Avs Roundtable - Question #4

Avs Roundtable:
Welcome to Question 4 of the Avs roundtable, the most comprehensive Avalanche season preview on the web. Many Avalanche bloggers have come together to answer 8 questions facing the Avs going into the season. Mile High Hockey is headquarters for this event, and here at Jibblescribbits we have volunteered to host Question #4. All the questions, and their hosting sites, can be found to the left on a special new link list. Since this response is long, let me go ahead and get started with Question #4

Question #4- What are the biggest stumbling blocks to the Avs this coming
season? Are they their own worst enemy, or will certain teams present
specific challenges to Colorado this season?

Baba Oje, from Melt Your Faceoff, and is also hosting Question #7 gets us started:
They need to play more consistently defensively. There were too many times last year when the other team got behind our own blue liners
and hung the goalies out to dry. Its time that our defenders matured into the new NHL and learned that they don't have the two line pass to protect them. We also need Budaj to play like he did at the end of last season, a high order, but he is capable.
Mike, from the blog Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge, (also Avs hosting Question #1) responds:
It all comes down to goaltending, in my opinion. If Coach Q. can get the most out of the Avs' goalies this year, then all we have to worry about is the two-and-a-half elite goalies in the division (Luongo, Kipprusoff, and half-a-Backstrom). Why half-a-Backstrom? I believe that the system in front of him will be motor that makes any of Minnesota successes' go this season, more than Backstrom. (Plus, I'd like to see more of his backup, Harding, who was rocking some sweet vintage gear in the past!) If Colorado can beat the foes they should beat consistently (Phoenix, St. Louis, Columbus, Edmonton) and be competitive in our division and against the powerhouses in the Pacific (Ducks, Sharks) they can control their own destiny. If the Avs don't win the division, I fully expect them to battle Minnesota for one of the final two or three playoff spots and it could come down to who has the horses in net.
Tapeleg from Jerseys and Hockey Love (and hosting Avs Question #6) had this to say:
The biggest stumbling block for the Avs are going to be the demons of last season. Missing the playoffs for the first time by one point(or three, depending on how you look at it), making mistake after mistake, giving up leads, and losing too many one goal games are a lot of questions to answer for a team that still most of it's core returning. The 400 pound gorilla in the corner is the forty minute games they played last season. This question, for me, falls directly on the coaching staff, and how they plan on keeping the team motivated, while not getting in the way of the talent. I wonder how much of last season was based on the coaching and how much on the players themselves.
I am much less worried about the goaltending this season than last. Even thought we still have Budaj and Theodore, the third goalie can be filled if necessary, something not available last season. The departure of Vitali Kolesnik stung, and had there been an injury, the Avs would have shown how thin at this position they were. With Wall
and Weiman in place, that shouldn't be a concern. If the Avs are going to do anything this season, they have to exorcise last season. All of the pieces are in place, now they have to do something with them.
A new Avs blogger, and new to the blogosphere Justin G (coincidentally whose site The Hockey Guild, and Avs Site the Avalanche Guild launches sometime today) opined:
I totally understand the obvious responses about a "lack of consistency" - not only from our defenders but from the entire team last year. But I honestly believe that they do not deserve the brunt of the blame. Hockey is a team sport, so blaming a set of four or six defenders for all of the "40-minute games" is a fallacy. Yes, there were way too many 40-minute games last year, especially early in the season, but it wasn't strictly the defenders' fault. Defensive effort from Avalanche FORWARDS is, in my opinion, the biggest soft spot on this team. Back-checking and the work ethic needed to skate back and help out the defensemen will be a giant key to the Avalanche playing 60-minute games. Getting sticks in the passing lanes, deflecting pucks, continuing to be a strong shot- blocking team are such vital aspects to a total team and total game effort. These are the little things that bring a team together defensively, as everyone must be responsible when the puck is in their own zone. It's not JUST the blueliners and goaltender. It's all five players working together and executing a solid defensive system.
Physical play is another major hurdle the Avalanche must jump over this season. They must be gritty. They must HIT SOMEBODY. I cannot begin to count the number of times I found myself screaming at the top of my lungs, "SOMEBODY HIT SOMEBODY!" as I watched games last season. It was almost a joke and it was certainly frustrating. Yes, the new NHL is based on speed and passing, but if they cannot push a player off the puck and impede their forward progress, they will end up getting beat on a ton of plays. They HAVE to take players into the boards and impede the puck handler by pushing their body out of the way. Not only does hitting a forward take them off of the puck, but it also takes them out of the play. More odd-man situations arise from a solid body check than slipping behind a defender with pure speed and agility. The more the Avalanche hit and play a physical game, the less time they will spend in their own zone and the more time (and space) players like Sakic, Smyth, Hejduk, Svatos, Stastny and Hlinka will have with the puck. It's intimidation. It's grit. It's a certain physical presence that the Avalanche must have.
Goaltending is the most important factor for all 30 NHL clubs, so knowing this, the onus is obviously on Budaj to continue his play from the end of last season. Unfortunately, from what I have witnessed in training camp and the preseason game against the Los Angeles Kings, I am weary and worried. He is struggling right now - flat out. That's the main reason why he played the entire game and Mike Wall sat on the bench - because the coaching staff realizes that Budaj is struggling, and so they are hoping he will play through it by the time October 3 hits. He's kicking out rebounds, he's letting in soft goals and he's playing deep in his crease. Honestly, as of September 21st, I'm worried.
Our Host, Joe from Mile High Hockey, added this:
Besides goaltending doubts, inconsistent defense will be the number one hurdle facing the Avalanche this season. They have to recapture the feeling they had during The Streak at the end of last season. Every D-man was firing on all cylinders, smashing and crashing and clearing pucks like every opponent they faced was a Pee Wee team. Scott Hannan has to motivate his new troops and fight every game like it's the most important one of the season. If they can stay consistently tight on D, the Avalanche will do very well this year against any team.
Draft Dodger, from In the Cheaps Seats (host of Question #8), shifts the conversation to face-offs with his comments:
Francois Giguere made two great moves this summer in signing Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan. Both players - especially Smyth - should fit well with the team and the style they play. Unfortunately, neither move really went very far to address some of the more nagging deficiencies the Avs had last season - faceoffs, physical play and penalty killing.
Frankly, as nice as he's been offensively, I was surprised to see Tyler Arnason - a player weak in all those areas - re-signed. With the right signing, the Avs could have added a 3rd line center to address all those needs in one fell swoop. With all the cap room the Avalanche have, I think Giguere missed a golden opportunity to improve the team. Already they've had issues in all three of those areas in the preseason. While I suspect they'll still have the firepower to overcome these issues, I think they would have been in better shape if they'd made a better move this summer.
After all this I decided it was time for me to add my 2¢:
Internally there seem to be 2 stumbling blocks going into the season. The first is, obviously and well documented, the goalies. Budaj needs to be good, but Theo needs to be a sold backup. Play for that next contract Theo. They also need to be better on the blue line. Hannan was brought in to shore that up, but he can't do it all himself, and he needs to adjust. Leopold is back (for now) but really late game leads need to be protected a lot better.
I think playing in the NW itself will present a challenge. The Avs could lose playoff seeding to inferior clubs just because they'll be competing with the Canucks/Flames/Wild while teams like St. Louis get the Blackhawks, BJ's and Nashville.
Jori, host of Question #2 and the author of the great blog Avs Prospects said:
The Avs have the offense and the defense is improved with a healthy Leopold and the addition of Scott Hannan. The defense lacks "star power," but it's a solid and underrated group that should help the Avs PK and help the goaltenders. An area of weakness the team did not address is face-offs. This could still hinder the Avs penalty kill and defense overall.
The goaltending is probably the biggest concern, but it's not just Budaj and Theodore, it's also Joel Quenneville. Quenneville is quick to pull goaltenders and may under play or over play them at times. I believe the struggles in net the Avs experienced early last season can partially be blamed on Quenneville. You can understand the need to play Theodore due to his massive contract, but should it be to the detriment of the team?
Even with the additions of Smyth and Hannan, this is a team that can still get pushed around if they don't play "tough" as a group. It's important that the team starts strong out of the gate. The Avs play in arguably the toughest division in the NHL. The Western Conference itself is extremely strong. A consistent effort night in and night out should be enough to earn the Avalanche a playoff spot.
And finally Post Pessimist from the extremely popular Hockey blog Hockey Rants (and host of Question #5) offered up these thoughts:
While they're in one of the most competitive divisions in hockey, there's no team that really stands out as superior to the Avs in the Northwest. If Colorado establish themselves quickly and manage to play pretty consistently, they'll be fine. I'm still not sold on the defense. It looks like a capable unit, but one that could go either way -- the days of Blake/Foote/Bourque still seem very far away. If everything goes right (Hannan all that is advertised, Leopold goes more than a week without getting hurt, etc) it should be fine; but there's not much margin for error, and it could still be the team's Achilles heel.
Finally Shane from Avs Talk (and host of Question #3) wraps up the Question #4 roundtable with:
Team chemistry will be the only real stumbling block. Q has to do his job and find the right line combinations from the get-go and get the team to buy into how he wants them to play. That doesn't mean that Smyth-Sakic-Brunette need to play every shift together, but it does mean he needs to find some good 1-2 punches and compliment those with a third winger. A full 3-man line matters less than a 1-2 punch
does. As evidenced with Brad May playing on a line with Staz and the Duke last year.

They also need to establish the right balance between offensive output and defensive presence. A run-and-gun offense works good but you have to have the defense - and goaltending - to back it up. Buffalo had success last year with that style as Ryan Miller bailed them out enough times to make up for it. But I'd much prefer seeing them backcheck harder and play smarter rather than forcing Budaj to make huge saves to bail the team out.
Of course, injuries could hamper the team out of the gate but there's not much a team can do to control that aspect of the game.
To wrap things up, It looks like all us Avs bloggers are worried about:
  • Goaltending
  • Defensive Consistency
  • Overcoming the letdown of missing last seasons playoffs
  • Physical Play
  • and Face-offs
Despite this post about Avs stumbling blocks, let's remember. Budaj seemed to come into his own last season, and the Defense added Leopold and Hannan this season, to a corps that started to play well late last season.

Oh and lets not forget that not one of us bloggers even said anything about the offense. This should be a fun team to watch, and I am getting excited for Wednesday.

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