The top line of Wolski, Stastny and Stewart was assembled earlier in the month and has been one of the top lines in the entire league. Stewart is the story of that line as he started the season on the 3rd or 4th line before being sent down to Lake Erie. He has kicked it up since being recalled now sitting 4th on the team in scoring (11-14-25). Wolski (15-23-38) is having a breakout season and is turning into the force we have been hoping for when he was drafted in the 1st round of the 2004 draft. After a slow road start, Stastny (9-30-39) has picked it up and is currently the Avs' leading scorer.
Milan Hejduk (15-11-26) has been the same consistent Milan Hejduk we have seen over the past decade. Currently he is sitting 3rd on the team in scoring and still very responsible in his own end. He has been wearing the A all season and has proven to be a leader to the rookies (young and old) on the team.
Speaking of rookies, Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly certainly have not disappointed. Duchene (11-14-25) started the season off slowly but has been on a tear of late moving into 2nd in rookie scoring, only 3 points behind John Tavares. O'Reilly (5-13-18), although not scoring as much recently, has been probably the best defensive forward the Avs have had all season. TJ Galiardi often goes unnoticed when looking at the young forwards but he has also shown a very good defensive awareness as well as some offensive upside.
Lets not forget the role players. Whoever Sacco throws in the lineup to mix it up, they have all known their roles and have done them very well. Matt Hendricks and Chris Durno are in their 1st seasons but are too old to be considered rookies. Cody McLeod has been playing just as he has ever since he first got the call a few years ago. He has been a great replacement for Ian Laperriere. Recently recalled Brandon Yip has fit in well in Sacco's system. Darcy Tucker has made a complete turnaround from his miserable season last year. All of these guys have brought a lot of speed and energy and have worn down opposing forwards.
The top pairing of Scott Hannan and Kyle Quincey has been the best pairing the Avs have put out all season. Hannan has been a totally different defensemen than he was since coming over here. Quincey has brought a nice blend of toughness, speed and offense to the back end and has really made the trading of Smyth forgettable.
Captain Adam Foote may have lost a step but he makes up for that by the leadership he brings to the locker room. He still plays a pretty physical in your face type of game. Other Avs veteran defenseman, John Michael Liles, started the season out very well, especially on the power play, but after suffering his injury he has been a totally different player. He earned himself a benching in last night's game against Ottawa.
The big story on the blue line has been the emergence of the young guys Kyle Cumiskey and rookie Ryan Wilson. We've seen Cumiskey's blazing speed over the past few seasons but this season he is actually getting ice time and is running with it. He is moving the puck out of the zone well but his defensive game could still use some work. Ryan Wilson has been a tremendous surprise. The kid was undrafted and was considered a throw in in the deal that sent Jordan Leopold to Calgary last season. He's been playing a really simple defensive game and is really effective with it. He is the hardest open ice hitter we've seen in awhile and he sits in the top 10 in scoring by rookie defensemen.
This has been the biggest improvement over last season. The signing of Craig Anderson has been the best offseason signing by any team, and at that price, he's been an absolute steal. He's already started more games than he's ever started in any other season. He is a big guy and plays huge in the net. He moves really well and will often snow angel to cover the puck. Andy has been the team's #1 star for the season.
When Andy gets a night off, Peter Budaj has been terrific. He's got a 2.22 GAA and .927 sv%. When called upon, he gives the Avs a chance to win every game. Something that was not the case last season. One thing's for sure, Budaj may not be a very good #1 goalie but as a backup, he's one of the best out there.
Another huge improvement over last season is the coaching staff. Joe Sacco is making a case for the Jack Adams trophy. On paper, the Avs roster looks like a last place club but Sacco gets the most out of all of his players and really pushes a strong game on both sides of the ice by all of his players. He's been key in getting Wolski to the level he's currently at by benching him earlier in the season. Sylvain Lefebvre is a huge upgrade over Jacques Cloutier. Last season's defensemen were basically just shot blocking pylons who did not hit. Lefebvre stepped in and has really let the D play their games, especially Scott Hannan who has been doing what we expected him to do when he came over from San Jose. Steve Konowalchuk has been working really well with the young guys. You can always see him talking to the Duchenes and O'Reillys when they get off the ice telling them what they did good and bad on their shifts. He has made all our young guys better.
These are all the bright spots of the year so far. However, this team still has some gaping holes that it needs to work on if they're going to have any kind of playoff success now or in the future. The biggest area of concern is the play when they have a lead. As we saw in the game against Anaheim, they sat on a 2-0 lead only to lose the game 4-2 in the last 8 minutes of the game. They can't sit on leads. They just don't have the talent or defense to do that. If the team can just play all 60 minutes of the game, we will be much more dominant.
Another tough task coming up tonight against the beat up but still in the hunt Detroit Red Wings. Happy New Years to everyone!