The Colorado Avalanche were one of the biggest surprises last season, getting huge contributions out of rookies and players who had been relegated to reduced roles on other teams.
This year there are high expectations for that same group, as the younger players will now play the role of mentor to more major league rookies as Colorado continues it's overhaul.
Whether they have the same success this season we'll have to wait and see, but it seems that the Avalanche are taking the proper steps to regaining elite status in the Western Conference. Some of my bold (and not so bold) predictions are going to have some players taking steps to personal greatness as well.
1) John-Michael Liles has the quietest 40-point season of any defenseman
You really only hear about Liles when he's trade bait, but when an off-year for a guy is a 31-point season, he's got plenty of ability when it comes to pushing the puck up ice and creating chances. He's been spotty the past three seasons (point totals of 32, 39, and 31) since posting back-to-back 40s, but he rides the roller coaster to the top again.
2) Peter Mueller does more offensively in one year than Darcy Tucker did in his Avalanche career
Tucker finished his Colorado career with 18 goals and 40 points. He was also a minus-16. Mueller had nine goals and 11 assists in 15 games last year. That's not to say he'll keep up with the Art Ross pace, but a 40-point, 20-goal season is certainly within reach.
3) Colorado has at least two players with a 50 percent success rate on faceoffs
Last year only Paul Stastny was in that neighborhood, finishing right on 50 percent. One of the most underrated things about rookies and developing players making the jump to the NHL though, is the skill of NHL faceoff men. While both Colin Wilson and Tyler Bozak won at least a 50 percent of their faceoffs, neither played enough hockey to qualify amongst the rookie leaders. Of the four that did, Ryan O'Reilly's 47.8 percent was the best. With a year behind them, young centres like O'Reilly and Duchene should see some boosts in the wins column.
4) Ryan O'Reilly receives light Selke consideration
Making the top three for Selke consideration is no easy feat, but O'Reilly displayed the abilities last year to be a serious threat. He was third amongst rookies in shorthanded time-on-ice, led rookie forwards in blocked shots, and was second in takeaways. Transferring those totals across the NHL he was 49th in shorthanded time-on-ice (11th amongst forwards), 31st amongst forwards in blocked shots, and eighth in takeaways. If he improves upon those totals, he may be well on his way to making people take notice.
5) John Grahame plays 10 games for the Avalanche
No more than a depth signing, the 35-year old Grahame will have a tough time cracking the team unless Craig Anderson or Peter Budaj get injured out of camp. That being said, the Avalanche were fortunate last year to be among the 11 teams to only use two goalies the entire season. While many of the instances of teams using three were simply a one- or two-game stretch, most of those goalies were young and inexperienced, and while Grahame's career hasn't been Vezina-worthy, he does have experience. Considering that Budaj and Anderson are approaching free agency, it's possible they depart and open up a spot.
6) Brandon Yip struggles in his first full season
Yip was outstanding for Colorado last year: 11 goals, 8 assists, and 19 points in just over 30 games are great numbers in a rookie year. But looking over past history, U.S. college grads have been fairly hot and cold. James van Riemsdyk was up-and-down last season. Blake Wheeler had a great rookie year in 2008-09 but was buried in the standings by Bobby Ryan's season, and he certainly benefited from playing on a team as talented as the Bruins. Jonathan Toews dominated his rookie year, however, and a year before that Stastny and Dustin Penner found themselves in the top five of scoring. The telling thing will be how Yip responds at the 55-game mark, but I'm thinking 17-19 goal range, 38-44 for points.
7) Chris Stewart falls off
Stewart exploded last year, finishing two goals shy of the 30-goal mark in just his second NHL season. But can the 22-year-old reach that level consistently? The reason why he would be able to is because of the gifted playmakers Colorado has down the middle, especially with the fact that Stastny has matured. Stewart may have to find that same level though, and this year he'll slide back to the 22-goal range.
8) While they don't lead the league, Colorado is still feisty when out-shot
The Colorado Avalanche won 29 games last year when they were out-shot by their opponents. This year I don't think that happens. While they'll still be tough to play against when down in the shot totals, a more mature offense means that there will be more opportunity to out-shoot their opponents, meaning they might do better than an 11-10-1 record when they do the out-shooting. Also, no one has led the league in out-shot wins since before 2002-03...if it's ever happened. A barely useful stat that had no bearing on me making this prediction.
9) Craig Anderson has a little less luck
Last year Anderson won seven of his 38 games in a shootout, while five of his seven OT/Shootout losses came in the "skills competition". Unfortunately for Anderson, his luck doesn't hold up. He winds up in double-digits in the OT/SO column this year with 10.
10) If Colorado misses the playoffs, it's by three points or less
There are two teams the Avs have to contend with for their spot in the playoffs this year: the Calgary Flames and the St. Louis Blues. Both teams have the talent, and one of them may make the playoffs anyways if another team falls from postseason contention. Colorado won't make their path easy however, and the margin between playing for Lord Stanley and playing golf will be slim.
The Stretch: Colorado dressed 10 rookies last season. This year they try to top their own standard by dressing 15.
Bryan Thiel is a senior writer and columnist for Hockey54.com—The Face of the Game! If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter at BryanThiel_88.