What to look for this season

Guess what hockey, and Avalanche fans, actual hockey games are on the horizon, and in 24 days, or less depending on when you read this, Joe Sakic will come out to center ice, be frozen in carbonite and hung from the Pepsi Center rafters:

And after that the Avs will start their first season without Super Joe on the ice.

For the Avs, everything has changed. This Avs season will be most like Madonna's 80's hit Like a virgin. Like the song, this season will feel like a virgin experience for every aspect of the Avs (even if it's not really our first time). Management has a double dose of n00bness with a rookie GM Bob Sherman and the prospect of a rebuild for the first time since the franchise spoke primarily English. Joe Sacco has never coached at the NHL level, but there's no need to worry because he has rookie assistant Sylvain Lefebvre behind the bench with him, and rookie part-time goaltending coach Jocelyn Thibault. On the ice the Avs have at least 4 rookies scheduled to start (Stoa, Duchene, Stewart and Galiardi) And there's certainly the prospect of quite a few more if there are any injuries. What better way to teach the kids than with a brand new Captain (Foote swears he didn't go all the way to captain with the Blue Jackets, and that's good enough for me).

Fans are in uncharted water too because this is the first time we've ever gone in with little hope of making the playoffs, which is rough (How Islanders fans do it year after year is beyond me). Even the Avs marketing department will have to do work for the first time since their previous marketing strategy of "Throw 4-5 Hall of famers on the ice and watch the money roll in" campaign has hit a snag. But this is a good thing, because next May, coincidentally 9 months from now, the Avs will hopefully be a team reborn.

I think the thing that's so nice about rebirth, is that the future is bright and it's a time for optimism. I'm taking Aaron D'Albeys thoughts to heart and taking a look at why this season will be a A New Hope for Avs fans. Last season the Mayan God Quetzalcoatl spoke to me in song when he told me that the season would go down "in a ball of fire". This season, as I write this post, he played Ben Lee's Catch My Disease which is about someone being infectious with optimism and happiness. FYI: Quetzalcoatl has excellent music taste.

Watching this season will require a different mindset, one that is new to Avs fans. Wins and losses, playoff seeding, and scoreboard watching will be non-existent. However that can be enthusiastically replaced with box-score watching, and watching the prospects develop. The Avs have a ton of rookies and young players that could be in the lineup.

The lack of Ws can be discouraging, but there will be other exciting things to follow the Avs for this season. The following guys will more than likely be on the roster, and are 25 or younger: Matt Duchene (18) , Ryan Stoa (21), Chris Stewart (21), David Jones (25), Kyle Cumiskey(21), Kyle Quincey(24), Wojtek Wolski(23), Paul Stastny(25), Cody McLeod (25), TJ Galiardi (21), & TJ Hensick (23). That's 11 players 25 or younger. That doesn't include potential injury call-ups like Pascal Dupuis (24), Tom Fristche (22), Justin Mercier (23), Ryan O'Reilly (18), Ray Macias (22), Derek Peltier (24), and Tyler Weiman (25). This isn't just the 09-10 Avs... this has the potential to be the core of the Avs for the next 10 years, and that makes me incredibly excited. Avs fans were very lucky to be given the core of a Stanley Cup winning team, but now we get to watch one develop.

And the lack of Ws may be a bit overstated anyways. The Avs were FUBAR last season. But there was quite a bit of bad luck that came into play. By my count XXX Avs had career worst (or close to it) seasons last season: Adam Foote, Scott Hannan, Brett Clark, Ruslan Salei, Milan Hejduk, Wojtek Wolski, Paul Stastny, Tyler Arnason, Peter Budaj and, of course Darcy Tucker. Some of these guys may never regain their form (or find it for the young guys) but I have a feeling that some of these guys just had a normal bad season and will recover and regress to their mean. Wolski, Budaj and Stastny are all still developing and could rebound with decent seasons. Hejduk was more the victim of being the focus of the defense. Foote, Hannan, Clark and Salei should all benefit from the new aggresive coaching philosophy, and Arnason is gone. I'd be shocked if all the guys listed above, that are still on the team, had as awful a season this as last. On the flip side I only counted two players who had what I would consider better than average seasons: Liles and McLeod. It's encouraging that both of them are relatively young and they may be hitting their potential, instead of regressing to their means this season.

Also injuries took quite the toll on the Avs last season. It's possible the Avs will be injured a lot again this season, but it's also possible that they will regress to the mean in terms of injuries as well. That healthy team will be coached by a new coach. I have no idea how good a coach Sacco is, but I don't think Granato was any good, either as a motivator or a tactician, and I suspect Sacco will be better. All I know about Lefebvre, the defensive coach, is that the call-ups last season played very aggressive (as did guys like Jeff Finger and Kurt Sauer before them) and they lost that edge when moving into Cloutier's system. I look forward to a more aggressive team.

When talking about a rebuild many people cite Chicago and Pittsburgh, but I think the Avs are more analogous to the St. Louis Blues. Last year more than one publication picked them to finish dead last in the Western conference because they had the prior season. Yet the Blues had some savvy veterans, and some exciting young players, and went out and got a solid if unspectacular backup netminder who turned into a pretty solid starter for them. The Avs are really in a similar position. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Avs mimic the '08-'09 St. Louis Blues.

That said, I don't expect the Avs to replicate the Blues this season, but the Avs could be more dangerous than many people think. Last seasons Avs finished the season as lifeless beaten-up men, but this season there's no expectations and everyone is picking them to be battle for the basement with Phoenix. (I think the Avs-Blues comparison is really a year away).

If the Avs do faulter in the Win column, they are in great position for next season. They will, probably, be sellers at the trade deadline, and the following guys could bring some nice picks or prospects in return: Brett Clark, Ruslan Salei, Adam Foote, Milan Hejduk, Peter Budaj, Darcy Tucker and Marek Svatos. They will also have quite a bit of avaialable cap space ready to go pick some free agents if necessary (*cough* Ilya Kovalchuk*cough*).

Sometimes the hardest part in starting a new unknown journey is saying goodbye to the ones who got you where you are. On Oct 1 we say goodbye to Joe Sakic, and we take our first steps into the great unknown.

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