The Starting Line
By Scott Burnside
No one team wished more for the regular season to last a little longer than the Colorado Avalanche. After a disappointing start, the Avs chased the Calgary Flames down the stretch with a 15-2-2 closing run, and Colorado even had one more win than the Flames. But the Avs' ninth-place finish in the West ended a streak of 11 straight postseason appearances for the franchise and marked the first nonplayoff season since the team moved west from Quebec.
In some ways, the decline was to be expected following years of general manager Pierre Lacroix mortgaging the team's future to stockpile veteran free agents in the free-spending years before the lockout. What is surprising is the rapid fashion in which new GM Francois Giguere has re-established the Avs as a playoff team. Buoyed by the play of Calder Trophy nominee Paul Stastny and fellow rookie Wojtek Wolski, Giguere went out and shored up his defense with Scott Hannan and injected more leadership and grit in the form of longtime Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Smyth. The goaltending is still a bit iffy, but solid enough that the Avs could very easily jump back to the top of the heap in the ultra-competitive Northwest.
The Avs finished in a tie with Nashville as the most prolific offensive team in the Western Conference, a bit of a surprise given the departure of mainstays Rob Blake and Peter Forsberg, among others, in recent years. The good news is the Avs' scoring is nicely spread out. They had five 20-goal scorers and Smyth should add to that total (he had 36 last season). Stastny was the biggest surprise, setting a rookie record with a 19-game points streak. The Avs didn't get much help offensively from the back end beyond John-Michael Liles, who continues to impress with his puck-moving abilities and hockey smarts. Jordan Leopold, who played in only 15 games thanks to a variety of injuries, should help at both ends of the ice.
One wonders if captain Joe Sakic can repeat his 100-point performance, but we wondered whether he could do it last season, too. It didn't seem to bother the future Hall of Famer. The Avs boasted the fourth-best power play in the league, and there's no reason that should change much.
If you can point to one element of the Avs' game that likely cost them a playoff berth, it was their defensive play. In a conference that boasted some of the league's best defenses, the Avs ranked 18th, and that wasn't quite good enough. Their penalty-killing unit was 23rd and that will have to improve, and should, with the addition of the tough-nosed Hannan. While Liles has taken strides since the lockout, the past two seasons have been less than ideal for Leopold. A member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2006, Leopold ran afoul of Darryl Sutter in Calgary and ended up being dealt to Colorado for Alex Tanguay. Leopold had just two goals in 2005-06 and then suffered through an injury-plagued campaign last season. He needs to get back on track for the Avs to get better on the back end.
There are two schools of thought regarding starting netminder Peter Budaj. Either he's pretty much topped out and will never be more than a B or B-plus goalie, or he's slowly building himself into a top-level netminder who could take the Avs deep in the playoffs. This season will go a long way in determining which school of thought prevails. Budaj was solid enough, posting a 31-16-6 record in his second season as the de facto starter in Colorado. One of the issues for Budaj will be the perpetual shadow cast by backup Jose Theodore, the former Vezina and Hart Trophy winner who is now being paid $6 million to open the door at the end of the Avs' bench. That's not good money management in the cap world, and you can bet Giguere will be looking for a taker for Theodore and his contract. Good luck.
Joel Quenneville has long been considered one of the top coaches in the NHL, and with good reason. Still, the big prize, or even a trip to the big Stanley Cup finals, has eluded the Windsor, Ontario, native despite having very good teams in St. Louis. He isn't likely to get to the Cup finals this season, but it may not be that far off with this Avs team.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.