One season removed from a 15th place finish in the Western Conference, the mood will be in stark contrast to a year ago when the Avalanche officially begin training camp tomorrow.
A roster filled with question marks due to the departures of long-time veterans Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth, Colorado Avalanche management and head coach Joe Sacco dug deep in the system, filling key roles with AHL journeymen like Matt Hendricks and Chris Durno, while relying heavily on recently drafted rookie forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly, as well as the goaltending of free-agent signee Craig Anderson.
The result was a success. Spring-boarded by an NHL-best 10-2-2 record in October, the Avalanche snuck into the playoffs with a 95-point finish.
This summer, coach Sacco's job description changes from architect to interior designer.
With Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene leading a talented offensive corps, Sacco won't have to dig into the system to try to produce rookie scoring players like he (successfully) accomplished last year in players like Brandon Yip and T.J. Galiardi. However, the Avalanche lost many veteran forwards to free agency over the summer—including Darcy Tucker, Matt Hendricks, and Chris Durno—and Sacco will need to find another body capable of filling a checking-line role and perhaps some penalty kill time.
Cody McLeod and Daniel Winnik are the no-brainer choices to play on the fourth line, and with David Koci spot-starting, Sacco will have to find another component to the line. Kevin Porter's solid two-way game and skating ability seems to make him the top choice, but the Avalanche could also turn to rookies Justin Mercier or Zach Cohen. Ryan Stoa, though more of an offensive player, could potentially fill the role with hopes that he'll be able to elevate his game and work his way up to one of the scoring lines.
The biggest story of camp will be how the defense plays itself out. The obvious Achilles' heel of the Avalanche last season, Colorado's training camp will feature five defensive prospects recently signed to entry level contracts—Kevin Shattenkirk, Colby Cohen, Jonas Holos, Cameron Gaunce, and Joel Chouinard—all with hopes of cracking the NHL roster.
Kevin Shattenkirk and Jonas Holos are the early favorites, as Shattenkirk is considered the most skilled while Holos is the most experienced, participating in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
The Avalanche already have six defensemen who made large contributions last season—Kyle Quincey, Adam Foote, Scott Hannan, Kyle Cumiskey, Ryan Wilson, and John-Michael Liles—so it remains to be seen how many rookie defenders Sacco will choose to keep at the conclusion of camp.
Conventional wisdom says only one, but cap constraints will force the Avalanche to carry a 23-man roster, so Sacco could opt to keep multiple rookie defensemen.
And if last years training camp was any indication, conventional wisdom doesn't apply.