The Red Wings are less than a week away from training camp, and this weekend the rookies participated in the rookie tournament. Pretty soon battles will start for positions, new players will be formally introduced to the Red Wing-way, and pre-season games (real, honest-to-God hockey games) will be played. We're really going to start cranking these previews out, and today we look at an old rival who recently fell on hard times, but seems to be coming back to life. Maybe this will make the rivalry exciting again.
Arrivals: Daniel Winnik
Departures: Brett Clark; Darcy Tucker
The Dive. Even now, years later, I still loathe them. I realize that the Avs had fallen on hard times and that took some of the spice out of the rivalry between the two teams. However, last season the Avs, in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, surprised the hell out of everyone (including their own fans) and finished 8th in the West, earning a spot in the ultra-competitive playoffs. Their inexperience showed in their first-round matchup against the Sharks, but the Avs definitely seem to be a team on the rise.
Offense: The Avs are led on offense by Paul Statsny, who is quickly turning into their leader both on offense and on the team as a whole. He finished with 79 points in 81 games, and was their leading scorer. He is helped out by Calder-finalist Matt Duchene, who put forth an impressive rookie season with 24 goals and 55 points, enough to make him the leading rookie-scorer in the NHL, and give the Avs a solid second-line center. Mostly the Avs have a lot of young talent at forward, including Brandon Yip, TJ Galiardi and Ryan O'Reilly, all players who had good seasons last year which the team is hoping they will build on. Milan Hejduk is returning for another season, and if he can stay healthy for the entire season, then the Avs will have their best pure goal scorer available to contribute. The Avs are also hoping that Peter Mueller can continue his torrid pace that he set after his trade from the Coyotes late last year. The Avs don't get a ton of offense from their blueline, with John-Michael Liles and Kyle Quincey (man, it would be nice to have him back) being their leading defensemen scorers. The Avs finished 6th overall in goals for last year, so you can't sleep on them, as they can score with just about anyone on the team. Their PP is average, finishing 15th with a success rate of just over 18%. Overall, the Avs are a good offensive team, but given their youth, I question whether that can be sustained.
Defense: The Dive has a very underrated defensive corps, led by Liles and Quincey. They still have a holdover from the Fight Night days in Adam Foote, their captain and on-ice leader. His offensive skills are pretty much non-existent at this point of his career (not that he ever was a high-scoring guy), but he's a smart player who still has a physical side to his game. He may be a dirty idiot, but he's the best they've got. Like the offense, the defense is also fairly young, with only Scott Hannan being considered true "veterans". The defense finished 17th in goals against last season, but their team defense really trailed off towards the end of the season when the youth of the team showed. The Avs will be looking to improve a penalty kill that finished 21st in the NHL, although they were successful in killing off 80% of the penalties against them. The defense is good but not great, and would be the weak link on the team from my perspective.
Goaltending: Craig Anderson was signed as a free agent from Florida, and promptly set the NHL on it's ear with his October, where he was scorching hot. However, over the course of the season, his numbers really came back to Earth, and I think that was due to a combination of teams scouting him and seeing him more than once, and fatigue on his part due to the fact this was his first season as a full-time starter. He played in 71 games, and faced the most shots in the NHL while making the most saves. Considering his status as a first-time starter, his numbers were good, especially given the young team in front of him. From everything I remember about last season combined with what I've read about him from their fans, he was clearly the team's MVP and the Avs probably would not have made the playoffs without him. Backing him up is Peter Budaj, the Avs "goalie-of-the-future" who never played up to his potential, leading the Avs to seek out Anderson's services.
Coaching: Joe Sacco is a young coach who took over a young team, and he squeezed every last ounce of talent out of his team last year. He definitely is a coach that stresses offense, as the Avs went from being a lousy offensive team to a high-scoring one. The team allowed the most shots in the NHL last season, and team defense does not seem to be stressed nearly as much as the offense is. I did notice in the few games that I watched that the Avs are an extremely fast team (owing partially to their youth), and they use that speed to gain an advantage on their opponents. They are not a very physical team, preferring to use their speed and skill over size. He had a free pass last year since it was supposed to be a re-building year, but this year the team will be expected to take another step forward.
Player to Watch: Matt Duchene burst onto the scene last year as a rookie, leading all rookies in points with 55 and tying for the rookie lead in goals with John Tavares at 24. What's impressive is that he finished +1 on a mediocre defensive team, and he saw some PK time. Duchene seems to be the real deal, and with some experience, he's going to become a dynamic player in the league. Don't ask me why, but I feel like that there will no sophomore slump from him, and he will build on these numbers.
Player With Something to Prove: Craig Anderson entered the season last year as a relative unknown, but after his October, there were some who considered him an early candidate for the Vezina. As the season progressed, however, he really came down to Earth, and his solid stats don't really tell the tale of how remarkedly different his season was between the first half and second half. As I said earlier, he was the main reason why the Avs made the playoffs last year, and if he takes a step backwards this season, the Avs could find themselves on the outside looking in once again. I think that Anderson needs to show the team and the NHL that he is a legitimate #1 goalie who can carry a team year-in and year-out.
Why They Can Win the Division: The Avs only finished 8 points behind the Canucks last season in the division, although they were in the mix for most of the season. The team seemed to have hit the collective wall towards the end of the season, although that was not unexpected due to how young the team is. The Avs pretty much kept their team intact, only losing Brett Clark and Darcy Tucker, 2 players who did not really contribute much to the team. In fact, with Tucker leaving, the Avs' "idiot-ness" has decreased significantly. If the young players on the team continue to develop in a positive fashion, and the veterans like Hejduk and Foote can stay healthy, the Avs could conceivably give the Canucks a run for their money in the division.
Why They Won't Win the Division: A lot of what the Avs do this season is going to hinge on whether Anderson can stay at the level he was at for most of the year last year, and whether their young players can continue their positive development with no setbacks. If either one of these things don't happen, the Avs will find themselves looking up at the Canucks once again.
My Prediction: I think the Avs are going to take a step back this season. I think there are too many "ifs" surrounding the team, especially around their young forwards and their development. I believe that some of them (especially Duchene) will be better, but to expect each and every one of their players to play as good or better as they did last year is a little too much to expect. Between the overall lack of elite talent on the Avs and the hyper-competitiveness of the West, the Avs have no margin for error, and I just don't see them getting better this year. I think they'll narrowly miss the playoffs, but the experience will be good for them. I will also guarantee that I will froth at the mouth if the Wings lose to them, because even though 90% of the players that made up the rivalry are gone, I still hate them. I want the Wings to beat the Avs every time, and beat them badly. Anything less than 4-0 against them makes me very upset.