The retirement of Joe Sakic naturally leaves a huge void in the Colorado Avalanche organization, but it also creates a big hole in the lineup. The injuries that kept the most respected player in the game on the shelf for most of last season coincided with the wretchedness of the Avs’ record and while Colorado will be in tough next year, there is a ray of hope on the horizon.
Matt Duchene, whom the Avs took No. 3 overall at the recent NHL draft, may be just 18 years old, but the Ontario League star has the chops to slide in as the Avs’ No. 2 center behind your new Colorado cornerstone, Paul Stastny. Is this too much to ask of the recently drafted Brampton Battalion pivot? I don’t think so. And the reason is team expectations.
Colorado’s expectations this year will be low. The best-case scenario for the squad is third in the Northwest Division, which in itself wouldn’t even come with a post-season guarantee. A more likely position is last in the Northwest with a lot of lessons learned in the process. This is healthy for Duchene.
Speedy, smart and skilled, Duchene will get along famously with his wingers, at least one of which will come from a talented group including Marek Svatos, Milan Hejduk and Wojtek Wolski. Since one of the dumb criticisms of Duchene by some draft pundits was that he put up points thanks to a great winger in Brampton’s Evgeny Grachev (He gels with talented linemates? The horror!), it’s fair to say the newest Av makes the most of his opportunities.
So here’s what happens: Duchene and friends work up some chemistry, provide the Avs with secondary scoring, but still lose a lot of games 5-3 because the defense and goaltending can’t keep pace with the rest of the West. For the 2009-10 campaign, it’s no biggie. Much like Toronto and rookie defenseman Luke Schenn last season, the Avs have the backhanded luxury of allowing Duchene to log ice time at a pace comfortable for him and make rookie mistakes without fear of ruining the season.
For the inverse, look at Tampa’s handling of Steven Stamkos. The No. 1 pick in 2008 was constricted by original coach Barry Melrose, logging very little ice time and receiving no support from the soon-to-be fired bench boss. As soon as new coach Rick Tocchet got his house in order, Stamkos was off and running and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on a line with Martin St-Louis this year, vibing off their World Championship magic together.
Ironically, Lightning GM Brian Lawton did his franchise right this summer, signing veteran Swedish defenseman Mattias Ohlund as a complementary player for Tampa’s first round prize, No. 2 pick Victor Hedman. As I wrote last month, the towering puck-mover is ready for the big league, assuming he has some guidance from his defense partner. Ohlund is the perfect candidate.
Now, Duchene still has to earn his roster spot; it’s not a given. But assuming the youngster shows his speed and frame are NHL-ready, there’s no reason not to let him spin around the Pepsi Center while the team rebuilds.
After all, with a 1-2 punch of Stastny and Duchene down the middle, at least the future looks bright in Denver.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly throughout the off-season, his column – The Straight Edge – on Fridays, and his prospect feature – The Hot List – on Tuesdays.
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