2013-14 was a pretty good year for the Colorado Avalanche, all things considered. The team with the “Why not us?” mantra surprised the league by winning the Central Division and posting the third-best record in the entire league.
Sure, the playoffs were a disappointment – they were upset in seven games by the Minnesota Wild – but overall, it was quite the accomplishment for a team that finished as the third-worst in the league the year before and new coach Patrick Roy seems to have something special on his hands in the Mile High City.
Unfortunately for the Avs and their fans alike, they shouldn’t expect the 52-win, 112-point performance they got this season because the Avs are due to take a sizable step backwards.
Before I get into all the less-than-positives, let me cover the things that are worth noting as positives going forward.
First and foremost is the fact that they have a young, talented core. Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Tyson Barrie, Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly, Semyon Varlamov and Erik Johnson are all developing into very, very good players (Stastny is the oldest of the group and isn’t likely to get much better, but he’s still as solid a #2 center as you could ask for). The Avalanche used those high draft picks to give themselves an exciting young talent nucleus that will carry them for many, many years.
Secondly, all the credit in the world to Roy. The team seemed stunted under former coach Joe Sacco and the young talent struggled. There was an apparent feud between Sacco and Duchene. Since Roy has entered the fold, the team looks energized and united. Roy doesn’t try to mold them to his game plan, instead fitting his plans around the talent available and not restricting their style of play. Add in the fact that he’s as impassioned a coach as there is in the league and it’s easy to see why the players got behind his message this season and succeeded.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that the Avalanche achieved their success this season after making minimal changes to a defense that was one of the worst in the league during 2012/13 and without the services of Alex Tanguay and PA Parenteau for the bulk of the year. Tanguay dealt with knee and hip injuries, playing in just 16 games while Parenteau dealt with a knee injury that kept him out of 27 games. Their offense was deep without those two; it’s hard to fathom where they would be with two more talents like that in the lineup helping out all the young offensive firepower. The Avs are deep offensively and this past season showcased that with those two injuries.
All of that said, it’s clear the Avalanche overachieved and likely can’t repeat their performance of last season. There are more than a few reasons for this.
The young core got better, but the Avalanche also got career-years from five skaters: O’Reilly, Landeskog, Duchene, Johnson and Barrie. They’re unlikely to get that kind of effort from that many players again next year, O’Reilly specifically. He’s a very good two-way player, but can you expect much more than 28 goals and 64 points out of him? Duchene certainly seems to have a higher ceiling, but what about Landeskog? If his ceiling isn’t 26 goals, 65 points how much higher can he go? Ditto for Johnson, who has become the Avs’ best defensive-defenseman while enjoying a career-best year offensively. Is it fair to expect him to continue adding to his totals?
Speaking of career-years, the post child for that this year is Varlamov. He only set individual bests for games played (63), wins (41), shots against (2,013), minutes (3,640), save percentage (.927%) and his second-best GAA (2.41). Simply put, Varlamov was outstanding and earned a Vezina Trophy nomination for his troubles. He’s 26-years-old, so this could possibly be him hitting his stride and finally figuring it out, but the fact that he’s never come close to matching this kind of season is certainly something to think about. He can make a lot of doubters eat crow next year by proving he’s stepped into the elite and didn’t simply have an anomaly of a season.
In close to relation to Varly’s performance are the shots-against totals for the Avalanche this year. They allowed 2,681 shots for an average of 32.7 shots per game – 25th in the league. Varlamov led the league in shots against and saves, yet still posted Vezina-quality numbers. He faced more than 200 shots more than “elite” goalies like Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist and faced nearly 300 shots more than fellow Vezina nominee Ben Bishop. Maybe Varly is the type of goalie that thrives when facing more rubber because it allows him to get into a rhythm, but the simple fact is that the more pucks that reach the net, the higher the chances they go in. The Avalanche also led the league in wins when being outshot with a whopping 35 (they had 52 total). It’s hard to know just how valuable Varlamov was to the Avs this year, but those shot numbers are a pretty good indication.
Turns out the Avs were also one of the more fortunate teams in the league this year. Their PDO (save percentage + shooting percentage) was the third-best in the entire league this season, for one. Even more telling is the fact that they had the best winning percentage in the league in one goal games. If that number goes even a little south, it could put them fighting for their playoff lives instead of fighting for division titles. The Avalanche were an astounding 28-4-8 in one goal games, racking up points in 36 of 40 games. On the surface, that seems absolutely incredible and it seems like a stat that’s hard to replicate on a yearly basis unless you’re an elite team and it’s hard to call the Avalanche that after one season. Giving up that many shots and getting that many career-best performances would certainly aid that number and I would expect their record in one goal games to worsen next season.
Another thing worth noting: the Avalanche were the comeback kids. They were ninth in the league when trailing after one period, winning seven games (tied with five other teams). Even more incredible than that is that they were the second-best team in the league when trailing after two periods, winning eight times. Some would argue that this means nothing. “Heart”, they’ll say. And sure, other good teams finished ahead of Colorado (Anaheim, San Jose), but so did non-playoff teams (Islanders, Winnipeg, Vancouver). Still, it’s worth noting that Anaheim and Pittsburgh are the only “elite” teams that have finished in the top ten in this category the last two years.
Perhaps the most telling stat – and this was touched on both leading into and during their series with the Wild – revolves around the Avs’ possession stats. Using Fenwick For Percentage – which measures shots on goal + missed shots for divided by the total Fenwick number for both teams – one can discern how much a team controls the puck. Your average team hovers around 50%; your top-end teams can get near or slightly above 55%. The Avalanche were 27th in the league at 46.8%, better only than Edmonton, Toronto and Buffalo; two of the three teams picking at the top of the draft. Only the Devils, Canucks, Senators and Predators finished in the top 15 in FF% and didn’t make the playoffs. Simply put: the Avalanche spent a lot of time either chasing the puck or having Varlamov stand on his head.
This will all certainly be seen as an indictment against the Avalanche on my part. That I somehow hate them or underestimate them or something like that. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Avs this year. They have a ton of exciting young talent and Varlamov took the Avs on his back for extended stretches. More importantly, hockey feels relevant again in Denver and that can’t be underestimated.
But the simple fact of the matter is that if they continue to chase the puck more than possess it, allow far more shots than they create and depend on their goaltender to bail them out, a slide backwards will happen. They won’t likely be a bottom-three team as they were two years ago, but they absolutely will not be among the league’s elite teams.
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