By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
When last we saw the Colorado Avalanche, stunned looks were pasted across their faces as they left the ice at Joe Louis Arena following a 7-0 shellacking in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals to the eventual Stanley Cup champs.
"That's ancient history," Avalanche head coach Bob Hartley said. "Whether we had lost 2-1 in OT or whether we had lost 7-0 like we did, the bottom line is, our season was over. We got beat by a good team and now it's time to focus on this year. Last year, when we won the Cup against New Jersey, we didn't show up to camp and say, 'Hey boys, we won the Cup because of this and that.' It was a new year and we had to give the Cup back. This year, the Red Wings are the champions and they are the ones everyone will target."
The debacle in Detroit came after the Avs had won Game 7s in their first two playoff series. Patrick Roy was incredible in each decisive game, making 27 saves as Colorado blanked San Jose 1-0 to wrap up the second round and saving 23 shots in the Avs' 4-0 win over the Kings to close out the opening round.
Colorado continued its policy of staying quiet on the open market this summer. The Avs lost Darius Kasparaitis to the Rangers, Pascal Trepanier to the Predators and Jaroslav Obsut to the Canucks in free agency. Lance Pitlick and Serge Aubin were the only players brought in from other teams, as Colorado chose to focus on re-signing its own free agents, as it usually does.
The feeling in Denver is that a full season of Peter Forsberg will be like getting a top-notch addition to the team. The Avs will be going for their ninth straight division title, the last four of which have come in the Northwest Division. With few other playoff contenders in the division, Colorado appears to be a cinch for its fifth consecutive Northwest crown.
In fact, the Avs are likely to contend for the top spot in the West and perhaps the Presidents' Trophy. But with the depth in the Western Conference, there is little margin for error. The Avs finished 17 points behind the Wings for the top seed in the West, but just nine points separated the next nine teams.
Colorado needed a goal from Steven Reinprecht with 2:59 to play in the final game of the regular season against Dallas to force a 2-2 tie and take the second seed from San Jose in a tiebreaker. That may have made the difference as the Avs then got home-ice advantage in their second-round series.So expect another down-to-the-wire race in the Western Conference this season, with the Avs in the mix for home-ice advantage.
Peter Forsberg, C -- Colorado played well enough to earn the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference during the regular season, but something was missing. Namely, the best all-around player in the world. With Forsberg back in the mix in the postseason, the Avs played with a spark that had been absent without him.
"It's been three or four months since our last game, and some days I catch myself trying to figure out how a guy can sit out basically a full year and come out and not only play, but dominate," Hartley said. "I don't even know if 'dominate' is the right word. It's beyond dominating. It's just amazing. I've never seen this. But it shows you what kind of elite player Peter Forsberg is."
Forsberg gave one of the best individual performances in recent memory during the 2002 Stanley Cup playoffs, coming back from a year away from game action to score 27 points in 20 games. Forsberg was steady in all three series, netting one goal and six assists against the Kings, six goals and six assists against the Sharks and two goals and six assists against the Wings.
Defensive depth -- Colorado ran into trouble in the postseason when it shortened the bench and played with four or five defensemen. Rob Blake and Adam Foote form a spectacular top two and Greg de Vries played well last season, but Martin Skoula will have to step up and improve his play now that he'll be seeing more ice time. Losing Darius Kasparaitis to the Rangers in free agency this offseason will be felt, even if the Avs thought he was disappointing after acquiring him in a deadline deal with the Penguins.
The Avs signed Todd Gill and Obsut prior to last season, but neither contributed much and won't be back. Trepanier played in 74 regular-season games, but made just two postseason appearances. Bryan Muir, on the other hand, played just 22 regular-season games with the Avs (after spending the first 59 with the AHL Hershey Bears), but then played in all 21 playoff games. Muir appears to be secure at one of the final two defensive spots.
The other third-pair spot could be won by Pitlick, signed to a tryout contract from the Florida Panthers. A true stay-at-home defenseman (only 49 points in 393 career games), Pitlick could help cover up Muir's occasional ill-conceived wandering, as well as bring some toughness that was lacking on the last pair of rearguards last season.
D.J. Smith, Brett Clark, Alex Riazantsev and Jeff Paul are also in the mix, though only Smith and Clark have NHL experience.
"We're going to have some very interesting battles on the blueline," Hartley said. "We won't make any quick decisions. We want this to be a good long battle because we know we are counting on some very good prospects on the blueline. Also, we have some guys with NHL experience that are fighting for those jobs, so we are going to take our time."
Bob Hartley loves to tinker with lineups. So God only knows what he's going to do this season. Even though Forsberg, Reinprecht and Chris Drury were magical together in the playoffs, Hartley could break up that trio to give his lines more balance. All three are natural centers, so moving one of them to the pivot on the third line would help even out the scoring load.
"I might want to try some early experiments," Hartley said. "I always want to look at other things, like maybe create another spark or generate some new blood. It's good to keep everyone on their toes. I want to really try to come up with something new, but exhibition games will give us a good idea of this. But as far as what to expect for game one against Dallas in the regular season, it's way too early to tell."
Hartley also has a special touch for slotting rookies into the right situation. In 1998-99, Hartley gave significant ice time to rookies Milan Hejduk and Drury, and all they did was score 48 and 44 points, with Drury taking home the Calder Trophy. In 1999-2000, Alex Tanguay got the top-line treatment, often pairing with Joe Sakic and Hejduk en route to 17 goals and 34 assists in his rookie season. In 2000-01, it was Finnish pest Ville Nieminen's turn to surprise, totaling 14 goals and eight assists in 50 games during his rookie season while playing mostly on the third line.
To begin last season, Hartley played Vaclav Nedorost on the first unit with Sakic before he was sent back to Hershey in November. But Nedorost's replacement, Radim Vrbata, scored 18 goals and had 12 assists in 52 games while skating mostly with Sakic and Hejduk on the top line. Vrbata was scoreless in the playoffs and lost his top-line spot to former Sakic-Hejduk partner Tanguay, but Vrbata's rookie season was surprisingly good.
With Vrbata and Nedorost both likely to be in the mix from the start this season, Hartley has some interesting calls to make. It would be tough to break up the Forsberg-Rheinprecht-Drury line after seeing how well they played in the postseason. And Tanguay plays his best when he skates with Sakic and Hejduk. That could leave veteran Mike Keane playing on the third line with the two young Czechs.
For the purposes of our possible line combinations below, we have taken the conservative approach and left Colorado's brilliant top two lines together. But everyone knows Hartley will come up with some clever little wrinkle, just to keep his opponents guessing.
Nedorost is regarded as one of the 10 best prospects in the NHL and is a sure-fire top-line player down the road. And on a team like the Avalanche, that is saying something.
Nedorost made the Avalanche at the beginning of last season and had one goal and two assists in his first two NHL games. But after adding just one goal in the next 18 games, he was sent down to AHL Hershey, where he scored 12 goals and had 22 assists in 49 games.
"His speed is great," Hartley said. "I think that his first couple of strides are very intimidating. He's one of those typical European players -- real crafty, great vision, great speed, fun to watch. I think he matured a lot last year. It was his first year and I think this year we'll put him on the ice and watch him go."
The Avalanche believe Nedorost is among the fastest players in their organization. And Colorado is known as a fast, good-skating team, so Nedorost's skating skills are top-notch. Penguins star Alexei Kovalev would be a good comparison to the style Nedorost plays.
Nedorost could break camp with the Avalanche if he has an impressive preseason. But if he doesn't stick with Colorado out of camp, he will start the year playing on Hershey's top line and be the first forward summoned by the Avs when injury strikes.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.