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Avalanche head into season with youthful squad

PAT GRAHAM
AP Sports Writer
** FILE ** In this Sept. 18, 2009 file photo St. Louis Blues' Roman Polak (46), of Czech Republic, and Colorado Avalanche's Matt Duchene (9) fight for the puck in the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game in St. Louis. Matt Duchene is trying to fill the skates of Joe Sakic who retired. Duchene is an 18-year-old who was drafted with the third overall pick last June. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)
AP | FR84052 AP

DENVER – Growing up in Canada, Matt Duchene had his room decorated in a Colorado Avalanche motif.

On one wall he had a poster of Joe Sakic. On another, a magazine cutout of Peter Forsberg. Taped above his bunk bed was a poster of Patrick Roy.

He collected signed sweaters from Avalanche players and always imagined himself wearing one down the road.



Never did it dawn on him that he might one day be the next face of the franchise.

With the retirement of Sakic over the summer, Colorado was in the market for another superstar.



Enter Duchene, the quick-skating, super-skilled 18-year-old forward the Avalanche drafted with the third overall pick last June.

Duchene doesn’t think of himself as filling Sakic’s skates. The longtime captain left the game as a huge fan favorite and among the NHL’s career scoring leaders, finishing eighth in points (1,641), 11th in assists (1,016) and 14th in goals (625).

Those are lofty standards.



“I don’t think anyone will ever fill his shoes,” said Duchene, who’s from Haliburton, Ontario. “So I don’t think about that too much.”

For now, he’s just happy to make the roster. Duchene and second-round selection Ryan O’Reilly will open the season with the team as the Avalanche head into the year with a youthful squad. They have 11 players on the team who are 25 or younger.

It’s a sign this might be a rebuilding year for the Avalanche after a season in which they finished last in the Western Conference for the first time since moving to Denver from Quebec in 1995.

“People throw that rebuilding word around, it’s not the word we try to use here,” first-year NHL coach Joe Sacco said. “We’re going to try to get this organization and team back to the level of play that’s expected of it.”

Colorado cleaned house in the wake of a dismal year, firing general manager Francois Giguere and parting ways with coach Tony Granato. The team brought in GM Greg Sherman and Sacco to fix a franchise that won Stanley Cup titles in 1996 and 2001.

“Hopefully we can create a little bit of a buzz,” Sacco said.

That’s where Duchene fits in. He brings instant buzz as the highest draft pick by the franchise since 1991.

Duchene’s game is an awful lot like that of his idol Sakic, whose dazzling play on the ice was one of the reasons – along with Roy and Forsberg – that he became an Avalanche fan.

Naturally, the comparisons to Sakic were inevitable. His teammates, though, are telling him to just tune it out.

“He is going to have to find his own identity and find that role within this team to really excel,” defenseman John-Michael Liles said. “But it’s not a bad guy to be compared to.”

Over the offseason, the Avalanche attempted to shore up their shortcomings in net. They brought in veteran Craig Anderson, who was a backup to Tomas Vokoun last year with the Florida Panthers. Anderson is contending for time in goal with holdover Peter Budaj.

“I’m in a position right now where I’ve earned some ice time and I have an opportunity here to earn a lot of ice time if I play well,” Anderson said. “Peter and I are going to push each other.”

Colorado also traded Ryan Smyth to the Los Angeles Kings in July for defensemen Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing, who’s out until late October after having his right knee scoped.

With Sakic gone, the Avalanche needed a new captain. They didn’t have far to look as they handed over the duties to hard-checking defenseman Adam Foote, who’s hoping years of playing alongside Sakic rubbed off.

“We’re going to take (Sakic’s) professionalism and what we learned off him and keep that alive in this room,” Foote said. “That’s one thing we want to make sure stays here.”

Sakic’s sweater will be retired in the season opener Thursday, raised to the Pepsi Center rafters during a ceremony to honor him.

Duchene can’t wait to take in the entire scene in his first game.

Whether he remains with the team for the entire season remains up in the air.

The Avalanche could still send both Duchene and O’Reilly back to their major junior teams up until the 10th game. After that, it’s highly unlikely.

“We’re trying to make it beyond that barrier,” Duchene said. “We’re trying to help the team get off to a good start. Even if we get sent back, we want to look at ourselves in the mirror and say we did everything we could to help the team win while we were here.”

The two rookies have formed a close bond, sharing a hotel room until more permanent living situations are figured out. They also venture to movies, out to eat and journey over to a nearby mall.

Rarely is Duchene recognized.

“I’m flying under the radar,” Duchene said. “I feel like I’m just a person.”

That might not last, especially if he becomes the face of the franchise.


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