Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Martin Krantz on 08/12/11 at 02:35 PM ET
The Avalanche is a team surrounded by questions as we prepare for the 2011-2012 season. The Avs looked like a playoff team until mid january, only to fall through and end the second part of the season in a way that could have made the Florida Panthers say “Ouch”.
Needless to say, each and every Avalanche player will be facing at least one question that needs to be answered in a positive way this coming season if the Avs are to have a shot at the playoffs. In a bigger series of posts we will begin to analyze the players individually, see what everyone’s question to answer is, and how likely they are to give us a positive answer. That series should be starting up in another week or two, but until then, let’s look at the five most pressing concerns for the Avalanche.
1. Can Paul Stastny bounce back?
Last year, Stastny produced 57 points in 74 games, his lowest point totals since 2008-2009 (36 points in 45 games due to injury). A Stastny without serious injuries has been a 70-point producer every other season, while providing solid two-way play and smooth passes for his wingmen. A pass-first center, Stastny suffered from a lack of chemistry as the injury-riddled Avs experimented throughout the season with different line-combinations. Stastny and David Jones found chemistry together, as Jones produced a quiet 27-goal campaign with hardly any other team taking any notice of his success. But for the Avs to return to the playoffs, Stastny needs to click with whoever his linemates will be. I’m expecing him to play with Landeskog and Jones this season, and if they gel well together I’m hoping that Stastny will be back to 70-80 points next season, giving Landeskog a real shot at winning the Calder.
There’s been a lot of talk about Stastny being traded (mostly involving Toronto), but I’m highly doubtful that anything will materialize. Stastny and Duchene provides a great one-two punch down the middle, but if Stastny falters and Ryan O’Reilly shows that his offensive game has improved, the team might decide to go with Duchene as no. 1 center and O’Reilly as no. 2. That would leave Stastny out of the top lines and make it much more likely that he’s traded. So there are really two roads to go for Stastny this year - return to form, or risk losing your spot on the top lines (and a job with the Avs) to O’Reilly.
2. Which players will steal the wide-open spots on left wing?
Last season was a merry-go-round on the Avs’ left wing, and unless two players really step up and show that they belong on the top lines, there’s a risk of a repeat story. Peter Mueller should be returning from concussion problems that sidelined him for all of last season, but is he the player he was before the injury? Will another bump to the head send him into early retirement like Savard (let’s not kid ourselves, he’s a pebble to the head away from being retired), or will he be able to come back and play without problems like Bergeron? T.J. Galiardi played and failed on the top lines - he might receive another chance this year, but is on a short leash. The Avs signed Joakim Lindstrom in the early parts of the off-season, who was the leading scorer in the Swedish Elite League last year with 28 goals and 32 assists. If Mueller isn’t cleared for play, and if Lindstrom has a good camp, he might be thrown in the deep end of the pool in his return to the NHL (he is a former Coyote). Prospect Joey Hishon is a natural center, but he might have an easier time making the Avs if he switches to LW, so he’s also in the mix.
Obviously, Landeskog is likely to fill one of the spots on the top lines, but if the coaching staff don’t consider him ready, he might find himself on a checking line since he has the skillset to play there as well. My dream is that he makes his debut in the season opener against Detroit, where Peter Forsberg’s number will be retired, and that Landeskog has a Gordie Howe hattrick (goal, assist and fight) in a 5-2 win. Things never go the way I want them to, unfortunately. The first Avalanche game I ever watched was on March 22nd, 1996. My maternal grandmother and grandfather just got cable and got a free month of viewing of the channel airing NHL games in Sweden. I was tired as the game wouldn’t air before 01:00 here, but I sat up to watch my idols Forsberg, Sakic and Roy as they would surely lead the Avs to a big win over the Red Wings. Instead, the Avs went on to lose 0-7, with Patrick Roy being chased and seven different Wings scoring on him and Stephane Fiset. It was almost enough for a new fan to become a Red Wings fan like his father.
3. What will the Avs defence look like, and will they be able to improve on last season’s abysmal performance?
The Avs look like they will be defending by committee this year, as we have a lot of players signed (or retained their RFA rights) - Erik Johnson, Kyle Quincey, Jan Hejda, Ryan O’Byrne, Ryan Wilson, Kyle Cumiskey, Matt Hunwick, Shane O’Brien, Stefan Elliott, Tyson Barrie and Cameron Gaunce are either a given for opening night, or have a shot at making it out of camp. I expect the Avs to see how the defence shapes up in training camp, and then consider moving some pieces - especially if it looks like they will need help on LW.
Erik Johnson is a lock on the first pairing, but his partner is still up in the air. Kyle Quincey might be a good fit, but coach Joe Sacco may want to consider pairing Erik Johnson with Jan Hejda to have a stabilizing player covering up for any mistakes made by Johnson. That would leave Quincey with O’Byrne for the 2nd pairing, and the third pairing is wide open: Wilson, O’Brien, Cumiskey and Hunwick will likely take one or both spots, but the Avs are really high on Elliott and Barrie. Elliott might have the inside track, but they will have to duke it out in training camp.
4. Will Semyon Varlamov prove his worth?
Varlamov was traded from the Washington Capitals with the Avs giving up a 1st and a 2nd round pick. At such a steep price, the Avs need Varlamov to respond well to being handed the reins in Denver. Varlamov is considered to be one of the better young goaltenders in the NHL, but has also suffered through a rash of injurys (mostly groin and knees) throughout his short career so far. In his first season with the Avs he not only needs to prove that he can keep the team in the game, the question is also if he can manage the workload of a no.1 goaltender. Should he falter, the Avs might find themselves relying on a Jean-Sebastien Giguere who is in the twilight of his career.
5. Who will wear the C?
Adam Foote, the former captain, retired at the end of last season. His play had declined the last couple of seasons, so he isn’t leaving a giant hole after him on the blueline. But his leadership abilities will be sorely missed on a young Avs roster, where Milan Hejduk and Paul Stastny supposed to provide veteran leadership. The Avalanche have yet to name a captain for the upcoming season, and while the roster has some young talent with good leadership skills (Ryan O’Reilly, Erik Johnson, Gabriel Landeskog), the question is if any of them are ready to step up to the plate. Milan Hejduk is a possibility as captain as well, but he’s never really shown an interest in the captaincy previously, and would most likely only be considered an interim captain because of seniority and the fact that he’s closing in on retirement. My best guess is that if the front office decided to keep Stastny long-term on the roster, the captaincy could be his. But I wouldn’t rule out Erik Johnson yet either – he’s made it clear that he’s interested and would consider it an honor.
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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