Colorado Avalanche Becoming a Rising Threat in Western Conference

Randy HoltContributor INovember 12, 2010

DETROIT - OCTOBER 12:  Matt Duchene #9 of the Colorado Avalanche skates with the puck in a game against the Detroit Red Wings on October 12, 2010 at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

With just 15 points on the season to this point, the Colorado Avalanche may not look like much at first glance.  However, make no mistake about it, this is a team that's going to be reckoned with in the coming seasons.

Colorado certainly hasn't seen the drop-off that some teams could have after losing Hall of Famers like Patrick Roy and Peter Forsberg, but it has been a disappointing couple of years, winning just six playoff games in their last four appearances, including last year's first-round loss to San Jose.

Let's not forget, this is a team that isn't too far removed from a Stanley Cup title.  When you lose names like Roy, Forsberg and Joe Sakic, it's hard to create an identity in the NHL.  The Avs wasted no time in finding a new face of their franchise, however, drafting Paul Stastny in 2005, who made his debut in the 2006-07 season.  So far, he has had no problem taking the reins from Sakic, who retired following the 2008-09 season.

Stastny was a name that already registered well with Avs fans, with his dad, Peter, having been a legend when the franchise was in Quebec.  The young Stastny didn't waste any time in making a name for himself in the NHL, registering 78 points in his rookie year, though Colorado failed to make the playoffs.

Since then, he's hit that 70-point mark three out of his four seasons and is well on his way to another.

The improvement of the Avalanche didn't end with the selection of Stastny.  Chris Stewart, their first-round selection in 2006 has also established himself as part of the core group, with 64 points a season ago.  Colorado made Matt Duchene the third overall pick in 2009, and he did not disappoint.  The 19-year-old centerman scored 55 points, including 24 goals, as a rookie in 2009-10.

Not to be forgotten, Milan Hejduk is still a part of this core as well.  Though he's past the days of the 98-point potential, he still provides a great clubhouse presence and is a mentor for a young team such as this.

With any team hoping to contend for a title, it starts between the pipes, and the Avalanche seem to have found a gem in Florida Panther castoff, Craig Anderson.  Though he's struggled with injury this season, Anderson had a season to remember in 2009, posting a very solid 2.63 GAA.  It was Anderson's first full year as a starter, with his play jumping 40 games beyond his career high, with 71, after spending his career as a backup.  

The Avs also have a very capable backup in Peter Budaj, who has played well in Anderson's absence, making their goaltending the least of their concerns.

Though the core is intact, the Avs still have work to do in building around them.  They have solid role guys, such as Daniel Winnik and Brandon Yip, but still have a little ways to go to be among the elite, particularly on the blue line, which lacks experience.

The biggest indication that this is a rising team may be their performance in the 2009-10 playoffs.  After arguably having been the most surprising squad in contention in the West, outside of Phoenix, they performed admirably in the first round, despite their early exit.  Though they dropped their opening series to the No. 1-seeded San Jose Sharks, they showed that they could hang tough with the league's best.

In Stastny and Duchene, the Avalanche have certainly established cornerstones of their franchise to build on.  Similar to Los Angeles, they may just be a few pieces away from garnering serious attention as a contender for the Cup as this young group continues to age.