Monday, 9 July 2007

Playoffs Are A Reality

The Colorado Avalanche battled to the last week of the NHL season this past year before not making the playoffs. Their run at the end of the season showed exactly how good this team can be when properly motivated. However, it turned out to be too little, too late for the team with the best record to miss the playoffs. Avalanche general manager Fran├žois Giguere responded this off-season by making a few major additions which should certainly help the Avalanche in making the playoffs this season, barring injuries to their key players. This is one team that is certainly on the rise again.

The Avalanche missed the playoffs last season by one point. Their record of 44-31-3-4 gave them a respectable total of 95 points, but it wasn't enough in the ultra-competitve Western Conference. They had a solid goals-for total with 272, good for a tie for fourth-most goals in the NHL. They were only behind the Barney Rubble Hairpieces, the Ottawa Senators, and the Pittsburgh Penguins in scoring, and tied the Nashville Predators. Scoring wasn't a problem last season.

Keeping the puck out of the net was the problem. Colorado finished in 18th for goals-against last season. The Columbus Blue Jackets were a better team at keeping the puck out of the net than Colorado, and that's surprising considering the talent on the blueline that the Avalanche has. The Avalanche had no true defensive stopper last season that they could rely on, and they made changes to that this off-season already.

In terms of goaltending, Peter Budaj appears to have a lock on the starting position. Budaj posted a 31-16-6 record in 57 games last season with a 2.68 GAA, a .905 save percentage, and three shutouts. Those are very good numbers for the 24 year-old, and there's no reason to believe he won't get better this season as he gains more experience.

The problem is his backup or, rather, the lack thereof a backup. Jose Theodore has been a lost cause since Montreal dumped him on the Avalanche's doorstep, and he seems to be more interested in extracurricular activities than hockey. His record of 13-15-1 with a 3.26 GAA, a .891 save percentage, and no shutouts is not worth $6 million. And it appears that Mr. Theodore is content with just rotting on the bench while he pockets his money. If I am Mr. Giguere, I'd follow the New York Islanders' lead and buy out Theodore much like the Islanders did with Alexei Yashin. Sure, you take a hit on the salary cap, but you also free up money that can be more effective used elsewhere... like finding a cost-effective backup goalie who can actually post a winning record.

Defensively, the Avalanche were a bit of a project last year. John-Michael Liles continued his strong offensive play posting 14 goals and 30 assists in 71 games. Brett Clark was a surprise as he played all 82 games and posted 10 goals and 29 assists. After that, Ken Klee wasn't re-signed this off-season, and Patrice Brisebois was shown the door for good reason. Karlis Skrastins is solid defensively, and is a good trooper in the trenches. Ossi Vaananen was not re-signed as of yet, but shouldn't be a concern with the return of Jordan Leopold and Kurt Sauer. 27 year-old Jeff Finger has a chance to crack the lineup this season as the seventh man.

The big signing on defence for the Avalanche was Scott Hannan. Hannan only posted four goals and 20 assists, but he played 79 games last season for the San Jose Sharks, most of that against the top line of the opposing team. The 28 year-old was the best defensive player on the free agent market this season, and Giguere wasted little time in getting him signed to be a member of the Avalanche for the next four years at $18 million.

If the Avalanche opened the season today, they'd be starting with Liles, Clark, Hannan, Skrastins, Leopold, and Sauer as their everyday six defensemen. That group has enough talent to compete every night, and they will be offensively involved as much as possible. Coach Joel Quenneville will stress better defensive responsibility this year, and, with Hannan back there, the total goals-against should be lower than last season. The only concern is a long-term injury to Liles or Hannan. If either of those players falls to injury for an extended period of time, the defense becomes a bigger concern with no considerable replacement on the horizon. Finger can step in, but he certainly could use more experience.

Up front, the Avalanche boast some talent. Joe Sakic is back, and he'll have a plethora of veteran leadership to help. Andrew Brunette and Milan Hejduk all are returning, and that will help bolster that effective scoring group. Not to be forgotten are the contributions of Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski, and Marek Svatos. Svatos had a little bit of a sophomore slump last season, but there is more scoring help to go around which should help Svatos rediscover his form. The Avalanche re-signed winger Tyler Arnason, and need increased scoring production from the veteran as well.

The big signing up front came in the form of former Edmonton Oiler and New York Islander Ryan Smyth. Smyth will provide leadership and a presence in front of the net that the Avalanche have been sorely missing. Brunette filled the role for a short time last season, but took a beating from larger defensemen. Smyth has been doing it all his career, and could have a career season if all things go well. Dear Lord Stanley has questioned the amount of money thrown at Smyth when looking at his career point totals, and he certainly makes a valid point. However, when comparing Smyth to similar players, Tomas Holmstrom would be his closest rival. Ask any Red Wings fan if Holmstrom is worth every penny, and I would guess you would hear a resounding "yes". Smyth is the same type of player. He does the dirty work, he goes hard to the net, he takes a beating, but he keeps coming back for more. The Avalanche can use that kind of grittiness in the Western Conference.

The only question is where will the Avalanche finish in their division and their conference? They should be near the top in their division. Vancouver poses their biggest threat, but the Canucks have done in the wy of upgrading like the Avalanche have. Calgary and Minnesota will be standing in the Avalanche's way as well, but neither has added vital pieces of the puzzle to keep up. Personally, the Avalanche will compete for the division title next season.

In their conference, I don't see the Avalanche being as strong as the Anaheim Ducks at this point. They will be able to compete with the Red Wings, and will challenge for the second seed in the conference. Where they may fall short is the competition within their own division. The Red Wings have a fairly uncompetitive division and should be able to beat up on teams such as Columbus, St. Louis, Chicago, and Nashville. The Avalanche will not have the same luxury with Minnesota, Vancouver, and Calgary all looking for the division title.

In any case, the Colorado Avalanche, on paper, are a playoff team once again in this writer's eyes. Their defensive group is solid, their forwards can skate and score, and their starting goaltender is reliable and fundamentally sound. The only thing I can see that will derail this team from a playoff spot will be injuries. Age catches up quickly to players over an 82-game schedule, and the Avalanche's stars are starting to head towards the twilight of their careers. If all goes well, though, this is a team that should shake up the Western Conference.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Dear Lord Stanley said...

Rumors suggest that once again, Coach Q will waste everybody's time trying to give Theodore another chance to prove himself in net. Budaj has said as much in at least two off-season interviews. Unfortunately, that means the goalies will alternate from game-to-game like they did at the beginning of last season. Theodore never proved himself and Budaj couldn't find his rhythm. It wasn't until the end of the season when Budaj got to play every game that the Avalanche really started winning.

Hopefully they don't waste too much time trying to save Theo's career. The more Budaj starts, the better he is. He's proven that.

Jibblescribbits said...

On the Theo buyout, first they can't do it, July 1 was the deadline. Second Yashin's deal had 4-5 (or more) years on it, Theo's only on the hook for this one season. It was cheaper to take the hit this year and be done with it, rather than having a $2M on the hook when Wolski and Liles are restricted free agents at the end of next season.

Other than that I agree with your analysis, but don't say things like "second seed". We missed the playoffs last season, I think Avs fans would be happy with a 4,5, or 6 seed.

Mike at MHH said...

Nice post. Sums up my feelings on the Avs nicely. The only thing I might have mentioned is that likelyhood of Theo being bought out seems slim at this point. If management was going to go that direction, they would have done it by now. Several competant backups have already been snapped up, and if it was really a priority for Giguire, he would have handed Theo his walking papers by now. Looks like we're stuck with his 3+ GAA for one more season. Still, once his contract comes off the books, the Avs will have significant $$ for next season.

Teebz said...

DLS - I agree. Start Budaj, and let the chips fall where they may. If he falters, give him a game off, and then put him back in.

Jibble - the Avs have a shot at the third seed. It's not like Vancouver has improved, and if they lean on Luongo like they did last season, it might be a long season in BC. The Avs have to do well in their own division in order to succeed. As for the buyout, I was looking forward to next season. In any case, they can and should get rid of Theodore ASAP.

Mike - I think the Avs are well-built for a run at the playoffs. Where they go depends on how good they can be defensively, but this team should compete next year.

Dear Lord Stanley said...

Speaking of the Canucks, they've added depth in the defense, but still no scoring. They're going to try to rely on the on-again, off-again Sedin twins and the always-off Markus Naslund again this year. I like the Canucks, but when it comes to the regular season division race, I prefer to see them falter.

It will be tough to score on them, but one or two goals a game by the Avs will likely be enough to win, since the 'Nucks won't be able to match them.