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Avalanche itching for change

Paul Stastny has had declining point totals since 2009-10 and currently has 20 points in 33 games.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

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Paul Stastny has had declining point totals since 2009-10 and currently has 20 points in 33 games. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Colorado Avalanche goalie J-S Giguere's public criticism of several teammates for putting more focus on their season-ending trip to Las Vegas than their on-ice performance capped what's been a horrible season for the club.

Despite possessing young stars such as Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly, Erik Johnson, Semyon Varlamov and 2012 Calder Trophy winner Gabriel Landeskog, the Avalanche sit at the bottom of the Western Conference standings, 12 points out of playoff contention with only seven games remaining on their schedule.

Barring a miracle, Colorado will miss the Stanley Cup playoffs for the fifth time in seven seasons.

Injuries to key players were part of the problem. Landeskog and Johnson each missed 11 games with head injuries. Center Paul Stastny was sidelined eight games with a foot injury. In January, rugged winger Steve Downie underwent season-ending knee surgery.

Another factor was O'Reilly's well-publicized contract dispute with management. He missed half the season to a holdout which was only resolved when the Avs matched the two-year offer sheet he signed with the Calgary Flames.

With the Avalanche struggling on the ice and at the gate, GM Greg Sherman and coach Joe Sacco have borne the brunt of the blame. There's even a Facebook page calling for the pair to be fired.

Patience, however, remains the club's watchword, prompting Adrian Dater of the Denver Post to suggest Sherman and Sacco could return next season.

ESPN's Pierre McGuire believes the root of the Avalanche's problem isn't Sacco's coaching, but a lack of defensive depth. They are currently 26th in goals-against per game (3.07), 23rd in shots-against per game (31.5) and 20th on the penalty kill (80.5%). Sherman has little choice but to address this problem.

Forwards Milan Hejduk, Chuck Kobasew and Aaron Palushaj are their only notable free agents. Hejduk is expected to retire, whereas Kobasew ($1.2 million) and Palushaj ($600,000) could be easily re-signed or replaced.

With more than $56 million invested in 22 players and the salary cap dropping to $64.3 million next season, Sherman won't have much room to pursue expensive free agent talent. Still, he could target potential free agent defensemen Ron Hainsey, Robyn Regehr and Rob Scuderi.

The Avalanche will have a high pick in this year's entry draft, which could be used to select Portland Winterhawks defenseman Seth Jones. Though he'd be a welcome addition, it'll take more than a promising 18-year-old to resolve the Avalanche's defensive issues.

The other option, of course, is the trade market.

Prior to the trade deadline, Sherman (along with several GMs) was thought to have expressed interest in Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle, but the asking price was reportedly two impact forwards, including a first line center.

In the wake of the O'Reilly signing, it was suggested Sherman either shop Stastny or Duchene, or find better wingers for them.

Stastny has long been a fixture in the trade rumor mill, which usually links him to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Sherman could offer up Stastny in a package with another forward for Yandle, but the Coyotes would balk at his declining production and $6.6 million salary for next season. Their preference would be Duchene or O'Reilly, though the latter cannot be dealt until one calendar year from the date (Feb. 28) the Avalanche matched his offer sheet.

The Avalanche, of course, won't be the only club seeking defensive depth this summer. Philadelphia, Edmonton, Florida, Calgary, and Tampa Bay will certainly be in the hunt.

Sherman could return as Avalanche GM next season, but the moves he makes this summer will determine how long he'll remains in that role.

Rumor Roundup appears weekdays 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 The Guardian (P.E.I.).

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