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Colorado Avalanche

Erik Johnson will be a restricted free agent after this season. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Erik Johnson will be a restricted free agent after this season. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

One of the early surprises of this young NHL season is the Colorado Avalanche, a rebuilding team written off as a serious playoff contender by most that has found itself jockeying for first overall in the Western Conference.

They've received solid goaltending from their new tandem of Semyon Varlamov and J-S Giguere, their blueline has benefited from the improved performance of Erik Johnson, and the offense has been spread out, with 10 players logging at least one goal through only six games.

Of course, it's still early in the season and this isn't the first time Avalanche fans have seen their team start strong. Last season, the Avs had a record of 20-13-5 at the end of December, but faltered in the second half and finished with the second-worst record in the league.

Still, there is reason for optimism among Avalanche fans, as their club – the second-youngest in the league – is heading in the right direction.

This team is drawing comparisons to the one put together during the last major roster reconstruction in franchise history, which occurred in the early 1990s when they were still known as the Quebec Nordiques. Management at that time also relied on a foundation of young stars obtained through the draft and shrewd trading to build an eventual Cup champion – albeit after they moved to Colorado.

Avalanche GM Greg Sherman has pieced this group together with the third-lowest payroll in the league, $49.2 million, which is barely above the $48.3 million cap minimum.

But Sherman also only has seven players – Paul Stastny, Gabriel Landeskog, Chuck Kobasew, Jan Hejda, Ryan O'Byrne, Varlamov and Giguere,– under contract beyond this season, with a 2012-13 committed payroll of a little more than $20.5 million.

That undoubtedly has Avalanche fans wondering if Sherman will open contract talks with his best free agents during this season, especially Duchene and Johnson, but according to TSN's Bob McKenzie, the Avs GM is content to wait until season's end to begin negotiations.

As McKenzie pointed out, Duchene will be forever linked with New York Islanders center John Tavares, because Tavares went first overall and Duchene third overall in the 2009 draft.

Tavares signed a six-year, $33 million contract extension in September and, depending on the numbers Duchene posts this season, the Avalanche star will seek a comparable deal.

Johnson, meanwhile, will earn $2.6 million against the cap this season and if he can stay healthy and maintain the strong pace he's set early on, that number will double in 2012-13.

The concern for Avalanche fans is that Duchene and Johnson would become tempting targets for offer sheets if they're unsigned by July 1, but judging by the market from this past summer, those fears shouldn’t be overwhelming.

Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos and Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty were notable restricted free agents for a number of weeks. Stamkos and Doughty are bigger stars than Duchene or Johnson and neither of them received offer sheets. Instead, they both ended up re-signing with their teams.

If rival GMs were unwilling to pitch offer sheets to two of the league's top young stars, they’d also likely pass on Duchene and Johnson.

The expiration of the current CBA in September of 2012 will also be a factor, as rival GMs will be wary of tossing around offer sheets without knowing the impact a new NHL-NHLPA agreement will have on their payrolls.

Still, Sherman will have considerable cap space to work with. Even if the ceiling ends up being lowered, it may also mean a rollback in player salaries like the one implemented after the 2004-05 lockout. Sherman shouldn’t have any real issues re-signing his key free agents or replacing the ones who depart.

Better yet, if the Avalanche make the playoffs this season ownership may be motivated to approve a larger payroll investment in the team, which would make Sherman’s job all the more flexible.

The Avalanche won’t be a major player in next summer's UFA pool, but they shouldn't have much trouble retaining their best young players, either.

Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.

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