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Core Values: Avs brimming with youth led by Duchene, MacKinnon

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Matt Duchene is at the center of a young core for the Avalanche to lean on. (USATSI)
Matt Duchene is at the center of a young core for the Avalanche to lean on. (USATSI)

More NHL Offseason: NHL rumors | Rumor mill | Trade Tracker | 2014-15 preseason odds

In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

The Colorado Avalanche stunned the hockey world last year by starting hot and staying hot for much of the season. A year after finishing with the second-worst record in the NHL, the Avs posted the NHL's third-best record in 2013-14 and won the tough Central Division. It was dramatic and at times almost felt too good to be true. The team often seemed to teeter on the brink, but proved doubters wrong by putting together a simply remarkable regular season.

Alas, the Avs' season ended rather unceremoniously in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of divisional foe Minnesota Wild in seven games. Brighter days should be expected, but the offseason the Avalanche just had won't exactly build on the optimism of last season.

Gone is Paul Stastny, who signed within the division, joining the St. Louis Blues. That's a good chunk of experience and production gone from the center position, which is definitely a position of strength for the Avs. In comes future Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla, fresh off a 30-goal season with the Boston Bruins. But beyond Iginla, the Avs didn't address key needs substantially, most notably on defense.

While the offseason wasn't much to write home about, Avalanche fans have plenty of reasons for optimism, all of them being tied to the core group. The Avs have taken being bad and turned all of their high draft picks into key contributors. They're young, they're talented and they're awfully fun to watch.

The big question is whether or not it will lead to wins. Outside of the core, there's less to be excited about and that's where the Avs have some concerns about building off of their spectacular 2013-14 campaign. They'll still have a shot, though.

Core Values: Colorado Avalanche

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): C/W Matt Duchene (23, 5 years), C Nathan MacKinnon (18, 2 years), G Semyon Varlamov (26, 5 years), C/W Ryan O'Reilly (23, 2 years), LW Gabriel Landeskog (21, 7 years)

Total cap hit for 2014-15: $24,396,429^ (35 percent of cap space consumed by five players)

Average age: 22.3

Total point production in 2013-14: 101 goals, 161 assists, 262 points (38 percent of team's total production)

Colorado Avalanche Player Usage Chart via ExtraSkater.com*:

*Circle size represents time on ice, shade of circle represents possession (5v5 Corsi For percentage -- total shot attempts for relative to total shot attempts against). Blue represents CF percentage of 50 or better. Red represents below 50 percent. The darker the shade, the further away from 50 percent.

About the Core

Matt Duchene: Likely due to the fact that the Avalanche were relevant, last season only seemed like a breakout year for Duchene. He did indeed put up a career-best 47 assists and 70 points to lead the team, but it felt like a lot of the hockey world was only just getting to know Duchene. A blindingly speedy center with skill and natural scoring ability, Duchene already has 105 goals in five NHL seasons, with more surely to come. Should Duchene stay healthy, it would seem he has 30-goal potential in him, perhaps as early as next season. He has the ability to take control of any shift and that aforementioned speed is a huge asset in today's transition-heavy NHL. Duchene helped Canada win gold at the Olympics and his star should continue to rise in the Mile High City. In 337 career games, Duchene has 263 points. He has five years remaining on his current contract as well, which should prove awfully fruitful for the Avs. How he was acquired: 2009 NHL Entry Draft, first round, third overall

Nathan MacKinnon is a franchise star in the making. (USATSI)
Nathan MacKinnon is a franchise star in the making. (USATSI)

Nathan MacKinnon: After seeing what MacKinnon did as an 18-year-old last season, the sophomore encore is eagerly anticipated. With 63 points in 82 games, MacKinnon had the most productive rookie campaign since Patrick Kane and Nicklas Backstrom put up 72 and 69 points in 2007-08. That unsurprisingly earned MacKinnon the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league's rookie of the year. He followed that up with a remarkable performance in the playoffs with 10 points in seven games. Now the bar has been raised and in all honesty, if MacKinnon meets his potential as it appears he can, this could be his team in just a few short years (or sooner). With the raised expectations comes pressure. If MacKinnon can handle that, he's going to have a heck of a career. The Avs still have two cheap years of MacKinnon on his entry-level contract before he likely commands a much larger portion of cap space. The most amazing thing about all of what MacKinnon did was the fact that he still won't turn 19 until a month before the 2014-15 season starts. He is a special talent who should have a major impact on this franchise for years to come. How he was acquired: 2013 NHL Entry Draft, first round, first overall

Semyon Varlamov: You look at the Avalanche's record and you sit back and wonder how that quick turnaround was at all possible. The answer has a lot to do with Varlamov playing out of his mind for much of the season. The Russian netminder's .927 save percentage helped him earn a franchise-record 41 wins between the pipes and allowed the team to get by despite dreadful possession numbers. In a lot of years, he would have won the Vezina, but ended up getting beaten out by Tuukka Rask. Oddly enough, Varlamov did finish fourth in Hart Trophy voting. There's no question he was hugely valuable to the team. There will always be that concern about when he falls back to earth. Varlamov has been a career .917 goaltender, which spans 210 appearances. It is very possible he lands somewhere between the .917 of his career and .927 of last season and that's still going to put the Avs in a great position, but it might not be enough this time around to help the team to one of the league's better records. With five years remaining on his contract, Varlamov should be able to get at least a few more good years with the Avs. However, considering that his previous two seasons in Colorado were somewhat forgettable, there's always the chance for a crash landing back to earth. It will always be a question of which Varlamov the Avs have from one season to the next. They need him to be great to stay competitive in the meat grinder that is the Western Conference. How he was acquired: Traded from the Washington Capitals for a first- and second-round pick.

Gabriel Landeskog: The team has clearly had faith in Landeskog from the second they drafted him in 2011. The former second overall pick immediately hopped into a prominent role as a rookie in 2011-12 and put up 52 points en route to a Calder Memorial Trophy nod. The following year, after he became one of the youngest captains in NHL history, he was derailed a bit by a concussion and production slowed, but bounced back in a big way in 2013-14. Landeskog was second on the team while posting a career-best 65 points -- with 26 goals and 39 assists, both career highs. Among forwards, few were seeing tougher assignments than Landeskog, who has some solid two-way capabilities despite the Avalanche's possession woes. It's hard to believe he's just 21 years old, considering he wears the C for the Avalanche and that he has seven years remaining on his contract after his extension kicks in this season. The Avs took a big gamble on going long-term with Landeskog and at least last season he rewarded them with another fantastic year on his old entry-level contract. There are going to be new pressures for the team's leader, especially when it comes to that contract, the longest on the team. But he'll also have to help the team find a way to overcome some of its shortcomings last season despite the great record. How he was acquired: 2011 NHL Entry Draft, first round, second overall

Ryan O'Reilly: Though the summer was wrought with drama between O'Reilly and the Avalanche, it culminated in a two-year deal for the restricted free-agent forward. Having already lost Stastny, the Avs could ill afford to lose O'Reilly. They may have another contract battle in the near future, but for now, the Avs have yet another important piece of their core locked down. It came at a premium price because O'Reilly was coming off a career year with 28 goals and 64 points. He finished third on the team in scoring despite dealing with a lot of strong defensive matchups playing with Duchene. Insanely, O'Reilly took just one minor penalty all season. He earned the Lady Byng, but O'Reilly doesn't really play a soft game. He's obviously not a bruiser either, but O'Reilly is one of those guys that it could be said is difficult to play against. With his ability to play center and wing, it will be interesting to see where he is slotted in the lineup this season given Stastny's departure. O'Reilly closes out the quartet of extremely gifted forwards around which the Avalanche can build for years to come. How he was acquired: 2009 NHL Entry Draft, second round, 33rd overall

Who's next in line

Tyson Barrie has shown promise over parts of three seasons. (USATSI)
Tyson Barrie has shown promise over parts of three seasons. (USATSI)

What's interesting about the Avalanche is that their nucleus is so good. That's why other players like Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson, who played valuable roles on last season's team, fell just outside of consideration. It's not really a knock on Barrie or Johnson, but more a credit to the core that as a group is on an entirely different tier from their teammates.

That said, Barrie in particular has a real chance to be a key player for the Avalanche for years to come. When he got hurt in the playoffs, it really hindered the Avs' chances to win that series against Minnesota. Barrie tends to get some of the more favorable zone starts, but he's able to produce and also posts some of the better possession numbers on the Avalanche. At just 23, he has a few more years to grow into his prime as he continues his professional development.

Barrie is still waiting on a new contract, however, as he is a restricted free agent. There's precious little cap space to get the deal done with the top-four blueliner, but he is an important piece to next season's plans, and likely beyond.

Johnson meanwhile is a former No. 1 overall pick who has been given a bit of a fresh start in Colorado after being traded by the St. Louis Blues. He has been given a lot of responsibility as Colorado's de facto No. 1 defenseman and has two years remaining on his contract. He had a strong season in 2013-14 with 39 points, tying his career high. He also averaged more than 23 minutes per game and drew most of the toughest defensive assignments. At 26 years old, he should still have good years in him even if they fall short of what would be expected from a first-overall defenseman.

The club also has a few other players in the pipeline that could make a longer-term impact on the Avalanche.

The hope is that Joey Hishon, who has dealt with concussion issues for a good chunk of the past four years including missing all of the 2011-12 season, will be healthy enough to get his career back on track. The former 17th overall pick has plenty of offensive upside.

Additionally, the team has to like what it has in prospect Chris Bigras, a talented puck-moving defenseman currently playing for the Owen Sound Attack.

The Avs don't have a very rich prospect pool, however. Most of their young guys of note are already on the NHL roster, some even part of the team's core. It's good to draft immediate help, but the team doesn't have a lot in the farm system to replenish the NHL roster over the next few years.

Overview

The Avalanche have so much talent at the top of their roster. The group of forwards the team can lean heavily on is going to do its level best to carry this team, and it must. The same can be said for Varlamov, who is essentially the club's key to competitiveness in a Central Division that has seen a huge influx of talent.

The problem as it stands right now for the Avs is that the defense is only OK. The addition of veteran Brad Stuart is unlikely to make a huge impact on a corps that did little to prevent the Avs from posting middling possession numbers and allowed nearly 33 shots per game, sixth most in the NHL.

Johnson, Barrie and veteran Jan Hejda will help provide some serviceable defense, but the only blueliner under contract for more than two years is Nick Holden. It'll be interesting to see how this defensive corps is molded over the next few seasons.

Up front, the younger forwards are surrounded by aging vets, like the still-viable Iginla and the in-decline Danny Briere. Alex Tanguay still figures to be a big part of the forward plans for next season after he went down with an injury last season. But that's a trio of players that won't be in it for the long haul in Denver.

Beyond that, the youngest forward outside of the team's core returning from last season is 26-year-old Jamie McGinn, who should play a fairly prominent role after scoring 19 goals last season, often flanking MacKinnon.

With the quartet of young forwards within the core, the team has a great base to build out from, but after having the opportunity to do so this summer, the team didn't exactly hit a home run. There's obviously a lot of time with such talented youth, but finding more pieces to put a championship contender together is probably going to take some time and money.

Right now the Avalanche have about $2.8 million in cap space remaining for next season, according to CapGeek.com. That's without having Barrie signed yet. That suggests the Avs are going to be a cap team this season, but it's hard to see how the 65 percent of cap space not already committed to the core group is well distributed.

The Avs have the pieces to put a competitive team together, but it doesn't look like a championship contender at this point. Not without Varlamov playing even better than he did a season ago.

It seems as though the club is running in place at least in the short term. That puts a lot of pressure on the next few years to start adding more building blocks to make sure this youthful core isn't wasted. There's just too much promise and too much optimism surrounding this team to not do better by the group the Avalanche have been afforded by years of being a pretty bad hockey club.

There's nothing to suggest at this point that Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy won't do that over the course of their tenure with the club, but this summer left a lot to be desired.

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