Following a stunningly successful 2009-2010 season, the Colorado Avalanche crashed back to earth last season, especially in the second half.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what moves the Avalanche might consider this summer in an effort to become more competitive again next season and in the years to come.
After opening the season with a 24-16-6 record, the Avalanche staggered to a 6-28-2 record the rest of the way, dramatically altering their place in the standings and suddenly giving the Avalanche a very high draft pick.
Injuries certainly played a part in the Avalanche collapse last season, as did subpar goaltending -- Colorado goaltenders stopped just 89.5% of shots against -- so better health and improved goaltending could go a long way to turning around the Avalanche record.
At the same time, if the playoffs are an objective, the team will either need to re-sign some free agents or head to market looking for scoring wingers.
The playoff berth in 2010 may have altered expectations, but the Avalanche have potential if they are looking to build a team that will contend consistently.
The recent trend in the league has been to build down the middle, and the Avalanche are in good shape there, but Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny and Ryan O'Reilly need help.
There has been steady flow of prospects into the organization from recent drafts, so there are building blocks in place. Duchene and O'Reilly are 20; defenceman Erik Johnson is 23 and Colorado owns the second and 11th picks in this year's draft.
When combined with some of the prospects already in the organization, there is reason for optimism, especially if the team is willing to be patient.
The Avalanche added legendary centre Joe Sakic to their front office as an executive advisor and Sakic sees the upside of this group.
"This is a good challenge, a big challenge for all of us. When I look at it, I see a lot of potential here," Sakic told the Canadian Press. "There's a lot of good, young players that, as long you're patient with, you're going to watch grow into a great hockey team."
Greg Sherman/Joe Sacco
While the season was generally disappointing for the Avalanche, Matt Duchene continued to improve in his second year, despite a bit of a dip during a midseason slump.
Only 20-years-old, Duchene already has 51 goals and 122 points in his first two seasons, which ranks ninth among players 20-or-under over the last 20 seasons and those above him that meet these criteria (Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, Anze Kopitar, Mats Sundin, Jaromir Jagr, Jonathan Toews) are rather impressive.
So, it's easy to see Duchene as the face of the Avalanche franchise going forward; now it's a matter of providing him with ample support.
Paul Stastny has been the Avs' marquee player in recent seasons, topping 70 points three times in five NHL seasons, but last season's 57 points was a decided drop in his production and, at a cap hit of $6.6-million, that's not the kind of return on investment that the Avalanche need.
A skilled playmaker, Stastny should benefit from Duchene's emergence, as it will take some of the checking focus off Stastny's line, but Stastny also needs finishers on his wings to make the most of his setup skills.
If cost-cutting is an issue for the Avalanche (and it very well may not be -- they have tons of cap room), Stastny might be the kind of player that could be shopped to teams in need of a first line centre.
20-year-old Ryan O'Reilly has already established himself as a very reliable checking centre who plays the game the right way, which is unusual for a player so young, and now the question is whether or not he'll develop enough offensively to warrant a spot among the top six forwards.
It's no crime if he isn't, and it could take some time to reach that stage, but it would be even better for Colorado if O'Reilly is ultimately good for at least double the 26 points that he's put up in each of his first two seasons.
Winger Daniel Winnik was a nice addition to the club, providing size and a reliable checking presence, while matching career bests with 11 goals and 26 points.
Winnik is a penalty killer on what was the league's worst penalty-killing unit, but is the kind of blue-collar foot soldier that can be a nice complementary piece of the puzzle.
After scoring 11 goals in his first 22 games in 2009-2010, winger Brandon Yip was saddled with unreaslistic offensive expectations for a player who was never a huge scorer prior to arriving in the NHL.
Last season's 22 points and minus-22 rating wasn't good enough and it leaves Yip in a tough place. If he's not really going to be a 20-goal winger, then he has to be a much better checker to hold down a regular spot in the lineup.
It would be easy to forget that Jay McClement was the fourth player involved in the blockbuster trade with St. Louis, and it's not like he did anything after the trade (four points, minus-8 in 24 games) to make his mark in Colorado.
McClement is a solid penalty killer and faceoff man, but has also been a double-digit minus in four of his six NHL seasons. While he obviously takes on tough checking assignments, those minuses might suggest that he could use some checking help and, in Colorado, O'Reilly should be able to provide it.
Cody McLeod is a willing scrapper on the fourth line (32 fights over the last two seasons), but played his fewest minutes per game and scored a career-low eight points in his fourth season.
Expectations will be modest for McLeod, provided he adds punch to the fourth line, but he did score 15 goals in 2008-2009, so something at least closer to that production would be preferable.
After getting a fresh start in Colorado in 2009-2010, Peter Mueller scored 20 points in 15 games with the Avalanche and has been plagued by concussion problems ever since.
If he's healthy, there's little doubt that Mueller can be a very effective scoring forward but sadly, after missing the entire 2010-2011 season, any contributions that Mueller can make to next year's Avalanche ought to be considered a bonus.
A winger with good size and speed, David Jones broke through with 27 goals, giving him 37 goals in 100 games over the last two seasons, and indicating that he's capable of playing in a top-six forward role.
Jones benefits from playing with good centres in Colorado, but he plays a sound enough game otherwise that he can fill a checking role if need be. Given his recent scoring surge, however, the Avs will hope that he can continue to score 20-plus per season.
T.J. Galiardi's game regressed some, following his strong rookie campaign, and then he got hurt, missing 45 games with a wrist injury.
At his best, Galiardi is a strong two-way winger who can check and agitate, but also works well as a supporting winger for offensively-skilled linemates.
2010-2011 was Kevin Porter's first full NHL season and had some productive moments, but he hasn't established a level of consistency that he can be counted on offensively at the NHL level.
Philippe Dupuis played a very limited role, averaging 9:07 of ice time per game, but he's a serviceable fourth-line option; an eager hitter who can also play on the penalty killing unit.
If the Avalanche can't get their unrestricted free agents signed, there will be some significant holes to fill. Tomas Fleischmann was a great fit after coming over from Washington, scoring 21 points in 22 games, but his season ended prematurely due to a pulmonary embolism.
If he's healthy and cleared to play, Fleischmann would be well worth re-signing for a role on a scoring line.
Longtime Avs winger Milan Hejduk has scored at least 20 goals every year since 1999-2000, his second year in the league. Now 35, Hejduk might be open to joining a contender, but he's still able to help Colorado should he decide he's comfortable staying in what has been his only NHL home.
If they can't keep their own scoring wingers and Mueller is still unable to play, then the Avs may need to dip into the free agent market for some top six wingers.
In that case, Brooks Laich, Ville Leino or Scottie Upshall are some of the wingers that could have some appeal.
John-Michael Liles scored a career-high 46 points in 2010-2011, but it was a tale of two seasons for him. The best of times came right out of the gate, when he tallied 23 points in the first 23 games of the season. The worst of times would have been the second half of the season, not so much for 17 points in 38 games, but more for his minus-18 rating.
Liles is entering the final year of his contract, and his mobility and puck skills should generate interest so, even with a limited no-trade clause in his contract, he could be expendable.
Consistency remains elusive for Erik Johnson, but if he was performing consistently, he probably wouldn't have been available in trade, so it was a worthwhile risk for the Avalanche to take, hoping that Johnson will mature into a bona fide No. 1 defenceman.
After arriving in Colorado, Johnson played more than 24 minutes a game and contributed 10 points and a minus-5 rating in 22 games. He's still just 23-years-old so Johnson should still be able to get his career back on track.
Norwegian defenceman Jonas Holos got off to a good start in a defensive role, was sent to the AHL, then wasn't as effective once he was recalled. He may be in a battle for a spot on the big club again next year.
Kyle Quincey didn't play after December 11 due to shoulder surgery and, even if he wasn't particularly productive (one assist in 21 games) last season, he's capable of eating big minutes on the blueline, having averaged 23:37 of ice time per game in 2009-2010.
If he's healthy, Quincey can play in a top-four role, with the versatility to play in a defensive or puck-moving role, depending on the club's particular needs.
With four restricted free agent defencemen, there could be some decisions necessary.
Kyle Cumiskey is a brilliant skater and the 24-year-old looked like he was starting to put it together, but then was limited to just 18 games due to concussion and whiplach effects.
Ryan Wilson made nice progress in his second season and he's a solid no-frills player who will sacrifice his body, hitting, blocking shots and, if necessary, dropping the gloves.
Acquired from Montreal early in the season, Ryan O'Byrne improved in his new location, playing more than 20 minutes a game for the Avalanche. At 6-foot-5, 234 pounds, O'Byrne has the size to be an effective defensive defenceman and seemed to respond to the confidence shown in him by the Colorado coaching staff.
Also picked up in an early-season trade, Matt Hunwick has struggled the last two seasons after a stellar showing as a rookie in 2008-2009. He's undersized, but Hunwick is a smooth skater and not afraid to get involved in the physical side of the game, but he's minus-31 over the last two seasons and hasn't been able to secure consistent power play time.
If all of these defenceman are signed, that would give the Avalanche eight NHL defencemen before even considering the potential impact of Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson, who is certainly a possibility with the second overall pick.
Should the Avs take Larsson, it could allow them to shop at least one of their defencemen.
Goaltending was a massive problem for the Avalanche last season and it was rather unexpected, given how well Craig Anderson had played in 2009-2010. By dealing Anderson to Ottawa for Brian Elliott, Colorado acquired a capable backup goaltender, but still needs to address the starting role.
Peter Budaj is now 28 and coming off a season in which he posted a career-low .895 save percentage, so it's probably time for a fresh start, both for the Avalanche and Budaj.
While Colorado has some solid goaltending prospects, none appear ready to step into the lineup immediately, so free agency or a trade may be required to address this need.
Should the Avs go the free agent route, Ilya Bryzgalov and Tomas Vokoun are the top two free agent goaltenders available and while they may hold out for a hefty contract, Colorado does have plenty of cap room to make such a deal.
If the solution isn't one of those veterans, the Avalanche could also try a trade for a good young backup, like the Kings' Jonathan Bernier, in the hopes that Bernier is ready to handle a starter's workload.
The challenge with that option is that it will cost the Avalanche more (ie. some combination of picks, players and prospects) than just money that would be required to land a free agent.
||Owen Sound (OHL)
||37-50-87,+16, 50 GP
||3.36 GAA, .916 SV%, 68 GP
||31-50-81,+62, 71 GP
||11-47-58,+5, 54 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||2-20-22,+13, 61 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||23-17-40,-2, 58 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||16-17-33,+5, 48 GP
||North Dakota (WCHA)
||16-24-40,+22, 43 GP
||2.54 GAA, .919 SV%, 30 GP
||Lake Erie (AHL)
||10-8-18,-12, 75 GP
There was a certain amount of shock when the Avalanche drafted Joey Hishon with the 17th pick in last summer's draft, but he's justified the selection with a tremendous season in the OHL. He's not big, but Hishon has the offensive upside that could make him a factor in Colorado eventually.
Goaltender Calvin Pickard faced an onslaught of shots, more than 39 per game, in the Western Hockey League last season and that experience, while a little rough now, should make him better in the long run, when he'll presumably have a better defence in front of him. As it is, there is no rush to throw the 19-year-old into the fire.
There is no doubt that defenceman Stefan Elliott knows the offensive side of the game, as he's scored 241 points in four Western Hockey League seasons, but he's also a plus-103 over the last two seasons, so it's understandable if the Avalanche think he can be an impact performer when he arrives in Colorado. Next up, though, should be some seasoning in the AHL.
While he isn't quite as big as Elliott, Tyson Barrie is another right-shooting WHL defenceman who can put up points -- 228 in four-plus WHL seasons. With Barrie and Elliott in the pipeline, the Avs should be well-stocked on the blueline going forward.
Cameron Gaunce has been a little underrated as a prospect, it seems, but he showed well in his first pro season, earning a late-season audition in Colorado. Given the depth on the Avalanche blueline currently, Gaunce may be ticketed for another year in the AHL but, by season's end, he could be ready for primetime.
Smallish forward Mark Olver plays with good energy and enough skill to think that he might be able to handle a regular role. The 23-year-old will increase his odds of sticking if he can get physically stronger and prove that he can play in a depth role. To his credit, Olver had nine points in 18 games with the Avalanche despite playing fewer than 12 minutes a night.
Size and strength isn't the issue for Ryan Stoa, but he's only been able to produce seven points in 37 NHL games in his first two pro campaigns. Can the 24-year-old crack the roster and play regularly, or is he not quite good enough for the NHL?
The Avalanche were patient with Brad Malone, who was drafted in the fourth round in 2007, then promptly went out and scored three points in his entire freshman season at North Dakota. As a senior, Malone scored 40 points and had 108 penalty minutes in 43 games; he should work on his skating in the AHL next season.
Colorado has several goaltending prospects, behind Pickard, including Finn Sami Aittokallio and the Kitchener Rangers' Brandon Maxwell, but the best of the bunch may be Kent Patterson, who just wrapped up an impressive junior year at the University of Minnesota.
Winger Luke Walker is a study in perseverance, not drafted into the WHL and drafted as a 20-year-old in the NHL, Walker made a smooth transition to the pro game. He`s not a scorer, but should have a shot at sticking, in a year or two, as a fourth-line energy guy.
Here's a look at a possible roster, with Fleischmann and Hejduk re-signed, money set aside for a new goaltender and Mueller left as a wildcard due to concussion troubles. http://bit.ly/ljUK3r
2nd - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson, Gabriel Landeskog.
11th - Sven Bartschi, Joel Armia, Duncan Siemens
According to www.capgeek.com, the Avalanche have approximately $28.5M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 12 players.
Needs: Two-three top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, starting goaltender.
What I said the Avalanche needed last year: One top six forward, depth forwards, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender.
They added: Daniel Winnik, Philippe Dupuis, Kevin Shattenkirk.
TRADE MARKET Paul Stastny, Jay McClement, Brandon Yip, John-Michael Liles, Matt Hunwick.
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.