So far this offseason has given Avalanche fans a lot to be excited about. Joe Sakic and company started things off by drafting Nathan MacKinnon first overall, and while he’ll only be a month past his eighteenth birthday once the season starts he looks to be a game-changer for the Avs, if not this coming season then soon after. Matt Duchene, arguably the team’s best player, signed a five-year extension that will keep him in town until 2019 and earn him six million dollars a year. It’s great to know that Dutchy will be around for a long time, and after the drama that revolved around Ryan O’Reilly‘s contract last season it’s refreshing to have this extension proceed so smoothly. Alex Tanguay will be back in an Avalanche uniform, and while free agency was by far the least exciting aspect of the Avs’ summer they still managed to make some potentially beneficial additions without hamstringing the team financially. At this point it gets harder and harder every day to wait for the first puck to drop, but Avs fans have a lot to look forward to. With that, here are some things to look for next season:
Matt Duchene: Dutchy earned every single penny of his brand-new contract. In a particularly dark season last year, his play was the brightest of the few bright spots. He tied P.A. Parenteau for most points on the team and led in assists. The season before last saw his production shrink; it was an off-year that led many to worry. Duchene took the hometown discount to stay in Colorado and then proceeded to prove that his down-season was an aberration, not the norm; he was one of the best players in the league last year. Now he has a shiny new contract worth $30 million dollars, and he isn’t done yet. He has made a point of stressing that he doesn’t want to be the guy who slacks off after signing the big contract. With a full-length season ahead and an improved supporting cast, it’s not out of the question for him to have a 40-goal season.
The Second Line: Look for Paul Stastny to have a better season. Instead of anchoring a line with the black hole that was David Jones, he’ll be playing with Gabe Landeskog and Alex Tanguay, which is definitely an upgrade. Landeskog should also be back to old form with his improved line mates, as last year he was recovering from an injury. The top six will be formidable, but the second line in particular should be vastly improved from last year.
Erik Johnson and the Defense: It doesn’t take a genius to know that this is where the Avs need the most improvement. Last season the Avs were the second-worst team on the blue-line, and a lot of people were frustrated with the selection of MacKinnon instead of Seth Jones because of this glaring defense problem. However, they still got a first-round talent in Chris Bigras, who was the highest rated skater at the draft. And with Patrick Roy in charge, this defense may surprise some people. Don’t get me wrong, it won’t be their best aspect and it’ll still need to improve, but it will be better, and here’s why: first, Erik Johnson started last season looking like the guy St. Louis hoped he would be when they drafted him. Only after the dump and chase was established did his production go down back to his disappointing usual. He should be getting the most minutes instead of Matt Hunwick, and with Ryan Wilson back Johnson should finally start playing like he should (don’t forget, he’s still only 25, so while he may be cutting it close, his super-star ship hasn’t sailed yet). Also, young stars Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliott will be playing the whole season instead of being sent down to Lake Erie just when their numbers start to turn heads like last season. All of this should help Semyon Varlamov, who will be a franchise goalie if he gets a little support, which he’ll have in the form of new goal coach Francois Allaire and the improving defense.
Obviously it’s unreasonable to expect only upside this year; any one of these areas could suffer instead of improving. Ryan O’Reilly is moving to the wing, which may work out fantastically or may completely destroy his usual production. Alex Tanguay is older than Avs fans remember and may or may not contribute the way Joe and Co. hope he will. Cory Sarich has been slump prone his whole career, and moving to a new city could either help or exacerbate that problem. Nate MacKinnon looks like he can play right out of the gate, but we won’t know for sure until after he gets to play and it may turn out he has more growing pains than anticipated. There are always a ton of possibilities heading into a new season, and it could either be a huge success or another colossal bust, but one thing is for sure: Avs fans have more to be excited about than they have in a long time.