Young Avalanche Look to Sustain NHL Climb

dan ketchamContributor IJuly 20, 2010

GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 04:  Matt Duchene #9 of the Colorado Avalanche during the NHL game against the Phoenix Coyotes at Arena on March 4, 2010 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Coyotes defeated the Avalanche 3-1.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Looking back on the '09-10 season, the Colorado Avalanche had no right to be so competitive.  They were coming off a disastrous campaign. 

They had lost veteran leadership in Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth.  There were no new proven hands coming aboard. 

They were going cheap and young.  They were saddled with an old and slow defense.  Worst of all, they had an unproven goaltender. 

Yet, the Avs got out of the gate fast, held on, and never looked back.  They even threw a scare into the mighty San Jose Sharks, leading their playoff series 2-1.

Do the Avs have the horses to expect a return to the playoffs?  The Avs are young and many of these rookies played impressively at times. 

Led by Matt Duchene, this cast also includes David Jones, Brandon Yip, T.J. Galiardi, Ryan Wilson, Kyle Quincey, Kyle Cumiskey, Chris Durno, Peter Mueller, Chris Stewart, and Ryan O'Reilly. 

In fact, the Avs are so young, they manage to make Paul Stastny look like a grizzled veteran, but he's a kid too.  This year, the Avs could add in promising youngsters Ryan Stoa or Kevin Shattenkirk.

This offseason, it has been difficult for fans to sit idly by, while Avalanche management exercises sound judgment and fiscal restraint.  There is no free agent magic pill for this young squad. 

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The growth potential for this team lies in each of these player's games.  There is certainly no reason to embark on salary cap suicide until we know the answer to the question:  how much can these kids improve?

We know this much.  The coaching staff appears to be ideal for this group of kids.  The upside in some of these kids is tremendous.  If they continue to grow as hockey players, the Avs could be contenders for years.

Despite the depth and youthful energy at forward, however, the answer to whether the Avs can return to the playoffs lies with the defense.  The Avs haven't improved there, but they shed some veteran payroll in Bret Clark and Ruslan Salei. 

The Avs' problem last year was that they surrendered far too many shots.  Anderson was pelted on a nightly basis and it took a toll.  The defense has to improve puck possession and positional play. 

But its not obvious the Avs have the horses on D to improve.  The Avs' defensemen range from old and slow Hannon and Foote to small and speedy Cumiskey and Liles.  And they rely on Mueller, a forward, to man the power play point.

While they could use some upgrading on the blueline, the Avs seem content to wait on the system to fill this need from the likes of Shattenkirk, Cameron Guance, Colby Cohen, Tyson Barrie, and Stefan Elliot. 

The problem is that defensemen need time in the minors to develop.   They take much more time than forwards. 

Drew Daugherty aside, rookies can't be slotted in to fill major roles.  It might be that the Avs' plan is out of sync, with a bevy of young studs at forward ready to achieve, but saddled with a weak defense.

The final piece is always the goaltending.  Can the Avs expect Craig Anderson to match last year's performance?  Surprisingly, I think the answer is yes. 

Anderson has seen a lot of rubber for years and has had a consistently high save percentage.  He is a gamer.  I expect Anderson will be fine.  If Andy struggles or gets hurt, look out: the Avs inexplicably stayed with Budaj as a back-up, despite there being tons of experienced goaltending available on the cheap this year. 

Who wouldn't feel better with, say, Marty Biron or Dan Ellis backing up Anderson?  This is where the Avs' miserly ways could really bite them. 

Budaj has been given enough chances and, despite decent stats, it was clear that Coach Joe Sacco had no faith in him.

What the Avs can't rely on is the blistering start the team got off to last year.  They will have to play better defense, hope the kids can improve, and cross their fingers on Anderson to make it back to the playoffs.