Well, the Avalanche have played three games of the long 82-game season and a few things are noteworthy to this point. A couple of these items are blatantly obvious, others...not so much. I'll hit the highs and lows real quick, to give a snapshot of the Avs at the 3.66% point of the season.
The first item up for your consideration is Paul Stastny. East Coasters (specifically those who voted for Malkin in last year's Calder race) may not have been aware of his built-for-the-new-NHL skill set, but after three games in the dreaded slump-inducing sophomore season, he leads the league in points after a hat trick on opening night, followed by a 5-point explosion against the Pacific juggernaut San Jose Sharks. The gap-toothed wonder has scored his gems in a variety of ways: in-stride entering the offensive zone, down-low on the PP, backdoor give-and-goes, etc. He's also dishing out the assists, especially on Sakic's first goal of the season. He's set a torrid pace for himself, but even if he comes back down to Earth a little, he's still going to put up great numbers this season.
Point #2: Jaroslav Hlinka, or the missing H-link as I like to call him. With Turgeon going down last season the Avs lacked a genuine playmaker for the second or third lines. Not anymore. Super-Scout Milan Hejduk brought this guy to the attention of management after two stellar seasons in Europe. So far, at $600,000, he's a steal. He dishes pucks like Oprah dishes advice. He's unselfish and has some of the prettiest passes I've seen in a while.
Next up? The Duke is back. Adding credence to the suspicion that he played at least a portion of last season on a bum wheel, Hejduk is zipping around the ice, shooting, passing, breaking up plays... He's lighting the lamp and improving the play of everybody around him. He's on the ice in all three situations (even, PK, and PP), which shows tremendous versatility. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict him to finish the season with the highest points among the Avs.
The D has looked better than last year. Sure they let the Stars back in it on opening night, and the PK got lit up in Nashville, but as a whole, the D-corp. is better positionally and seem to be more physical with the addition of Hannan and a healty Leopold. Finger played well against the Sharks and may permanently displace Skrastins with a few more good games like that.
The forwards are another story altogether. According to my source (my wife, who watched the Preds game while I was at pick-up hockey), the 4-goal shellacking from the Preds was a result of the same backdoor play over and over. That means some of the forwards are running around when they should be sticking to their man or playing their spot on the ice. This was in evidence on the last goal of the game against the Sharks. Unless Budaj is expected to spontaneously clone himself (ala James Madrox), there is little-to-no chance he can make a save when a guy is camped out, eating a Snickers bar, on the far side of the crease with nary an Av in shouting distance. The defensive positioning/responsibility of the forward core has to improve or this weak link will be exposed as the season progresses.
Budaj has looked good so far. His positioning is sound, he's shrugged off the loss in Nashville with an excellent game against the Sharks, and contrary to some detractors, I think his rebound control has been pretty good. He had a weird bounce off of the right leg against the Sharks, but if you go back and watch that game, he swallowed up a ton of shots, may of them with heavy traffic in front of him. Budaj appears quick and balanced, not trying to do too much, which means he may have some renewed confidence in the D-corp. in front of him.
Finally, faceoffs HAVE to improve. As a team, the Avs are atrocious. Hopefully, this is a focus in practice during the long layoff between games 3 and 4, but Richardson and his slightly above average faceoff skills can't get healthy quick enough.
I don't want to sound like another "Everything-is-rosy," gushing fanboy, but I like the Avs chances this year. They have issues, but from having watched just about every team so far this season, everybody has things to work on. Overall, a good start to the season against three teams that are expected to be playoff teams this year. I'm looking forward to games 4-82+ with the still-intact, renewed hope of a new season.