The 2008-2009 season was a fall from grace for the Colorado Avalanche, onetime perennial powers in the Western Conference who were reduced to a last-place finish.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what's ahead for the Avalanche, who started the off-season by firing GM Francois Giguere.
Missing the playoffs twice in three seasons brought about Giguere's demise and has former general manager Pierre Lacroix calling the shots, at least until Giguere's replacement is hired. While Lacroix could return to the post, former NHL goaltender and Avs VP of Hockey Operations Craig Billington is an internal candidate for the job as well. Doug Risebrough and Jay Feaster are but a few of the experienced NHL general managers who are available.
No matter who takes over, they will have no shortage of personnel issues to face, with an aging roster that needs to be infused with youth in the coming seasons as well as a number of younger players that need to make substantial strides in their development in order to fill leadership positions.
If the Avalanche go the route of the full-scale rebuilding project, it will require moving out veterans (some of whom have no-trade clauses) and that may be the best plan of attack.
Even if the Avalanche make enough improvements to the roster over the summer to compete for a playoff spot next year, there isn't enough of a core here to think that they will be true contenders in the next few seasons.
With the franchise's greatest player, Joe Sakic, ready to skate into the sunset, it's time for the next generation of Avalanche stars to step up.
Top Prospects: Ryan Stoa (24-22-46, plus-17 in 36 GP; Minnesota-WCHA), T.J. Galiardi (10-17-27, minus-10 in 66 GP; Lake Erie-AHL).
Ryan Smyth tied for the team lead in scoring with 59 points and, while his second season was better than his first in Colorado, there were rumblings before the deadline that the Avs might consider trying to deal him (despite his no-trade clause).
Such a move would certainly add financial flexibility, but would only figure to interest Smyth if there was going to be a major overhaul for rebuilding purposes. Otherwise, the Avs need him to get back to the 30-goal form that he showed in his two seasons prior to signing in Colorado.
Part of the reason for Colorado's decline in 2008-2009 were the injuries that marred Paul Stastny's season. After scoring 149 points in his first 148 NHL games, Stastny was limited to 36 points in 45 games last season, playing just 11 games after Christmas before suffering a broken foot (to go with his previously broken forearm). When healthy, he is the focal point of Colorado's offence.
Veteran sniper Milan Hejduk tied Smyth for the team scoring lead, but also posted the first minus rating (minus-19) of his career. The 33-year-old is entering the final year of his contract and would have some appeal if he was willing to be moved, but he's also one of the club's few proven finishers so if the Avalanche do unload Hejduk it could make the rebuilding process all the more challenging.
Beyond that established trio, the Avalanche are in dire need of improvement from their young forwards.
Marek Svatos is too talented to score just 14 goals, but his play without the puck seems to terminally limit his ice time so when he's not scoring, he can go through extended droughts.
Few players are as streaky as Wojtek Wolski, who has the size and skill to do more than he has thus far. Beyond his outstanding skills in the shootout, however, Wolski has seen his goal and point production decline in each of the last two seasons. He should be a top six forward.
While Joe Sakic's injury created an opportunity for T.J. Hensick to stick with the Avalanche for an extended period, he didn't produce enough offensively to secure a spot for the future. Hensick is a creative playmaker but, even as a setup guy, simply has to score more than four goals in 61 games.
Bruising young winger Chris Stewart had his moments as a rookie, scoring 11 goals and generally faring well in his eight scraps, but a rookie-worst minus-18 (in 53 games), shows room for improvement before he's considered a legitimate NHL winger, let alone a power forward.
If the Avalanche make any effort at all to purge overpriced veterans, Darcy Tucker has to fall in the crosshairs of the new GM. Tucker was wholly ineffective in his first season with Colorado, to the point that it may not be worth having the 34-year-old take a roster spot that can go to a young winger.
There were few bright spots for the Avalanche last season, but blue-collar winger Cody McLeod would qualify. Though McLeod has limited offensive skills, he scored 15 goals and was a consistent physical presence.
Like his namesake, Cody McCormick is a big, physical winger, but with only one goal in 55 games, he'll face competition for a spot in the lineup.
David Jones' season was cut short by a shoulder injury and he's still trying to establish his role in the NHL, but he has the size and speed to warrant a roster spot.
While it might be heartwarming to have Joe Sakic return for one more season, it's hard to figure that Burnaby Joe is going to be inclined to charge up the batteries for another season after he's managed to play a total of 59 games in the last two seasons. Time to start on that Hall of Fame induction speech, Joe.
Unrestricted free agents that the Avalanche may be inclined to keep around are Ian Laperriere, a 35-year-old vet who lays it all on the line nightly and was a target for contending teams around the trade deadline, and Ben Guite, who has been an inexpensive, reliable checker.
With this group of forwards, the Avalanche definitely need some additions to go along with internal improvement if they are going to get back into playoff contention.
First off, Colorado holds the third pick in the upcoming NHL draft and, at the moment, it appears that Brampton Battalion centre Matt Duchene is most likely to be available at that spot. Duchene has been earning raves for his play in the OHL and could, conceivably, step into the Avalanche lineup next season.
Colorado also has a rookie on the way in the form of 22-year-old Ryan Stoa, a forward with good size who led the Minnesota Golden Gophers with 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games.
If Stoa and (presumably) Duchene can play and the young forwards show enough improvement, then the Avalanche may be on the right track.
While a blockbuster signing up front wouldn't come close to curing all that ails the Avalanche, it wouldn't hurt to explore the possibility of landing a marquee free agent sniper like Martin Havlat, Marian Gaborik or even Alex Kovalev, in an attempt to simply raise the skill level at the top of the depth chart.
Top Prospects: Kevin Shattenkirk (7-21-28, plus-28 in 43 GP; Boston University-HE), Colby Cohen (8-24-32, plus-23 in 43 GP; Boston University-HE), Nigel Williams (7-14-21, plus-1 in 70 GP; Lake Erie-AHL), Cameron Gaunce (17-47-64, plus-28 in 67 GP; Mississauga-OHL)
While the Avalanche have some quality blueline prospects on the way, it may require some wrangling to get them into action for next season.
As it stands right now, the Avalanche have five veteran defencemen signed -- all at more than $3-million -- for 2009-2010.
As the most adept puck-handler in the group, John-Michael Liles is supposed to be a cornerstone, but last year's career-low minus-19 didn't shine a bright light on his defensive prowess. He's not big, nor is he aggressive, so he's not likely to be a defensive stalwart, yet Liles' skating and puck skills should produce better results if he has a stronger supporting cast (in terms of goaltending and forwards).
Ruslan Salei remains an effective top-four veteran defenceman. He hits, blocks shots and can handle the puck well enough to spend some time on the power play.
With one year left on his deal, Salei may have some appeal on the trade market for a team not wanting to make a long-term financial commitment and if he's moved, that could accelerate the process of bringing in some new blood on the Avalanche blueline.
Another veteran in a similar situation is Brett Clark. Clark has been generally reliable since coming to Colorado and even if he wasn't as effective last season, he was still far-and-away the team leader in blocked shots. Like Salei, he's capable of filling a top four role for most teams and has one year left on his deal.
Scott Hannan is supposed to be the shutdown defender of this group. While he remains durable, having missed just six games in his last six seasons Hannan, like many Avs, faded in the second half of the season as the team fell out of playoff contention.
Years of battling in the trenches have taken their toll on Adam Foote as the 37-year-old was limited to just 42 games last season and he wasn't particularly effective when he did play. If nothing else, Foote still competes and has tremendous playoff experience, but playoff experience isn't at the top of this team's list of needs.
Undersized defenceman Kyle Cumiskey is a sensational skater, but has yet to establish that he's worthy of a regular spot in the NHL and it didn't help his case to have his season end due to shoulder surgery after just six games. The good news is that shoulder trouble shouldn't affect his wheels, so he may have a chance to establish his NHL credentials next season.
Looking at that group, the Avalanche could use some fresh legs and improved puckhandling on the back end. If they could get 2007 first-rounder Kevin Shattenkirk from Boston University, where he led all Terriers defencemen in plus-minus on their way to the National Championship, then that would not only bring in a mix of youth right away, but would also allow Shattenkirk to learn for a year from the veterans on hand before having more responsibility thrust upon him.
If the Avs don't count on at least one of the prospects to make the jump this season, then they could look to the free agent market for the likes of Ville Koistinen or Marc-Andre Bergeron, mobile puck-handling defencemen still in their twenties.
A more dramatic move would be to target Jay Bouwmeester, but that's only reasonable if the Avalanche make some cost-cutting moves in the meantime to help accomodate what is expected to be one of the largest contracts signed this summer.
The Avs aren't jammed up against the cap yet, but if they are going to address other needs as well (goaltending, for one), then they can't be expected to throw $6-million-plus at any free agent.
Top Prospects: Trevor Cann (35-15-1, 2.61 GAA, .919 SVPCT in 52 GP; London-OHL), Billy Sauer (5-6, 2.02 GAA, .921 SVPCT in 13 GP; Michigan-CCHA)
Undoubtedly the position of greatest concern for the Avalanche is in goal, where Peter Budaj hasn't developed as hoped. He's had sensational moments, but the 26-year-old hasn't established the consistency required to be a number one goaltender.
Since they can't hinge another season on the hope that Budaj will make the leap, the Avalanche have to hit the free agent or trade markets in an effort to land a more reliable puckstopper. Some free agents that might come at a more reasonable cost include Craig Anderson and Antero Niittymaki, a pair of backups who challenged for starting jobs with their teams last season.
Finding stability between the pipes could make the Avs more competitive right away, as they ranked ninth in the league in shots allowed last season, only to have Budaj and Andrew Raycroft combine for a 27th-ranked .897 save percentage.
3rd - Matt Duchene, Evander Kane, Brayden Schenn, Magnus Paajaarvi-Svensson.
The Avalanche have approximately $45.2-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Three top nine forwards, top pair defenceman, another defenceman, starting goaltender
What I said the Avalanche needed last year: Two top nine forwards, two defencemen
Who did they add? Darcy Tucker, Andrew Raycroft.
Ryan Smyth, Milan Hejduk, Marek Svatos, Ruslan Salei, Brett Clark.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca