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.

Departures:
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)

Additions:
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!


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