The Colorado Avalanche were in playoff contention for most of this season, but ultimately fell short in the final week, finishing seven points out of a playoff spot.
Despite the disappointing finish, it was a season of significant improvement for the rebuilding Avalanche. They gained 20 points over last season, gave up 68 fewer goals and had a winning record (22-17-2) at home.
Center Ryan O’Reilly, 21, made significant strides in his third season, leading the Avs in points with a career-best 55, earning plaudits for his strong two-way play and even talk of a Selke Trophy nomination.
Rookie left winger Gabriel Landeskog had an impressive debut, as his 22 goals and plus-20 rating led the Avs, while his 52 points led all rookies, making him the favorite to win the Calder Trophy.
Goaltender Semyon Varlamov, acquired last summer from Washington, struggled at times during his first season with the Avalanche. Still, the 23-year-old played well enough to earn 53 starts and is poised to fulfill expectations as a starting goaltender.
Veteran J-S Giguere also proved invaluable as a backup and mentor for Varlamov.
The late-season additions of right winger Steve Downie (13 points in 20 games) and left winger Jamie McGinn (13 points in 17 games) gave the Avalanche a fighting chance down the stretch and should provide a significant offensive boost next season.
Still, the Avs have considerable room for improvement.
Adrian Dater of The Denver Post believes too many early-season losses to average teams, followed by critical late-season home defeats, cost the Avs a playoff berth.
They scored 19 fewer goals compared to last season. One reason for the decline in their offensive production was that center Matt Duchene missed 24 games to injuries, limiting him to 28 points in 58 games, a far cry from last season’s career-high of 67.
The 21-year-old Duchene at least has a valid excuse for the decline in his production. The same, however, cannot be said for center Paul Stastny.
For the second straight season, Stastny netted less than 60 points (53), far below what is expected of a first-line player earning a team-high $6.6 million per season against the cap.
Entering the off-season, Avalanche GM Greg Sherman has more than $21.5 million committed to eight players for 2012-13.
His most important signings will be restricted free agents Duchene, O’Reilly, Downie and defenseman Erik Johnson, while unrestricted free agent blueliner Shane O’Brien is also up for contract renewal.
Sherman isn’t expected to have much difficulty retaining those key players, but their new contracts will absorb a substantial chunk of the available cap space.
UFA winger David Jones, who scored 20 goals for the second straight season and earned $2.5 million, would prefer to stay, but his offensive numbers put him in line for a raise between $3 and $4 million and it remains to be seen if he’ll get that from Sherman.
Another veteran who might not return is right winger and captain Milan Hejduk, the last link to the Avs 2001 Stanley Cup championship team.
Though the 36-year old Hejduk finished tied for fourth in team scoring, his 37 points were the lowest of his 13-year career and his 14 goals marked the first time since his rookie season of 1998-99 that he failed to score 20 or more.
Hejduk saw his playing time reduced and by late in the he season was demoted to the fourth line, fuelling speculation he’d retire if the Avs opt not to re-sign him.
The Avalanche had the league’s second-lowest payroll, at about $49.4 million, putting them just above the cap minimum of $48.3 million.
The club justified that payroll by rebuilding with youth, rather than via expensive trades and free agent signings as they’d done in the past.
With the right moves, the Avs will become a playoff team, especially if ownership allows Sherman to spend more on landing experienced depth.
However, their improvement will depend on how well scorers such as Stastny and Duchene rebound, if Landeskog can avoid the dreaded sophomore slump and if Sherman suitably addresses their problem areas this summer.
Maintaining the status quo won’t be good enough, especially for a fan base hungry for a playoff contender.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.