NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.
Expectations are high for the Colorado Avalanche heading into 2014-15 following a remarkable turnaround that featured a surprising Central Division championship and their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2010.
The season ended with a seven-game loss to the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference First Round, but the postseason experience was viewed as a necessary step in this young team's development.
"I think this is a big turning point for this organization," center Matt Duchene told the NHL Network. "I think you're going to start seeing the Avalanche playing deep into the spring and summer months."
After finishing last in the Northwest Division and 29th in the NHL in 2012-13, the Avalanche rebounded under a new management team led by former stars Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy. Sakic, named executive vice president of hockey operations in May 2013, hired Roy as vice president of hockey operations and coach.
Roy, who previously coached the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, formed what he called a "partnership" with the players and guided the Avalanche to a 52-22-8 record and 112 points. Colorado had the third-best record in the League and Roy won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
"This is probably the most surprising division championship that this team ever had," Roy said of its first title since 2002-03, Roy's final season as a player. "Nobody expected to see us where we were, to finish ahead of Chicago and St. Louis. It is something very special. From the get-go our guys came to camp and they were ready and they wanted to be different and they wanted to see a change."
It may not be possible to duplicate as much success -- Colorado won't catch anyone by surprise this time -- but there is plenty of cause for optimism with a slew of talented forwards led by Duchene, Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O'Reilly, along with Vezina Trophy finalist Semyon Varlamov and the additions of right wing Jarome Iginla and defenseman Brad Stuart.
The Avalanche weren't able to re-sign unrestricted free-agent center Paul Stastny, who signed a four-year, $28 million contract with the St. Louis Blues after spending eight seasons in Colorado. Defenseman Andre Benoit left to sign a one-year, $800,000 contract with the Buffalo Sabres and the Avalanche traded right wing P.A. Parenteau to the Montreal Canadiens for center Daniel Briere. Backup goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere and defenseman Cory Sarich were expected to retire.
Despite the loss of Stastny, the Avalanche head to training camp with more experience, depth and toughness than they had when the season ended.
"We're pretty happy with where we are right now," Sakic said after signing Iginla, 37, to a three-year, $16 million contract; center Jesse Winchester, 30, to a two-year, $1.8 million contract; defenseman Zach Redmond, 25, to a two-year, $1.5 million contract; and acquiring Stuart, 34, from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and a sixth-round pick in 2017.
"Our core guys are all young and we wanted to surround them with great veteran leadership, and we've done that," Sakic said. "We feel our third and fourth lines, we were lacking depth in the playoffs and we really noticed it against Minnesota, and we feel we've got some depth down there as well."
Duchene, 23, Landeskog, 21, O'Reilly, 23, and MacKinnon, 18, led a balanced attack by scoring between 63 and 70 points while setting single-season personal bests. With Stastny gone, MacKinnon is expected to move from right wing to center, his natural position. He could anchor a line with Landeskog and Iginla, who last year scored 30 goals with the Boston Bruins.
The Avalanche avoided arbitration with O'Reilly by re-signing him to a two-year, $12 million contract. He scored a team-high 28 goals and won the Lady Byng Trophy. One of the League's lower-paying teams in recent seasons, the Avalanche are about $3 million under the $69 million salary cap and still have to re-sign mobile defenseman Tyson Barrie, a restricted free agent who came into his own with career highs in goals (13) and points (38) in 64 games.
The Avalanche allowed the sixth-most shots (2,678) in the League last season and are counting on the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Stuart to help make Varlamov's job a little easier. Stuart is expected to be paired with 6-4, 232-pound Erik Johnson, who averaged 23 minutes in ice time and set a career high with 39 points.
Defenseman Nick Holden (6-4, 207), a pleasant surprise after signing as a free agent, scored 10 goals in 54 games and was rewarded with a three-year, $4.95 million contract extension that begins in 2015-16. He should be even better with a full NHL season behind him.
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