University.
Peter Mueller's third NHL season was circling the bowl, with just four goals in 54 games, before getting traded to Colorado and turning it around completely, scoring 20 points in 15 games with the Avalanche before suffering a concussion that kept him sidelined through the playoffs.
A healthy and motivated Mueller upgrades Colorado's talent level significantly and, just 22, there's still room for improvement.
There will be some turnover among the Avalanche forwards, with so many unrestricted free agents, but none of them is an irreplaceable piece of the puzzle.
With so many young, and relatively inexpensive, players on the roster, the Avalanche should have room to sign some free agents and it wouldn't hurt to take a run at a big-time scorer. Ilya Kovalchuk is the big prize, it seems, but if Kovalchuk's asking price is too steep, 44-goal Patrick Marleau or Alexander Frolov wouldn't hurt either.
Beyond adding a proven scoring winger, the Avalanche only need a few minor adjustments up front, as they already have a good crop of young forwards around which to build.
Defensive coverage has never been John-Michael Liles' strong suit, but his troubles without the puck resulted in several stints in the press box, despite the fact that he was the only Avalanche defenceman competent enough to consistently run the power play (scoring 20 power play points in 59 games).
It's not like the Avs are clamouring for cap room, but if they decide that Liles isn't reliable enough for full-time duty, then it would make sense to find out if there are any teams willing to take on the last two years of Liles' contract (at $4.25-million per season).
Ryan Wilson started his rookie campaign as a spare part, playing sparingly even when he was in the lineup, but as he proved to be competent in a limited role, he earned more playing time. Wilson's ceiling may not be that high, but he's already exceeded expectations, so there could be more to discover in his game.
Smooth-skating Kyle Cumiskey also progressed steadily in his first full season, playing more than 20 minutes per game over the second half of the season. Cumiskey's skating ability would seem to make him a candidate to play more of a role offensively, but that remains a relatively untapped part of his game.
Scott Hannan, 31, remains a durable defensive battler, who has missed two games in three seasons with the Avalanche and played nearly 22 minutes a game -- often against the opposition's best line -- last season; he's a valuable veteran presence, while completely limited once the puck ends up on his stick.
38-year-old Adam Foote has signed on for another season. His role has started to decrease in recent seasons, but he competes (leading Avs defencemen in hits per minute) and is now suited for more of a depth and leadership role.
Tom Preissing is still under contract with the Avalanche, though he was banished to the AHL after a minus-6 rating in four games last season. The 31-year-old has played 26 NHL games over the last two years and would seem to be a prime buyout candidate.
Picked up from L.A. last summer, Kyle Quincey turned in a strong season, though his offensive production dropped. After scoring 15 points in 26 games to start the year, the 24-year-old had 14 points in the next 53 games, but he was still a stabilizing presence on the Colorado blueline, logging more than 23 minutes per game.
While the Avalanche could use a top scoring winger, adding a premier defenceman would sure accelerate this team's development, and help cut back the shots against goaltender Craig Anderson.
Many of Colorado's top prospects are defencemen, so there ought to be some consideration to keeping room for the prospects to fit into the lineup, but it's at least fair to consider bringing in one of the top-drawer free agents like Paul Martin or Dan Hamhuis or perhaps more of a defensive presence like Zbynek Michalek, Dennis Seidenberg or Shaone Morrisonn could help solidify the group.
The best free agent signing of last summer, Craig Anderson went from career back-up to workhorse starter and played a huge role in getting a young team that still allowed a lot of shots against to overachieve in the standings.
There were some ebbs and flows in Anderson's play, which was understandable since this was the first time Anderson had played more than 31 games in an NHL season and he played 71.
With Peter Budaj a free agent, perhaps the Avalanche would consider a more veteran backup, who could ease the workload on Anderson, even if only for an additional half dozen starts or so.
If Budaj doesn't return, free agents like Alex Auld or Vesa Toskala may be inexpensive options for the backup role.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'09-'10 Cap Hit
||Boston University (HE)
||7-22-29,-2, 39 GP
||Boston University (HE)
||14-16-30,+4, 36 GP
||26-39-65,+41, 72 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||23-17-40,-4, 54 GP
||Mississauga-St. Mike's (OHL)
||6-31-37,+29, 55 GP
||19-53-72,+11, 63 GP
||Northern Michigan (CCHA)
||19-30-49,+17, 40 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||16-25-41,-9, 56 GP
||8-10-18,-4, 39 GP
||19-34-53,+17, 54 GP
A mobile defenceman with offensive skills, Kevin Shattenkirk was a first-round pick in 2007 and has been groomed for three seasons at BU. He may need some work on his defensive play, so a start in the AHL could be in the plans, but Shattenkirk ought to be in Colorado soon enough.
Mirroring Shattenkirk's development, though in a larger frame, Colby Cohen was a second-round pick in 2007 and played three years at BU, using his booming point shot to score 14 goals in 36 games a junior. Some time in the AHL would figure to be necessary, but Cohen could be an impact performer when he eventually arrives.
There's no doubting Stefan Elliott's offensive game, as last year's second-rounder put up 26 goals and 65 points in the Dub. With so many defence prospects in the pipeline, there's no rush for the 19-year-old, so he may get to terrorize junior for another season.
23-year-old Ryan Stoa got into a dozen games with the Avalanche in his first pro season and acquitted himself well in the AHL, scoring 23 goals and 40 points in 54 games. With good size, Stoa has power forward potential, but even if he doesn't become a big scorer in the NHL, he can be an effective two-way player.
A plus-57 in the last two years in the Ontario Hockey League, Cameron Gaunce can move the puck and isn't afraid to get his nose dirty -- traits that make him a good candidate to be part of the Avalanche's bright future on defence.
Another potential bargain in last year's draft, Tyson Barrie is an undersized blueliner, but he had a nice combination of mobility and offensive instincts that have helped him increase his production in each junior campaign. Like Elliott, Barrie has time to develop.
Mark Olver's another player that lacks ideal size, but the playmaking centre has simply been too productive to ignore, scoring 122 points in 119 games through three seasons at Northern Michigan. The feisty forward got a late-season audition with Lake Erie and figures to start there next season.
2008 Hobey Baker winner Kevin Porter has been able to score at the AHL level (76 points in 98 games), but only has 13 points in 54 NHL games and he hasn't been reliable enough defensively to earn a better chance. With so many young forwards battling for playing time in Colorado, Porter has his work cut out for him.
Mike Carman's upside is limited, as one might expect from a forward that scored 29 goals in 135 collegiate games, but he's a blue-collar hustle guy that could trade on those skills as he moves up the ladder.
Kelsey Tessier has had uneven results since getting taken in the fourth round of the 2008 draft, but he raised his game in Moncton's playoff run, scoring 30 points and going plus-17 in 21 postseason games.
If the Avs don't have enough mobile puckhandling defencemen at their disposal, they could also look to Joel Chouinard, who scored 23 goals and 68 points in 65 games for Victoriaville last season.
17th - Jack Campbell, Dylan McIlrath, Austin Watson
According to www.capgeek.com, the Avalanche have approximately $31.9M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 14 players.
Needs: One top six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender.
What I said the Avalanche needed last year: Three top nine forwards, top pair defenceman, another defenceman, starting goaltender.
Who did they add? Matt Duchene, T.J. Galiardi, Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Quincey, Ryan Wilson, Craig Anderson.
TRADE MARKET John-Michael Liles.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.