Avalanche Look To Build On Last Year's Late Wins

The Colorado Avalanche finished last year as the NHL's hottest team, but it wasn't quite enough to get captain Joe Sakic and company into the playoffs.

But the prevailing notion the day before training camp officially opens is that the team can build on the 15-2-2 finish in the last 19 games and start 2007-08 campaign on the right foot.

"We need to have a good camp and get off to a good start this year," Sakic said. "We finished on a high note and we did some great things in the offseason. This year looks that much better for us."

The 38-year-old Sakic, entering his 19th season in the league, shows no signs of slowing down. The world-class center became the second oldest player in NHL history to score 100 points in a season last year.

But his magnificent year wasn't enough to get the Avs over the hump as they finished ninth in the Western Conference with a 44-31-7 record, just one point behind Calgary for the final playoff spot. It was the first time since the Avalanche relocated from Quebec and changed their name from the Nordiques that the franchise didn't qualify for the playoffs.

It may be a cliche, coach Joel Quenneville said, but getting off to a quick start is paramount for the Avalanche this season.

"We want to make sure the priority is getting off to a big start," Quenneville said. "I think we found last year, we got caught maybe being behind it too late. I talked to the guys last night, and games 1 through 10 are going to be as meaningful as games 72 through 82."

Taking a look just at the numbers, one would think Colorado had a successful year. Just two years ago, Colorado racked up 95 points and finished second in the Northwest Division. They were also the only team in the NHL to have two players in the top-22 in the scoring race.

But last year, 95 points meant a rebuilding effort. With veterans like Rob Blake and Alex Tanguay leaving, the team had to rely on rookie Paul Stastny as well as veterans like Andrew Brunette and Tyler Arnason.

It worked. At least, individually.

Stastny was like the second-coming of his father, Peter, a Hall of Famer, finishing second in the Calder Trophy voting for Rookie of the Year.

Brunette was rejuvenated, scoring a career high 83 points. And Arnason had his best season since 2003-04 with the Chicago Blackhawks.

But to make the move up in the standings, the club addressed two of its weaknesses in the offseason by signing a proven leader in left wing Ryan Smyth and a hard-nosed defenseman in Scott Hannan.

Smyth was known as an Avalanche killer from the days he spent in Edmonton. After being reduced to tears when leaving the Oilers for the New York Islanders at last year's trading deadline, he came to Colorado knowing the Avs were a team on the cusp. A chat with Sakic warmed him to the Mile High City.

"He's my chaperone really. He represents the Avalanche with great pride," Smyth said. "The way they handled themselves down the stretch is unbelievable. If we can get back to that level, it'll be great."

Yet the key will continue to be the man with the "C" on his sweater.

"I'm refreshed, even at my age," Sakic said. "We really learned a lot about ourselves last year. Obviously, this summer, the acquisitions, the start is not going to be a transition. The way we finished off, we're ready to start that way."