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2016-17 season preview: Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche are counting on Nathan MacKinnon to continue where he left off at the World Cup. AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

The Colorado Avalanche were rather quiet on the player front this offseason, but made major headlines with a late coaching change.

Patrick Roy's unexpected resignation in August forced the Avs into the kind of coaching search no team should ever desire -- the one that comes after most of the top names had been hired.

But GM Joe Sakic took a gamble he believes will pay off in elevating unheralded Jared Bednar from the minors, where he led his teams to championships both in the AHL and ECHL.

The most constant and stinging criticism of Roy's coaching style was that the Avs bucked the trend of puck-possession systems that have garnered much success around the league, instead playing a counterattack game that was exciting at times, but also in the long run led to too much time without the puck. Bednar promises to address that this season and change the way the Avs play with the puck.

Colorado was in the playoff race last season until fading late, losing eight of its last 10 games, missing the postseason for the second straight year after the surprising Central Division title win in 2013-14, Roy's first season behind the bench.

The Avs return with largely the same core of players. They've got high-end offensive talent led by Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon, but have struggled mightily defensively. They've got to be better there.

Best new faces

The Avs acquired defensemen Fedor Tyutin and Patrick Wiercioch to help bolster the blue line, also adding forwards Joe Colborne, Rocco Grimaldi and Ben Smith. Gabriel Bourque and Rene Bourque were signed to tryout contracts.

The 6-foot-5, 202-pound Wiercioch gets a second lease on life in Colorado after wearing out the patience of the Ottawa Senators. He had promising moments during his first few years but frustrated the Sens with his lack of consistency. Does a fresh start in Colorado help the 26-year-old meet his potential?

Colborne, also 26, put up career highs of 19 goals and 44 points last season. The 6-foot-5 center, however, was let go by the Calgary Flames, who had to preserve salary-cap space. Perhaps a sneaky signing here by the Avs.

All in all, though, nothing earth-shattering as far as player additions.

As far as a newcomer to the NHL lineup, however, exciting things are ahead from forward Mikko Rantanen, the 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft. He has the potential to get into the Calder Trophy conversation.

The most important new face, though, is behind the bench in Bednar, who makes his NHL debut after cutting his teeth for years in the minors.

Biggest unknowns

How will Bednar fare? He wants to play a puck-pressure game and obviously tighten up defensively, all the things you want to hear if you're an Avs fan. But how will the players respond to a largely unknown coach?

Is Nikita Zadorov ready to make a step this season? That would be a boon to the blue-line if the 6-foot-5 Russian turned in an impact season. He's got the talent to be a two-way guy, but needs to show more consistency.

Which Semyon Varlamov shows up this season? The Russian goalie has regressed two straight years since putting up a career-best .927 save percentage in 2013-14 in helping lead the Avs to that Central title. He brilliantly masked a lot of Colorado's defensive issues that season. But since then, that save percentage has dipped to .921 in 2014-15 and then just .914 last season (to go along with a 2.81 goals-against average). Now, Varlamov could certainly use better defensive play in front of him, no question. But it's the chicken and the egg here. If he's better this season, everything else flows from there.

His backup, Calvin Pickard, has potential to be a No. 1. So the Avs look pretty darn solid in goal if Varlamov bounces back.

Sure things

Duchene, MacKinnon and defenseman Tyson Barrie are the offensive dynamos, while captain Gabriel Landeskog's consistent two-way game forms the core of Colorado's go-to arsenal. Landeskog and Swedish countryman Carl Soderberg formed a steady pairing up front last season.

MacKinnon was outstanding in the World Cup of Hockey for Team North America, while Duchene shined in a Team Canada win over Team USA. Look for both offensive stars to carry that over into strong starts. It should be noted that Duchene played through a separated shoulder, which he suffered before the tournament officially started but he didn't miss a game and the worse of it is behind him, he said.

Prediction

I think the Avs will do a better job of protecting the puck with Bednar, but some of the same concerns remain on defense. How Varlamov bounces back will have a huge bearing on things. They're in a crazy division, where a team such as the Winnipeg Jets is going to be better while contenders the Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and improved Nashville Predators aren't going away. I just can't see Colorado being any better than those teams. They will be competitive but miss out by a few points. Seventh in the Central.