Stretch Run

With All-Star weekend wrapped up, it's back to business as usual for the Avalanche. 50 games are in the bag and it has been an up and down season thus far. The Avalanche have shown they can score goals but they are very shaky on their own end of the ice. The Avalanche (as of this writing) are 10th in the West and Vancouver has a 17 point lead in the division. At this point the division is lost but the Avalanche will need to find some defense and find some consistency to their game if they want to continue playing hockey into April.

This season has been a rough season so far for the Avalanche defense. Management chose not to address the defense in the offseason and instead were forced to make moves once injuries piled up. Ryan O'Byrne was a great pick up. He is a big body who logs lots of minutes and he has proven to be very effective in his time in Colorado. Matt Hunwick is a different story, however. The Avalanche traded promising prospect Colby Cohen away to get him and he has been disappointing. The Avalanche are now very undersized at defense with Liles, Shattenkirk, Hunwick, and Cumiskey. The season-ending injury to Kyle Quincey definitely hurts, but if the Avalanche want to make the playoffs they may have to add another large defenseman before the trade-deadline. The defense was an issue last year but the Avalanche had reliable goaltending to back it up. That is not the case this year. Craig Anderson played like a mad-man last year but has been mediocre at best so far this season and Peter Budaj continues to prove himself as capable back-up but still not a reliable starter. Anderson's contract is up after this year and he still has time to convince management he IS the goaltender of the future.

The defense and goalie-play aren't the only issues the Avalanche have had this season. The team is very talented but they don't always play up to their talent level. The Avalanche have shown they are resilient when trailing but also that they are lazy with a lead. The Avalanche are going to have to keep up the resiliency when down and play with a killer's instinct when they have a lead the remainder of the season. Most of all the Avalanche will need to improve their play at home and their Penalty Kill which has been awful most of the season.

The Avalanche are still a good team, this isn't meant to be all negative, but at the same time they aren't perfect. Who knows where this team would be without injuries to Quincey, Mueller, and Fleischmann? The Avalanche seem to have the worst luck with injuries but they are a part of the game and they will have to tap into more of their resilient side to make the playoffs. The Western Conference is a mess with all teams but poor Edmonton in the thick of the playoff hunt and every point will be crucial. Will Forsberg decide he's fit to come back and breathe new life into the Avs? Will Anderson turn it around and find his form? And will management try to get involved and add pieces at the deadline? These are just a few of the questions the remainder of the season will answer for us.
Prepare Yourselves.

And... Here... We... Go!

By AJ Pacheco

It's that time again. Time to drop the puck and start the 82-game grind of the NHL regular season. There is more optimism surrounding the Avalanche this year and on Thursday the Avalanche begin their journey back to the playoffs. The rookies that made so much noise last year are a year older and the expectations will be higher. The playoffs are 6 months away and if the the Avalanche aren't there it will be a disappointment this year. So, without further adieu here is a preview of what to expect this season.

The front office decided to stay the course this summer and not dive into the free agent market. The gang that surprised the hockey world is all here, with just a few exceptions. A couple of longtime Avs left this summer with only one big addition.

D Brett Clark, Signed with Steve Yzerman's Lightning
RW Marek Svatos, Signed in the KHL
D Ruslan Salei, Signed with the Red Wings (Yuck)

LW Daniel Winnik, Acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes

Along with the addition of Winnik the Avalanche roster, also includes newcomers; Norwegian Jonos Holos, Mark Olver, and long time Monster Philippe Dupuis.
Dupuis and/or Olver will be in the line up while Peter Mueller recovers from yet another concussion.

Last year, the Avalanche made the playoffs behind the surprising performances of its youngsters (Chris Stewart, Matt Duchene, Brandon Yip, and Ryan O'Reilly), the almost superhuman play of Craig Anderson and the well timed addition of Peter Mueller. There will be no easing into the season for the Avalanche as they open against the defending champion Blackhawks and then venture out on a brutal road trip facing some of the best teams in the East. The Avalanche benefitted from a great start at the beginning of last season and in order to not fall behind early they will need another strong start. Making the playoffs this year will hinge on a few other factors as well.

Keys to Success:
Defense: Last year the Avalanche defense was hot and cold. Kyle Quincey and Scott Hannan have proven themselves capable of shutting down opponents' top lines. Foote is still as scrappy as ever at 39. Liles was up and down again last year but had a strong showing late in the season and in the playoffs. Kyle Cumiskey has blazing speed but doesn't use it enough to his advantage and he is a bit undersized. Ryan Wilson showed us glimpses of physical brilliance last year, until concussions slowed him down. For the Avalanche to compete on a nightly basis the defense is going to have to be improved this year to take some pressure off Anderson. Which brings us to...
Craig Anderson: Anderson was the free agent signing of the year last year. He appeared in 71 games and was in consideration for both goalie of the year and MVP last year. With that being said, 71 games is a lot and Anderson faced more shots than any other goaltender (2,233). Anderson is under pressure to prove last year was no fluke and there is added motivation because it is a contract year. Hopefully, Budaj will be able to take some starts away this year and hopefully his defense can decrease the amount of pucks coming his way.
Injuries: It is a cliche but after watching the preseason this is very important for the Avs to stay healthy. The Avalanche are loaded at defense but forward is another story. Ryan Stoa is the best reserve option for the Avs and he is, to put lightly, a work in progress. The injury to Mueller hurts a lot and there is no timetable for a return. David Jones will fill in nicely for him on the second line but he has an injury history of his own. Milan Hejduk is another often injured player and he isn't getting any younger. If injuries become a problem, Avalanche management is going to wish they had written more checks over the summer.
There are plenty of "what if's" this season but there is still plenty of room for optimism. Avalanche management has kept the core of the team together and with a year under everyone's belts they should improve. It also helps that the Northeast Division is not as stacked as usual. The Canucks will win the division but Calgary is the only real competition for the two spot. The Avalanche are in good shape for another post season appearance but there are a lot of games to be played between now and then. In the meantime, its time to dig those Avs sweaters out of the closet and try and remember what channel is Altitude. Let's Drop the Puck!

Keepin' it Cool

By AJ Pacheco

Almost a month into free agency, and things are pretty quiet on the Avalanche front. So far the Avs have been pretty frugal in their spending, only handing out contracts to Quincey, Yip, Budaj, Koci (still puzzling) and newcomer Daniel Winnik. The Avalanche remain well under the salary cap minimum with only Stewart and Mueller left to re-sign. I advocated, earlier, that the Avalanche front office whip out their checkbook and spend some money but after seeing what has happened so far I'm okay with the fact that they didn't.
This season's free agent period has been one of the quietest in recent memory with most of the big names signing on Day 1. The Eastern Conference teams have been most active this offseason. The Penguins and Devils scooped up the 4 best free agent defensemen and until Monday everyone was at a stand-still waiting on Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk's ridiculous 17 year contract was quickly voided by the NHL and since then the worry of another lockout has become more common. Contracts like Kovalchuk's aren't new, Marian Hossa, Roberto Luongo, and Rick DiPietro have been signed to similar gigantic contracts. All of these contracts are legal under the collective bargaining agreement but by loading up the beginning of the contracts and handing out very little towards the end, teams are able to minimize their cap hit and in a sense get around the salary cap. The latest collective bargaining agreement ends in 2012 and it is very possible, again, that the NHL could experience another lockout (perhaps this is what the Mayans predicted...?). In order to save the sport, the NHL will need to either take the salary cap more seriously and eliminate loop holes or just do away with it. The salary cap levels the playing field but at the same time big market teams are handcuffed and are unable to spend the money they make and at the same time small market teams are forced to spend to the minimum even though they are destined to lose money.
Back to the Avalanche, I believe the Avalanche are playing it very safe for fear that another lockout could occur. Think about it, after the last lockout the salary cap was only $39 million (the cap has risen to $59 million since then), when the league resumed operations, the Avalanche had a tough choice deciding out of Sakic, Blake, Forsberg, and Foote who to keep. Ultimately, they chose Blake and Sakic and if you look at the contract situation now, Paul Stastny is the only Avalanche player under contract after the next two seasons. The Avs are watching their spending in case the cap goes down in a couple seasons to avoid the tough decisions of 2005.
All is not lost though, the Avalanche will likely have to sign one other player besides Mueller and Stewart to reach the cap floor and with all of the defensemen in the system I hope they shoot for a top six forward. There aren't too many left but Lee Stempniak or Maxim Afinogenov would be solid and affordable additions.
I was preaching earlier to spend, spend, spend, but now I am glad that the Avalanche fought that urge. With the Kovalchuk debacle and the careless spending during the first few days of free agency, I'm glad the Avalanche kept their distance. Luckily for the Avalanche, Vancouver and Calgary happened to be amongst them. The Canucks overpaid immensely for Dan Hamhuis and Calgary.... Really Olli Jokinen and Alex Tanguay? I guess it's safe for Flames players to make vacation plans for April.

Let's Go Shopping!

Now comes my least favorite part of the year when there is no more hockey. This year's playoffs definitely delivered and it's always nice to see a team win a championship when they've been on such a drought. Seeing the Blackhawks win the championship with homegrown players has to be inspiring for the Avalanche as they are following in their "build from within" footsteps. The Stanley Cup Finals are over and free agency is right around the corner. It's time for the Avalanche front office to decide which direction to go. Stay the course and bring in personnel via the draft or pull out the check book and bring in players?

The Avalanche are in a great position heading into the offseason. The Avalanche currently are fourth in the league in available cap space and that's with 16 players under contract. The Avs have about 27.5 million dollars to spend this offseason and the salary cap could go up by 2 million dollars. It has been reported that Sherman intends to stay the course but with so much money, I think that would be a mistake. The Avs will re-sign Stewart, Mueller, Quincey, Yip, Hendricks and Porter. All of these signings should fit comfortably under the cap which leaves cash for free agents.

This year's free agent pool is one of the worst in years. The Avalanche are already set at goaltender and after they re-sign Quincey, will have 6 returning defensemen. The Avalanche pipeline is chalked full of defensemen with players like Shattenkirk, Gaunce, Cohen, Holos, and Chouinard possibly making a run at the roster next year. In my opinion the Avalanche need a first line winger to play alongside Stastny and Stewart and a shutdown defensemen.

The only real first line winger available July 1st will be Ilya Kovalchuk. There has been plenty of debate over signing Kovalchuk and I believe the Avs should make a play for him. The Avalanche may never have as much money to spend as they do this offseason and they desperately need a goal scorer on the first line. Galiardi was fine in the playoffs but he is an energy/checking forward he belongs on a checking line not the first line. The Avs haven't had a 50 goal scorer since Hejduk in the 2002-2003 season and he was playing on a line with Forsberg. Kovalchuk is arguably the 2nd best goal scorer in the league and he was playing for Atlanta. If he were to play on a line with Stastny, (which give it up folks, he's not a goalscorer) 50 goals would be easy and that 6.6 million invested in Stastny would finally pay off.

The only other way to land a first line quality scorer would be through trade. Teams up against the cap like Chicago and Montreal or rebuilding teams like Florida could be attractive trade partners. If the Avalanche do not pursue Kovalchuk, Nathan Horton in Florida would be my next choice. Horton is only 24, big and been the subject of trade rumors for months. He makes 4 million dollars but that is much less than the amount of money it will take to land Kovalchuk. Horton has a no-movement clause that takes effect July 1st so he will likely be dealt during draft weekend. Horton would add both size and scoring to the first line while still fitting into the rebuilding mantra. Another option is the champion Blackhawks. While they are celebrating their win, NHL GM's are circling like vultures ready to poach players. The Blackhawks face serious cap issues this summer. They are already over the cap for next year with players like Andrew Ladd, Anti Niemi and Niklas Hjalmarsson to re-sign. The Avs could try and take Patrick Sharp or Kris Versteeg of their hands as they try and dump salary. Another player worth looking at is Andrei Kostitsyn in Montreal. Montreal also faces cap issues as they will want to re-sign Tomas Plekanec and Jaroslav Halak. Kostitsyn has one year left on his contract and is the kind of player we all hoped Svatos would be. He is fast, shifty, and awesome in the shootout.

Defenseman is probably the only worthwhile position in this year free agent pool. Players like Gonchar, Volchenkov, and Hamhuis are likely to be available. The Avalanche should look into investing in a younger shutdown defensemen they can rely on for years to come. Volchenkov is an obvious choice but he will likely ask for a lot of money and the Avs may want to shy away from throwing out tons of money after handing out large contracts to Hannan and Liles who have been disappointing. The best choice for the Avs is Zybnek Michalek from Phoenix. He is only 27 and is just about as good as Volchenkov but because he plays for Phoenix, he has flown under the radar. Of course, the Avalanche are again loaded at defense, and bringing in a defensemen will likely mean the Avs will have to trade away one (Liles or Hannan).

There are plenty of people that will argue that staying the course and building from within is smarter. They will say follow the blueprint of teams like Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington. Yes those teams are loaded with talent NOW, but they were awful for many years and received lots of top 5 draft picks. The Avalanche in a rebuilding year, took 8th in the conference and now have the 17th pick in the draft. The Avalanche have plenty of defensive prospects to build around but few forwards now that most of them are part of the starting roster. So come draft weekend and July 1st, make moves and write those checks Mr. Sherman because the pieces are in place all we need to do is fill in the cracks.

Avalanche Mix blog featured writers KL Hinson, Stacey Gerhart,
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