The Colorado Avalanche are a team searching for a new identity.
The organization succeeded early and often upon switching locales from Quebec City to Denver and that helped set the bar for the Avalanche at an impossibly high level. The franchise won its first Stanley Cup title in 1995-96 -- the first season for the club in Denver -- and the Avs added another championship five years later.
Now, after Colorado made the postseason just twice over the last five years, the club, and its fans, are waiting for a player to take charge in the post- Sakic era.
The inconsistency has taken its toll at the gate too. The Avs once had a sellout streak that lasted from 1995-2006, but last year the club finished 24th in the NHL in attendance. It really could've been worse considering Colorado was 29th out of 30 teams in the NHL standings.
That's not to say the Avs are boring too watch. The team has loads of talent, especially up front, and maybe someday Matt Duchene, or even Gabriel Landeskog, will deliver the team a third Stanley Cup title. But, even though they are some nice pieces in place, the overall picture in Colorado is still fuzzy.
The club's main problem that caused them to finish 14th in the West last year was an inability to stop the opposition from scoring. In fact, Colorado was dead last in the NHL with 3.50 goals allowed per game.
Colorado general manager Greg Sherman hopes to have fixed the defensive issue by signing a pair of big veteran defensemen (Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien) and trading for 23-year-old goalie Semyon Varlamov. The young Russian netminder showed flashes of brilliance over the last three years in Washington, but whether he can be a consistent No. 1 for the Avs is another story altogether.
Last season got away from the Avs and head coach Joe Sacco will be in the hot seat if 2011-12 gets off to a bad start.
There is also reason to think Colorado could be a vastly improved team, which wouldn't be difficult considering the club is coming off its worst-ever point total (68) in Denver.
FORWARDS - Still just 20 years of age, Duchene is back for a third season in the NHL and all signs point to him continuing his ascent as one of the best young centermen in the league.
Duchene finished third in voting for the Calder Trophy in 2009-10 and last year improved on his rookie totals with 27 goals and 40 assists. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him go over the 30-goal and 80-point plateaus in 2011-12.
Once again, Duchene will have Colorado's elder statesman Milan Hejduk on his right wing. Hejduk, 35, is the last holdover from the 2001 Stanley Cup champions and had his 11th straight season of 20 goals or more in 2010-11, notching 22 goals and 56 points.
Filling the top left wing spot could be Peter Mueller, who is eager to get back on the ice after missing the entire 2010-11 campaign with a concussion.
Mueller had an amazing stretch with Colorado following a trade with Phoenix during the 2009-10 season, recording 20 points (9 goals, 11 assists) in a 15- game span before suffering a severe concussion on April 4, 2010.
The good news is Mueller has returned to game action this preseason, but whether or not he will regain his scoring touch is another matter.
It will also be interesting to watch the 18-year-old Landeskog this fall, as the second overall pick of the 2011 draft is expected to make the NHL team. The Swedish left winger is touted as an NHL-ready player who will at least play a strong defensive game even if he doesn't score at first.
Landeskog has been linked with third-line centerman Ryan O'Reilly and winger Daniel Winnik in the preseason. O'Reilly is just 20 years old and is coming off a 13-goal, 13-assist season. The 26-year-old Winnik had 11 goals and 15 assists over 80 games last year.
Meanwhile, 25-year-old centerman Paul Stastny hopes to rebound from a down season to become a formidable presence on the second line. Stastny posted a career-best 79 points in 2009-10, but dropped to 57 points (22g, 35a) in 74 games last year.
Colorado is also counting on another big year from 27-year-old winger David Jones, who more than doubled his career goal total with a breakout season in 2010-11. Jones, a ninth-round pick by Colorado in 2003, tallied 27 of his 47 career goals last season and also added 18 assists.
In an interesting bit of minutiae, the Avs have a surprising amount of late- round picks from the 2003 draft on their 2010-11 roster. In addition to Jones (288th overall), Colorado also has Hejda (106th), O'Brien (250th) and fellow defenseman Kyle Quincey (132nd).
Colorado also added Swedish forward Joakim Lindstrom to the roster this summer, signing the 27-year-old to a one-year deal. Lindstrom has 13 goals and 28 points in 81 career NHL games with Columbus and Phoenix, but hasn't played in North America since 2008-09. He had a stellar 2010-11 season with Skelleftea of the Swedish Elite League, registering 60 points (28g, 32a) in 54 games.
Lindstrom has been often seen skating on a line with Stastny and Jones this preseason.
DEFENSE - The Avs made a blockbuster trade with St. Louis during the 2010-11 season, sending power forward Chris Stewart, defensive prospect Kevin Shattenkirk and a second-round pick to the Blues for former No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson.
Sherman's strategy was to land a No. 1 defenseman and the 23-year-old Johnson appears to fit that bill. It was a high price to pay, but with Colorado's stock of young forwards, the GM could afford to give up Stewart and Shattenkirk projects as more of a offensive specialist than a pure No. 1 blueliner.
Since missing all of 2008-09 for St. Louis with a torn ACL and MCL, Johnson has managed to play in 79 and 77 games, respectively, over the last two years. The 6-foot-4, 232-pound Minnesotan had eight goals and 21 assists combined with the Blues and Avs last year.
As mentioned above, Hejda and O'Brien were brought in by Sherman to try and return some stability to the Colorado blue line. The 33-year-old Hejda, who had five goals and 15 assists with Columbus last year, was expected to be paired with Johnson at the start of the season, but a knee injury suffered in preseason will keep him out for the first few weeks of the campaign. When healthy, Hejda's stay-at-home defensive presence should give the younger Johnson more freedom to roam.
Johnson will be called on to produce more on offense this year after John- Michael Liles was traded to Toronto this summer. Liles had been Colorado's best offensive blueliner over the past several years and led Avs defensemen with 46 points a year ago.
O'Brien, 28, had nine points (2g, 7a) in 80 games with Nashville last year and should provide depth at the back end of Colorado's defensive rotation.
Having Kyle Quincey back this year should also help the Avs' defense improve. Quincey had six goals, 23 assists and a plus-nine rating for Colorado in 2009-10, but a shoulder injury limited him to just 21 games last year.
Ryan Wilson and Ryan O'Byrne are also back after posting 16 and 10 points, respectively last season. O'Byrne was third among Colorado defensemen with 20 minutes, 24 seconds of ice time per night in 2010-11, but expect that number to go down this year.
While the team had the 11th-best power play in the league last season, Colorado's defense, as well as its forwards, need to help the club improve a penalty kill that was ranked 30th in 2010-11.
GOALTENDING - Colorado's prospects for a playoff run this season rely heavily on the play of Varlamov.
With no big-time goaltending prospects in the system, the Avalanche acquired Varlamov from the Capitals for a hefty price, sending Washington a first-round pick in the 2012 draft and a second-rounder in either 2012 or '13.
Varlamov has 59 regular-season games and 10 playoff appearances to his credit since breaking onto the NHL scene in 2008-09. Last year, he went 11-9-5 with a 2.23 goals-against average and .924 save percentage with the Caps, but Washington went with another 23-year-old netminder -- Michal Neuvirth -- in the playoffs.
After the season, the rumor mill suggested a disgruntled Varlamov was planning on jumping ship to the KHL, but the Avs convinced him to stay in North America with a three-year, $8.5 million contract.
Colorado also inked veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere to a two-year, $2.5 million contract this summer. Giguere is no longer the goaltender who won a Conn Smythe Trophy and won a Stanley Cup title with Anaheim, but he should provide insurance if Varlamov is injured or ineffective.
Giguere went 11-11-4 with a 2.87 GAA and .900 save percentage in 33 games with Toronto last year.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - If the revamped defense and the arrival of Varlamov can stop the puck from going in the net as much as it did last year, the Avalanche have an excellent shot at sneaking back into the playoffs. But, that's a big 'if,' as a trip to the postseason will probably require about a 30-point increase from the club's 2010-11 total. Colorado's rebuilding project seems to be headed in the right direction, but the Avs are still a few years away from returning to the elite status that were emblematic of the early days in Denver.