2008-09 Team Preview: Colorado Avalanche
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Pierre LeBrunThere are teams who become preseason darlings by prognosticators (think Chicago, Edmonton this season), and there are other clubs who get the popular vote as the sinking ship.
And, in the West, the negative predictions for the Colorado Avalanche are widespread. It has to do with losing starting goalie Jose Theodore and second-leading scorer Andrew Brunette to free agency and not really replacing them. Many pundits have the Avs missing the playoffs after making them last season.
"We'll fly under the radar, that's fine," star winger Ryan Smyth told ESPN.com.
For that to happen, the Avs will need to get better-than-expected goaltending from the Peter Budaj/Andrew Raycroft duo and perhaps, just as important, stay healthy. Smyth, Joe Sakic and Marek Svatos were among the many long-term injury casualties last season in Colorado.
Despite the loss of Brunette (59 points) and Peter Forsberg (still in Sweden wrestling with his foot problem), the Avs do have a few marksmen left in Smyth, Sakic, Svatos, Milan Hejduk, Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski. They also added pesky winger Darcy Tucker from Toronto.
"We've got good depth," said Smyth. "Acquiring Tucks, he's a good asset. He's going to be effective for us. Wolski, Stastny -- these guys are the future of the game. Svatos was hurt last year, but he looks good and ready. We feel that the depth of our offense is great."
The Avs were 15th in goals scored last season, which isn't too bad given all the injuries. If healthy, they should score enough.
It's a good puck-moving group with Hannan and Foote also providing the sandpaper. The Avs need to be careful not to overtax the 37-year-old Foote, however. He remains one of the game's premier penalty killers and shot-blockers, but he should no longer be the team's minute leader.
Budaj lost the starting job to Theodore last season and essentially won it back by default when Theodore walked out the door. Some people question whether Budaj has got the goods to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL and that's what has generated all the negative preseason predictions for the team. Not that numbers always tell the entire story, but it's interesting to note that his 2.57 GAA last season ranked him ahead of Martin Biron, Ryan Miller, Tomas Vokoun and Miikka Kiprusoff.
Then again, Budaj's .903 save percentage, which many believe is the more telling statistic among goalies, ranked him 33rd among NHL goalies. Raycroft, meanwhile, comes over after feeling the wrath of Maple Leafs fans. He did win 37 games for Toronto two seasons ago, which people seem to forget, but he also hasn't had a save percentage over .900 since before the lockout. All in all, the critics aren't putting much faith in either goalie.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in Colorado is the fact that captain Joe Sakic has decided to sign on for at least one more season. Unfortunately, he took his time to make the decision and it put GM Francois Giguere in a tough spot. While there is no doubt the GM would have liked a much more timely answer (either way), Francois knew that pushing Sakic would only alienate him and lead him to say he wasn't coming back. Giguere played it perfectly and was rewarded with another year of Sakic's leadership and production.
New coach Tony Granato is back for his second tour of duty with the Avs and is no doubt feeling even better prepared as a result of observing not only the players, but also what worked and what didn't under Joel Quenneville. He will have the hard-working Darcy Tucker to work with and Tucker will add spark and emotion, as well as carry a big chip on his shoulder, creating an "us-against-the-world" atmosphere.
The biggest question is in net, where Peter Budaj will be expected to be the No. 1 goalie. The same expectations existed last season, but Jose Theodore stole the job. This season's back-up is Andrew Raycroft. The Avs will need excellent efforts from both to remain in the playoff mix.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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• Record: 44-31-7
• Division: Second in the Northwest
• Conference: Seventh in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in second round vs. DET
• The Avs play 10 of 12 games on the road from Feb. 7 to March 2, with stops in St. Louis, Columbus, Minnesota, Detroit, Washington, Carolina, Atlanta, New Jersey and both New York teams.
Experience: 2 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Longtime assistant Tony Granato got promoted to the head-coaching position after the Avs parted ways with Joel Quenneville. There are those within the Avs' organization who privately believed Quenneville's system was too defensive (mind you, the guy got an injury-riddled team into the playoffs last season). Granato promises to preach a more up-tempo style that will take advantage of the team's offensive depth. For Granato, this is his second kick at the can after clearly not being ready for the job the first time around (he was first hired to coach the Avs in 2002). Now we'll see what he's learned over the past few years.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Ryan Smyth
• Entering his second season with the Avalanche. He's healthy and looking to erase memories of an injury-riddled 2007-08 campaign.
F -- Paul Stastny
• Entering his third season with the Avalanche. He's only 22 and already has 149 points in two NHL seasons. Expect him to be even better.
F -- Milan Hejduk
• Entering his 10th season with the Avalanche. Former 98-point man dipped to 54 points last season. He's better than that.
D -- Jordan Leopold
• Entering his third season with the Avalanche. Played 43 games last season, 15 the season before. Is this the healthy season?
D -- Adam Foote
• Remains one of the NHL's top defensive defensemen, but Father Time is hovering near his locker-room stall.
Answer: "Everybody is speculating about Budaj and Raycroft and are they going to be the answer," said Smyth. "You know what? They're both hungry. They're ready to show people."
Budaj is only 26. Perhaps there's still ceiling room there for his upside. Either way, he's clearly the key for the Avalanche this season. He needs to rebuild his confidence after losing his job to Theodore last season. A quick start is paramount. Otherwise, the doubting will continue.
Bust: Peter Budaj, G: He's the No. 1 goalie by default and lost the top job last season. Andrew Raycroft will be looking to make the same thing happen again this season.
Outlook: Fortunately for the Avalanche, captain Joe Sakic decided not to retire and will try to make up for a disappointing 2007-08 season in which he missed 38 games. His linemate, Ryan Smyth, also missed 27 games because of injuries, which will hurt his draft stock. But the most valuable Avalanche player for fantasy owners is center Paul Stastny, who had 24 goals and 47 assists in 66 games last season. The decent top-six defensemen of Foote, Liles, Hannan, Clark, Salei and Leopold can do only so much to help Budaj and Raycroft. -- Jim Wilkie