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Over the Mountain

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Watch out! There's something rolling down the mountains in Denver, threatening to leave wreckage in its wake that will take years to rebuild. Yup, its the Colorado Avalanche, and their freefall through the Western Conference standings this year will make fans everywhere want to take cover.

Granted, Colorado is one of the teams that the new CBA was meant to restrain - the Avalanche have usually boasted a star-studded lineup skillfully assembled by GM Pierre Lacroix. In the wake of this month's free agency losses, however, the 'Lanche will have a tough time living up to their own lofty expectations. Peter Forsberg's departure was perhaps inevitable, if they were to keep Sakic, Blake, and the dynamic duo that represents the core of Colorado's future - Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay. The problem is that those top four players consume $20 million against Colorado's salary cap, a concentration only exceeded by the Toronto Maple Leafs. But even that figure for Toronto includes Owen Nolan's salary, which is disputed between the player and team.

The end result is that the Avalanche could have depth problems unless they are able to snag some quality players on the cheap out of the remaining free agents out there. They did it once when they snagged Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne, so I wouldn't rule the possibility out. But as it stands, Patrice Brisebois is no replacement for Adam Foote, neither on the ice or in that locker room - and that's not a slam on Brisebois, but Foote has been a strong presence on that team since their days in Quebec. And an aging Pierre Turgeon is certainly no replacement for Forsberg. In addition, the salary cap will make the trading-deadline shopping spree a thing of the past; no longer will teams load up with All-Star talent for a playoff run, since buyers and sellers have a cap to consider.

In reality, the toughest thing in store for the Avalanche is an improved Northwest division. Vancouver and Calgary will naturally be tough, but Edmonton also has made some nice improvements, making this a true four-team race (shhh... the Minnesota Wild are still sleeping). It will be a major accomplishment for Colorado to simply secure home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, let alone contend for the top spot in the West. Given the heights at which the Avalanche have typically played for the last ten years, that's a new reality that fans will have to get used to.