Avalanche seeking return to playoffs

After a promising inaugural campaign under coach Joe Sacco that saw the Avalanche improve by 26 points and reach the playoffs, Colorado suffered an even more dramatic turnaround in the wrong direction last year. The Avs amassed 27 fewer points and finished 14th in the West.

This year, Colorado will find out which season was the aberration. Was last year just a bump on the road to rebuilding the once-proud franchise? Or was the success of Sacco’s first season a fluke not to be repeated any time soon?

2010-11 record: 30-44-8, 68 points (4th Northwest Division; 14th Western Conference; did not qualify for the playoffs)

Key additions: G Semyon Varlamov (trade with Washington); D Jan Hejda (free agent); F Chuck Kobasew (free agent); D Shane O’Brien (free agent); F Patrick Rismiller (free agent); F Joakim Lindstrom (free agent); G Jean-Sebastien Giguere (free agent); G Cedrick Desjardins (free agent); F Evan Brophey (free agent)

Key losses: D John-Michael Liles (traded to Toronto); F Tomas Fleischmann (signed with Florida); D Adam Foote (retired); G Peter Budaj (signed with Montreal); G Brian Elliott (signed with St. Louis); F David Koci (free agent); D Shawn Belle (free agent); F Philippe Dupuis (signed with Toronto)

Burning question: How will the new goalie tandem fare?

The biggest change in Colorado this season will be in net, where the Avalanche paid a hefty price to acquire Varlamov and also signed veteran Giguere. Colorado needed a change after finishing dead last in the NHL last year with a team goals-against average of 3.45. Gone is Elliott, who was acquired for Craig Anderson in a swap of struggling netminders and didn’t improve with the change of scenery, finishing 44th in the league with a 3.44 GAA to go with a 15-27-9 record and an .893 save percentage. Budaj, who wasn’t much better at 15-21-4, with a 3.20 GAA (42nd in NHL) and .895 save percentage, also departed.

Those numbers might explain the Avalanche’s willingness to give up a first-round pick and a conditional second for Varlamov, a seeming overpayment for a netminder who had solid numbers (11-9-5, 2.23 GAA, .924 save percentage), but had been passed on the depth chart in Washington by Michal Neuvirth. Varlamov will have a chance to establish himself as a No. 1 in Colorado, with Giguere providing support and possibly some competition for playing time. Giguere won a Conn Smythe in 2003 and a Cup in 2007 with Anaheim, but last year was unseated by rookie James Reimer in Toronto. Giguere was just 11-11-4 with a 2.87 GAA and .900 save percentage with the Leafs.

2011-12 outlook: The Avalanche have to show which team they really are: The promising assemblage of young talent that looked like a club on the rise two years ago or the disappointing squad that plummeted to the Western Conference basement last season. Colorado does have some solid pieces to build around, especially up front with Matt Duchene (27-40-67 totals last year) and Paul Stastny (22-35-57). They’ll likely be joined this year by Gabriel Landeskog, the second overall pick in the draft.

The Avs are also hoping that Peter Mueller will be able to return after missing all of last season with a concussion suffered during the preseason. On the blue line, Erik Johnson leads the way after coming over from St. Louis in a blockbuster deal last year. The Avs also added some size and veteran presence to the defense with the signings of Hejda and O’Brien, though they’ll miss the leadership of Adam Foote, who retired after last season.

Did you know? After never picking in the top 10 during their first 13 years in Denver thanks to their sustained run of playoff success, the Avalanche have had top-three picks twice in the last three years. Duchene was taken third overall in 2009, and after dropping back to the middle of the first round in 2010, Colorado had the second pick this June and selected Swede Gabriel Landeskog.