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Tuesday, August 6, 2002
Updated: August 28, 3:08 PM ET
Healthy Forsberg cures all Avs' ills

By Graham Hays

The Colorado Avalanche probably assumed they'd lose a few belongings while spending a portion of last fall's training camp in Sweden, but they didn't plan on leaving behind one of the game's best two-way players.

2001-02 by the numbers
45-28-8-1, 99 points
(T4th overall, T2nd West, 1st Northwest)

Goals for:
212/2.59 (18th overall)
Goals against:
169/2.04 (1st overall) Differential:
43 (T3rd overall)
20-goal scorers:
Joe Sakic (26), Chris Drury (21), Milan Hejduk (21)
50-point scorers:
Sakic (79), Rob Blake (56)
Peter Forsberg's September announcement that he planned to take an indefinite leave from the NHL in an effort to heal his ailing body stunned the team, not to mention the rest of the hockey world. Left to assemble a competitive team without one of their best players, the Avalanche struggled to maintain their place among the league's elite. Despite scoring 212 goals, the team's fewest since moving to Colorado in 1995, they earned their eighth consecutive division title, narrowly holding off Vancouver. Defense became the name of the game in Denver, as the Avalanche allowed just 169 goals, 13 fewer than the next-stingiest team.

Having failed to distance themselves from the pack in the regular season, Colorado struggled to survive in the postseason. Forsberg, whose midseason return was postponed by more surgery, returned for the playoffs and registered 27 points in 20 games. But Colorado couldn't get through a third straight seven-game series, and fell to Detroit 7-0 in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.

Looking ahead at next season
Can Patrick Roy, who turns 37 four days prior to Colorado's opener, again produce better numbers than his already-magnificent career averages? Can the team's defense duplicate last season's effort in front of him? If Forsberg's playoff performance is any indication, neither the goalie nor the defense may need to repeat their heroics.

The Avalanche didn't produce an offensive onslaught in the postseason, averaging just 2.57 goals in the playoffs compared to 2.58 goals in the regular season, but there's no denying the explosiveness and cohesion Forsberg brings to the team. In Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Chris Drury, Milan Hejduk, Alex Tanguay and Steve Reinprecht, coach Bob Hartley has as dangerous a collection of forwards on the top two lines as any team in the league. His challenge is finding the right combinations. Last season's de facto top line of Sakic, Hejduk and Tanguay frequently was ineffective. With defenses paying him extra attention and with Hejduk and Tanguay battling injuries, Sakic's goal production dropped from 54 to 26. Interestingly, the last time Forsberg missed substantial time -- 33 games during the 1999-2000 season -- Sakic's scored only 28 goals (albeit in 60 games). Whether or not they share any shifts, Sakic and Forsberg feed off each other, and few teams have the defensive depth to cope with both players.

While Sakic and Forsberg can be expected to score if healthy, it's not clear what to expect out of restricted free agents Hejduk and Tanguay. Both young wingers come off disappointing campaigns, dropping from 68 combined goals in 2000-01 to just 33 last season. Their talents are undeniable, but this season is a test of their consistency and durability. A year ago the duo represented the next generation of Colorado's success; this season both, but especially Hejduk, are mentioned as potential trade bait.

Every team would love the luxury of stashing Luc Robitaille on the third or fourth line for large portions of the season, but not every team is Detroit. Colorado doesn't get a lot of offense from their third and fourth lines, but they get everything else. Even without Shjon Podein, who was dealt to St. Louis for gritty Mike Keane last spring, Stephane Yelle continues playing relentless defensive hockey. Youngsters Dan Hinote and Brad Larsen join Yelle, Keane and brawler Scott Parker in making life miserable for opponents. If Hartley chooses to move Reinprecht off the second line, Radim Vrbata and Vaclav Nedorost represent offensive-minded options on the wing. Vrbata got a long look on the top lines last season, managing 18 goals in 51 games. That was enough to solidify his role in the team's future and make Ville Nieminen, the previous season's rookie surprise, expendable.

What the defense lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. There may not be a better top four in the league than Rob Blake, Adam Foote, Greg de Vries and Martin Skoula. Arguably the league's best all-around defenseman, Blake was everything the team hoped for after signing a lucrative deal to stay in Colorado on the eve of unrestricted free agency. Foote lacks Blake's offensive skills but few players are better in their own end. De Vries led the team with a plus-18 rating and Skoula recorded a career-best 31 points. Keeping Blake and Foote healthy -- Foote missed 27 games last season -- is crucial. Having lost Kasparaitis, Pascal Trepanier and Jaroslav Obsut to free agency, Colorado must come up with two more options from a pool including Bryan Muir, Brett Clark and prospect Alex Riazantsev.

Like most offseasons, Colorado has been quiet in free agency while their Western Conference rivals have restocked. An organization built through an impressive farm system and key in-season trades (Roy, Bourque, Blake, etc.), Colorado is willing to work with what it has, filling holes as needs arise during the season. Last season, goaltending and defense picked up the slack when goals were hard to come by. Facing holes on defense and the likelihood that Roy must at some point start showing signs of age, the team's offense must repay the favor this season. Luckily, they should be able to do just that with Forsberg around to free Sakic and feed the team's enigmatic wingers. With Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary still facing serious financial constraints, yet another Northwest Division title is all but assured. And this year, with Dominik Hasek gone and Steve Yzerman out three months, any playoff Game 7 could very well run through Denver.