Originally Published: September 26, 2013

Colorado Avalanche: Roy will bring passion

By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

The Colorado Avalanche have missed the postseason in four of the past five years, yet there is a palpable buzz surrounding the team for the first time in many years. A glittering array of top-end offensive talent, combined with the return of two Avalanche legends to prominent operations positions, have combined to revive talk of hockey in Denver for the first time in a long time. Now, can Joe Sakic, who took over as executive vice-president of hockey operations late last season, and his former teammate Patrick Roy, who took over as head coach (and vice-president of hockey operations), revive the team's fortunes on the ice and at the box office? There's no doubt there are lots of tools in the Avalanche's box. It's more a question of how long it will take to get the tools in the right spots to complete the construction project.

We had a chance to chat with Paul Stastny, Erik Johnson and Matt Duchene before training camp, and all three talked about the optimism surrounding the team and the excitement at talking with Roy about his plans for the Avs in the coming season. But optimism must be tempered with reality, and the reality is that there is a mountain of work facing Roy and the Avs, especially in terms of team defense, to get this team back to the playoffs.

There were no bigger changes than Sakic's ascent to the top of the Avs' hockey hierarchy, and the subsequent hiring of Hall of Fame netminder Roy, who cut his coaching teeth with the Quebec Major Junior Remparts in Quebec City, a team in which Roy had an ownership stake as well. Duchene talked about the passion Roy will bring to the bench, but the highly decorated former goaltender also knows he must be patient with his young team and to keep his emotions in check when he needs to. On the ice, the Avs acquired another former teammate from the their glory days in veteran winger Alex Tanguay, who was acquired from Calgary along with veteran defenseman Cory Sarich, who once upon a time won a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay. Winger David Jones and defenseman Shane O'Brien went to Calgary in the deal. Also gone are former captain Milan Hejduk, Greg Zanon and Chuck Kobasew. The Avs managed to lock up Duchene to a five-year, $30 million contract extension that kicks in next season, an important move given the high expectations for the third overall pick in 2009. The Avs also welcomed another potential cornerstone player when they drafted Nathan MacKinnon out of Halifax with the first overall pick in June's draft, a move that Sakic and Roy had both been open about discussing in the days leading up to the draft.

Although most folks point to the Edmonton Oilers as the team to watch in terms of its collection of future offensive stars, we would argue that the Avalanche boast a young arsenal that is every bit as impressive. Start with MacKinnon, who has already been penciled into the opening-day lineup for the Avalanche and was considered by Colorado to be the optimum pick from a draft that was extremely top-heavy in high-end talent. MacKinnon will join Duchene, young captain Gabriel Landeskog, P.A. Parenteau, Steve Downie, Ryan O'Reilly and Jamie McGinn as part of a group of young forwards who should make life miserable for opposing goalies this season. Downie is an integral part of that group, coming off a serious knee injury that cost him all but two games in last year's lockout-shortened slate. His unique blend of skill and grit makes Downie an important part of the forward contingent and gives Roy a lot of options in terms of where he fits best with the team's talented group of centers. It's like getting a big player in a trade. "People don't really know how good he is," Duchene told ESPN.com.

Whether it's Varlamov's fault or not, the Avs ranked 27th in goals allowed per game, one of only five teams to allow an average of more than three goals against per game. Not surprisingly, none of those teams made the playoffs. The plan then is to give Semyon Varlamov and his backup, J.S. Giguere (with whom MacKinnon is living), more protection than a year ago. "We gave up way too many shots, too many scoring chances," Duchene said. If there was criticism of Varlamov, Duchene, doesn't want to hear about it. "We hung Varly out to dry," Duchene said. "I don't think there's any need to question him. I hate to see any bad press on him. We all love him. We all think he's going to be a star." On the other side of the puck, even the presence of top offensive talent won't mean anything if it's not put to good use. Last season, injuries and other issues conspired to see the Avs finish 26th in goals per game. Special teams were also a problem, as they were 20th on the penalty kill and 24th on the power play. Now, maybe none of that means anything because those numbers reflected the previous systems incorporated by the previous coaching regime under Joe Sacco. Or maybe they are indicative of some genuine personnel issues. Certainly the blue line remains a work in progress for the Avs. Erik Johnston told us at the U.S. orientation camp that he's motivated to rebound from what he described as a terrible year on a personal level. But there is no dominant blue-line presence for the Avs. Tyson Barrie led all defenders with 13 points last year, and the defensive corps contributed just five goals in total. So Roy is going to have to count on defense by committee -- a committee that plays a lot better than it did in recent years.

At least when the Avs were in the Northwest Division there was the off chance they could sneak into a playoff spot because there weren't many good teams to compete with for postseason positions. The Central isn't a powerhouse division, but it will certainly provide a sterner test than the previous divisional alignment.

Burnside: It's nice to see hockey matter again in Denver. Here's hoping the fans understand that even the presence of legends like Sakic and Roy isn't going to be able to fix what ails this franchise overnight. We see the Avs as a fourth-place team in the Central -- but likely pushed out of a wild-card spot by a better team from the Pacific Division.

Custance: Sixth in the Central Division.

LeBrun: Sixth in the Central Division.

Melrose: Sixth in the Central Division.

Strang: Fifth in the Central Division.

Scott Burnside

ESPN Senior Writer


Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.