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Avs hope new goalies, young core spark turnaround

After one of the worst stretches in club history overshadowed a sparkling first-half performance, the Colorado Avalanche have exercised all means of change this offseason to help kick-start a new era for the franchise.

From taking highly-touted prospects Gabriel Landeskog and Duncan Siemens with the No. 2 and No. 11 selections in the Entry Draft to acquiring Semyon Varlamov and former Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the 2011 offseason has been the latest step on the Avs' road to restoration that began at the turn of the calendar year.

In January, Colorado was in the thick of a playoff race after a 4-3 overtime win against eventual Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver. A few days later, word spread that legendary forward Peter Forsberg would attempt another comeback with the team he led to Stanley Cup titles in 1996 and 2001.

With a young core of Matt Duchene, David Jones and Paul Stastny leading the way, the Avs stood only 11 points from the top seed in the Western Conference on Jan. 18, hoping to qualify for the postseason for the second year in a row following a last-place finish in 2008-09.

But the dream quickly died in the Mile High City as injuries and inexperience began to mount. Things (excuse the pun) went downhill like an avalanche -- Colorado lost 20 of its next 22 games, Forsberg's comeback attempt lasted all of two games because of a bothersome foot, and the Avs quickly fell out of the Western Conference playoff race. To make matters worse, the 20-year-old Duchene -- who led the club with 67 points last season -- suffered a hand injury in mid-February, prompting abrupt action from management leading up to the Feb. 28 trade deadline.

One day after shipping goaltender Craig Anderson to Ottawa, the Avs dealt youngsters Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk to the Blues on Feb. 19 in exchange for 2006 No. 1 pick Erik Johnson, center Jay McClement and what became No. 11 pick in the 2011 draft.

While Colorado fans were torn regarding general manager Greg Sherman's bold moves at the deadline, two things became certain: the deadline signaled an inevitable rebuilding effort for the Avs, and the upcoming draft would likely be the most significant in the franchise's 17 years in Denver.

Sherman and coach Joe Sacco enter their third season together at the helm. While the regime has experienced a roller-coaster ride during their first two years, the Avs have assembled a core group with a mix of promising youth and veteran savvy for 2011-12.

The deal that sent Anderson to Ottawa brought back 26-year-old Brian Elliott to split time with Peter Budaj for the remainder of the season. While Colorado gave both goalies ample time in net during the last two months of the season, neither was impressive enough to stick around. Budaj, who registered a 3.20 goals-against-average last season, the highest of his career, signed a multi-year deal with Montreal on July 1. Elliott, who won only two games in 11 decisions after the trade, inked a one-year, two-way deal with St. Louis.

Veteran Adam Foote made an early April announcement that the final game of 2010-11 would be the last of his 19-year career, and the second captain in Avs' history will be hard to replace. Despite totaling only eight points last season in 47 games, Foote's leadership was as integral a piece to the puzzle for the current squad as it was for Colorado's two Cup-winning teams.

Also gone from on the blue line is John-Michael Liles, who racked up 46 points last season to lead all Avs defensemen. Liles, despite seeing his goal-scoring numbers drop in his six years with Colorado, was the team's most viable puck-moving defenseman, tied for the team lead with 40 assists last season. The 30-year-old Liles was moved to Toronto -- where he will fill the void left by Tomas Kaberle -- in exchange for a 2012 second-round pick.

Right wing Tomas Fleischmann, who notched 21 points -- including 8 goals -- in 22 games after being acquired from Washington last November, was diagnosed with two blood clots last January, sidelining him for the rest of the season. An unrestricted free agent this summer, Fleischmann inked a four-year contract with the revamped Florida Panthers.

Colorado hopes its new goaltending tandem of Varlamov and Giguere is a significant upgrade over Budaj and Elliott. Despite losing playing time to fellow youngsters Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby during his tenure with the Capitals, the Russian-born Varlamov is only 23 and sports a 30-13-12 career record. After trading a first-round pick in 2012 and a second-round selection in either 2012 or 2013 for his rights and signing him to a three-year contract, the Avs hope Varlamov can benefit from a change of scenery and become the team's goaltender of the future.

 

Giguere, on the other hand, is a widely-respected veteran who is best remembered for his time in Anaheim, where he won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2003 and a Stanley Cup in 2007. After a mediocre two-year stint with Toronto, the experienced Giguere, who has 231 career victories in 14 NHL seasons, will get a fresh slate, and could even be in the running for the No. 1 spot.

The biggest story of Colorado's offseason was the selection of Landeskog with the No. 2 pick in the draft. In his first year with the OHL's Kitchener Rangers, he played alongside 2011 Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner. Landeskog reaped the benefits of Skinner's tutelage last season, leading the Rangers with 36 goals and a plus-27 rating despite playing only 53 games because of an ankle injury. With thriving young centers Duchene and Stastny already producing at the NHL level, this 18-year-old left wing has the opportunity to make the Avs' roster in 2011-12 and be the franchise's goal-scoring cornerstone for years to come.

Forward Chuck Kobasew also joins the fold via free agency after spending two seasons with the Minnesota Wild. Having registered 20-plus goals three times in his career, Kobasew will likely provide Colorado's young front line with a touch of scoring depth as well as versatility on the wing.

Jan Hejda, who signed a four-year, free-agent deal, will bring much-needed grit to the blue line as Johnson continues to develop his comfort level in his first full season in Denver. At 6-foot-4, Hejda is a durable defensive defenseman who averaged more than 75 games in his four seasons with the Blue Jackets. Shane O'Brien, who signed a one-year deal in July, brings 40 career playoff games and invaluable experience to the blue line. These additions will be instrumental in the ongoing development of Siemens, as the 17-year-old prepares to hit the ground running at his first NHL training camp this fall.

Jan Hejda, who signed a four-year, free-agent deal, will bring much-needed grit to the blue line as Johnson continues to develop his comfort level in his first full season in Denver. At 6-foot-4, Hejda is a durable defensive defenseman who averaged more than 75 games in his four seasons with the Blue Jackets. Shane O'Brien, who signed a one-year deal in July, brings 40 career playoff games and invaluable experience to the blue line. These additions will be instrumental in the ongoing development of Siemens, as the 17-year-old prepares to hit the ground running at his first NHL training camp this fall.

After the Avalanche struggled mightily for the second time in three seasons, it was evident the franchise was in dire need of change this offseason. While many questions still remain regarding the team's goaltending and promising 2011 draft class, Colorado's activity this summer has injected a great deal of energy into its fan base.

The Avs were in the thick of things in a tightly-packed Western Conference in mid-January, which says a lot about the motivation of their young, talented roster. But Colorado's core of Duchene, Jones and Stastny will need to learn from its experiences last season and avoid the injury bug if the team wants to compete with ultra-talented Vancouver, which seeks its fourth-consecutive Northwest Division title.

Milan Hejduk is back for his 13th season after signing a one-year deal in May, hoping to build off a productive 2010-11 season in which the Pepsi Center's all-time leading scorer finished third on the team in both points (56) and goals (22).

While it will be difficult for Colorado to replace Liles, its best distributor on the blue line, this season is an important one for Johnson, who struggled to live up to the hype in St. Louis. The Avalanche traded two solid prospects to acquire the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, so his impact on this year's squad, along with those of fellow defensemen Hejda and O'Brien, will be important as the franchise's new goaltending tandem gets their feet wet in the crease.

Stastny, who fell into a scoring slump during the Avs' late-season demise, remains a dependable option in the offensive zone. If Landeskog is able to produce at the NHL level in his first season, the addition of an explosive young forward will do wonders for the likes of Stastny and Duchene, who continue to develop into a legitimate 1-2 punch at the center position.

In addition to Landeskog, the Avs sport another young piece in Jones, who saw significant playing time last season as a top-six forward. The 26-year-old has always had talent, but has also been sidelined by numerous injuries in his four-year career. Last season, he played in a career-high 77 games and became a serious scoring threat, tying for the team lead with 27 goals.

All things considered, the Avalanche have made a plethora of bold moves during the past few months to put an intriguing core in place. How those moves turn out will determine whether last season was a bump in the road or crater that's going to take a while to climb out of.