Join TSN.ca in a 30 Teams In 30 Days tour of the NHL in preparation for the upcoming season. Today, we examine the 2011-12 campaign for the Colorado Avalanche. Get the lowdown on their off-season and the issues they face this season. And use the Your Call feature to give us your take.
If you're a believer in historical trends, then this season will be a beauty for the Avalanche - despite their 28th-overall finish in 2010-11. Over the past four years, the team has alternated between 40-plus-win seasons and lottery picks. So if the trends hold - they're primed and ready for a return to the playoffs.
However, the reality of another transition like that may prove more difficult.
What the Avalanche do have going for them is an outstanding young core, particularly among the forward ranks. Complement that with a big, young and dynamic defence loaded with efficient, if not flashy players and the recipe may be there to catch some of the West's juggernauts napping.
Here's a look at what's in store for this season.
Prospect Report: Part of what allowed the Avalanche to deal a pair of high draft picks for Varlamov is the embarrassment of riches lurking in the team's farm system. For a team already leaning on young studs like Matt Duchene and Erik Johnson, the team still has a crop of top prospects including Calvin Pickard, Joey Hishon and Duncan Siemens.
The crown jewel in the system is Gabriel Landeskog, whom the club selected second overall in June. Landeskog has the body and tenacity that is designed to make the jump to the bigs immediately and the Avs may very well be banking on that as a key part of their attack in 2011-12.
Another name to keep an eye on is Stefan Elliott, who could take a blueline spot right out of junior after being named the WHL's best defenceman last season.
Breakout Player to Watch: Once considered a cornerstone player for the St. Louis Blues, Erik Johnson's trade to the Colorado Avalanche prior to last season's trade deadline was a shock to everyone - especially to Johnson himself.
That said, it should come as no surprise if Johnson comes out playing hard with a big chip on his shoulder. With offseason stories out of Denver talking about his new outlook and new workout regimen, Johnson could be in for a great season in his young NHL career - being that complete all-around blueliner that the Blues hoped for when the drafted him five years ago.
Marquee Match-Up: Oct. 8 vs. Detroit - Forever 21. After a brief comeback attempt with Colorado, Peter Forsberg hung up his skates in the same uniform he wore throughout his glory years. And the Avalanche are returning the favour by retiring his No. 21 on opening night against the Red Wings.
Other Dates To Watch: Nov. 30 - The Avalanche host the Devils in a potential match-up of former World Junior teammates and Top 5 draft picks Gabriel Landeskog and Adam Larsson - if both player make their respective teams. Dec. 2 - Former Avs Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk return to the Pepsi Centre for the first time since last season's blockbuster deal for Johnson.
Reason to Get Excited: The future is now. The Avalanche are bursting with young talent with a core of Duchene, Landeskog, Stastny and Ryan O'Reilly up front, with the hope that Johnson can lead the charge on the blue line.
If the goaltending holds out and Stastny has a rebound season, the team could potentially leap into second-place in the division and challenge for the playoffs. The division is the Vancouver Canucks' to lose, but there's a lot of room for the Avalanche to pick up points if the rest of the Northwest is slow out of the blocks.
Home Hardware: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if anyone from the June draft is poised to take on the NHL, it's probably Landeskog. If he makes the lineup, pencil him in as a definite Calder candidate.
On The Hot Seat: Semyon Varlamov somehow did enough in the process of losing his starting job in Washington to convince the Avs that he's the pony to which they should hitch their wagon. There's no Michael Neuvirth behind him now to put him on edge, so he'll be the go-to guy and will be expected to finally emerge as an established No. 1 goalie.
With only an aging and injury-prone Jean-Sebastian Giguere behind him, Varlamov may be the one man who's most responsible for how well the Avalanche do this year - for better or for worse.
It's Your! Call: Are the Avalanche looking to the future too soon?
The early progress they saw two years ago from Duchene and O'Reilly proves that some players are quicker studies as pros than others, but will Colorado get burned by relying on a young core so quickly?
The organization has proven itself capable of rebounding from a miserable season before and regrouping around a former No. 1 pick like Erik Johnson may prove to be a stroke of genius in the long run. But if the gamble doesn't pay off, the damage to the future could be substantial.
The team has seen some solid play from role players like Brandon Yip, T.J. Galiardi, Kyle Quincey and Ryan O'Byrne and they could be a vastly improved squad if Stastny and Peter Mueller live up to their potential. But is expecting a team this inexperienced to make another dramatic leap a risky strategy on the part of management?