DENVER – Finally ready to spread his wings, all-star forward Matt Duchene moved out of a teammate’s basement over the summer.
The Colorado Avalanche are hoping to follow his lead this season.
The Avs are coming off a dreadful campaign in which they won their fewest games (30) since relocating to Denver from Quebec in 1995. But the squad refuses to dwell on their injury-riddled season, other than to use it for motivational purposes.
That’s on the advice of coach Joe Sacco, who referenced last year in a pre-season meeting and then vowed never to broach the subject again.
“I like that,” Duchene said. “That’s the approach everyone should take. Keep it in the back of your mind, but don’t think history is going to repeat itself. Try to prove everyone wrong.”
On the heels of such a lacklustre season came changes. The Avs brought in former great Joe Sakic to help out in the front office. They also revamped their goalie situation by not only trading for up-and-comer Semyon Varlamov but also signing veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere to serve as a mentor and back up.
One of the few benefits of finishing second-to-last in the NHL was garnering the No. 2 overall pick, which Colorado used to select Gabriel Landeskog, an impressive forward from Sweden.
Another youthful addition on what’s already one of the youngest teams in the league. Yet all that green talent is beginning to mature.
Look at the 20-year-old Duchene, who finished with 27 goals and 40 assists last season to become the youngest player in franchise history to lead the squad in scoring.
And after two years of residing in the basement of retired defenceman Adam Foote, Duchene figured it was time to venture out on his own and is renting a condo.
What’s next, making him a captain?
That very well could happen.
“I’d like to be a leader on a hockey team,” Duchene said. “Maybe it’s a little too early yet. But if it was given to me, I’d definitely take it very seriously.
“But there are so many guys in this dressing room that could be the captain.”
Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk appear to be the most likely candidates. They each had solid seasons in 2010-11, with Hejduk reaching the 20-goal mark for the 11th straight time, tying the franchise mark set by Sakic.
At 35, Hejduk is the grizzled veteran on this team.
However, being surrounded by so many young players has given him renewed energy heading into his 13th season.
“It does make me feel younger,” Hejduk said. “I feel pretty good actually.”
The Avs are being discounted this season, with very few prognosticators thinking they’ll make a run at the post-season.
That’s fine with Hejduk.
“I see a definitely better team than people are expecting,” he said.
The team was cruising along last season, before they hit a drastic skid in late January. The Avs set a franchise record with 10 straight losses two times during a 1-18-2 stretch that completely derailed their season.
“We don’t talk about last year too much,” Hejduk cautioned. “This is a different team.”
Colorado should receive a boost from forward Peter Mueller, who’s back after missing all of last season with a concussion.
Wearing a new helmet with a tinted visor, Mueller is hoping to return to being the player who accumulated 20 points in 15 games after being acquired from Phoenix in March 2010.
“I think I can get back to that level,” Mueller said.
To bolster their play in net, the Avalanche went out and acquired the largely unproven Varlamov—paying a stiff price, too. The Avs sent picks, including a first-rounder in 2012, to the Capitals for what they hope is the backbone of their team.
Varlamov was 11-9-5 with a 2.23 goals-against average for Washington last season.
“He’s such an athletic goalie,” said defenceman Erik Johnson, who was acquired from St. Louis last February. “This is going to be a good opportunity for him.”
The 23-year-old Varlamov and his Avs teammates will be playing with heavy hearts after the recent plane crash in Russia that claimed the lives of players they knew well.
Former Colorado players Ruslan Salei and Karlis Skrastins were among the players, coaches and staff of Russia’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey club who died when their jet crashed on the way to their first game of the season.
For Varlamov, the tragedy hit even closer to home since he played in the Yaroslavl system before joining the Capitals.
Before their home opener on Oct. 8 against Detroit, the Avs will pay tribute to Salei and Skrastins along with recently retired player Wade Belak, who hanged himself in Toronto on Aug. 31. Belak played in Colorado for parts of three seasons.
In addition, the Avs will recognize the contributions of Peter Forsberg, who briefly attempted a return last season before pulling the plug on his career. Forsberg will have his No. 21 jersey retired.
“Every opening night is big,” Hejduk said. “But this one is going to be special.”