With the losses of Valeri Kamensky, Theo Fleury, and Sylvain Lefebvre to free agency (or should I say the Rangers?) and Billington in a trade, the Avalanche are going to have some tough decisions to make this season. As well, the loss of Forsberg for the first few months, and Hejduk throughout training camp will leave some rather large holes in the Avalanche offense. This means that the Avalanche are going to have to call on some of their highly regarded prospects to pick up the slack, if the Avs are to avoid a start like they had in 98-99.
The first void to fill is going to be at center. Forsberg is going to be rehabbing until at least December, and it would be best for all involved if Forsberg were to take his time in recovering. After seeing what he can do after playing a full season, imagine what he could do with a full tank going into the playoffs… The player most likely to step in would be Alex Tanguay.
Tanguay, who spent last season with Halifax in the QMJHL, is a highly skilled center, in the mold of Joe Sakic. Widely regarded as one of the top prospects in the NHL, Tanguay scored 61 points in 30 games with the Mooseheads last season, after coming back from a concussion. These concussions are the question mark regarding Tanguay, as several careers have been cut short the past few years by concussions.
Tanguay will likely start the season at center on the Avs’ second line. If he does well there, when Forsberg returns, he will likely move to wing and bounce between the Sakic and Forsberg lines. If he doesn’t do all that well, expect him to center the 3rd line once Forsberg makes his way back.
After the loss of Fleury and Kamensky from the fold, and while Hejduk is recovering, there will be a definite need for wingers in the Avs’ high-octane offense. The most obvious replacement would have been Swedish winger Samuel Pahlsson. However, Pahlsson signed a deal with the stipulation that he would play one more season with MoDo in Sweden, so seeing him in the maroon and blue next season is out of the question. Therefore a solution to the potential depth problem at wing has to be found elsewhere in their system.
The Avs do have a couple wingers that could make the jump. The most NHL-ready is probably Christian Matte. Every year, Matte is left available for the expansion draft, and every year, he is passed up. He has been among the team leaders in points scored in Hershey for a couple seasons now, and he is ready for his shot at NHL ice time.
Matte would be most effective if used as a winger on one of the top lines. He is a skill player, no question about it, and he would perform best if surrounded by other skill players. Given his point totals in the AHL over the past couple years, Matte could likely score 50 points if given sufficient ice time with one of the top two lines. Skill players feed off one another, and if given the chance to wing on Sakic’s line, he should produce well. The trick is to get Hartley to realize that.
Another possibility would be to put him on a 4th line with Donovan and Klemm or Odgers. As opposed to the “meatheaded” 4th line they have put out there the past couple seasons, having Donovan and Matte on the 4th line would add speed and skill. Imagine a 4th line capable of putting points on the board as opposed to minutes in the box… And when Hartley double shifts Sakic and Forsberg, that 4th line would become even more lethal.
The Avs have other possibilities at wing. One of the biggest being Ville Nieminen. After the season he had last year with Hershey, scouts were saying that he might be the guy that makes the breakthrough in training camp this fall. Not an overly skilled player, Nieminen seems better suited for a 3rd or 4th line role. Given his rough style and checking skill, he would likely be a very integral part of the Avs’ 4th line if given the chance. And even with limited offensive skill, he could score 20 points in the NHL next season.
Players with an outside chance at cracking the lineup, (not to say they couldn’t be Drury/Hejduk-like) would be wingers Ramzi Abid, Serge Aubin and believe it or not, Mikhail Kuleshov.
Abid was on the Avs’ practice squad last season in the playoffs, after leading Bathurst-Acadie to the Memorial Cup. When Ramiz got off to an extremely slow start last season, many scouts deemed him a bust. However in the second half of last season, Abid’s natural talent took over and he flourished. Most scouts are saying he’s a year or two off, but given the fact that he made the Avs’ practice squad last season, and his second half performance with the Titan, there is a chance that he could be ready for a little ice time next season.
With the rash of injuries that the Avs faced last season, Serge Aubin got his first call up to the big show. While there, he looked out of place and awe-struck at the intense pace of the NHL. However, he had another excellent season in Hershey, and could very well surprise in camp. If he were to make the team, he might center a skilled 4th line, but he will likely only spend limited time in Colorado next season.
The biggest surprise would be if Kuleshov were to make it. I know what you’re thinking, the kid was just drafted this season, and hasn’t been the model of consistency that you like a player to be before he makes the jump. But what makes me think he might make the Avs is this… First, he will be invited to camp. He has too much skill for the Avs not to give him a shot in camp, and the Avs need someone to step up too badly for him not to be invited. Second, he has NHL skating ability as we speak. That is probably the toughest obstacle to making the jump to the NHL, and he has it beaten already. Third, he comes from a poor family in a poor town, and the prospect of making the NHL and the money that brings might finally provide the motivation it would take to get him to give his all. And if he does, he could be ready for the NHL.
He’s a big time longshot, but then again, it was an even bigger longshot that a little known Czech player named Hejduk might actually make it. The Avs obviously have a lot of confidence in Kuleshov, as they had his jersey ready for him at the draft. When you’re at the bottom of the first round, you have little idea exactly who is going to be there, and for the Avs to show this much confidence in him, given their success drafting in the past, Kuleshov will get a shot in camp.
As far as the defense goes, this is a bit easier. As much as the Avs’ defense gets ripped for a supposed lack of depth, they really arent in all that bad of shape. They still have key contributors Ozolinsh, Foote and Gusarov. Miller stepped his game up to the big time, and could be on the verge of joining Ozo and Foote among the league’s elite. That’s a top 4 to be proud of. After that, the Avs will be counting on Greg deVries to quit taking so many stupid penalties, and Eric Messier to come back to 97-98 form.
Jon Klemm has pretty much proven himself to be effective either at forward or defense, so the Avs have a tough decision to make. He played quite a bit of time on a checking line with Podein and Yelle, and was very successful in doing so. The three of them make up one of the best defensive lines in the NHL, and it would be nice to see them together again this season. But if Messier doesn’t step up, the Avs might have to put Klemm back at defense.
That is, of course, unless Martin Skoula is ready. Skoula is thought to be another year away, but the Avs had him on their practice squad last season in the playoffs, so they obviously have confidence in his ability to play soon. He’s going to have to have a good camp to make it this season, but that isnt the most far fetched scenario in the world. The prospect of having another offensively skilled defenseman with the ability to step up into the top 2 pairings this season will force the Avalanche to give him a long, hard look in camp.
Expect AHL vets Buchanan and Smith to step in should the Avs have a rash of defenseman injuries again. Both are able to make the jump, and played very well in limited time with the Avs last season. After this coming season, it is likely that Gusarov will be gone, and if that happens, one of the two will make the jump for good.
In a season where many are predicting doom and gloom for our beloved Avalanche, this season looks to be very interesting for those of us interested in the prospect side of things. Every guy I mentioned above could fall flat on his face, however there is the definite potential for greatness among them.