The Colorado Avalanche are an enigma. In the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season they recorded just 39 points en route to finishing last in the Western Conference. The next season they ignored all logic and laws of averages and won the newly-realigned Central Division with 112 points, the third-highest total in all of hockey, all with a rookie head coach. But after losing an epic seven game first round series to the Minnesota Wild, the Avalanche were thrust back to reality and hit the mat hard coming out of the gate this season. Through their first 28 games they had just nine wins and 24 points, reigning Vezina Trophy finalist Semyon Varlamov was in the midst of his second extended injury absence of the young season and struggling when he could find the ice, reigning Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon couldn’t seem to find offensive consistency (he still can’t) and the Avalanche team from the previous year was looking like a giant fluke. The Sasquatch footprints on the team’s jerseys were looking all too appropriate.
And the Avalanche still might be a fluke. But fast forward, and Colorado has clawed their way back over hockey .500 since going on a 6-2-1 run starting Dec. 31. The Avalanche now have a record of 19-17-9 and 47 points, just three points behind the Los Angeles Kings for the final playoff spot and with only the Calgary Flames between them. The Kings won’t be giving that playoff spot away, so it’s still a steep uphill battle to reach the postseason. But Varlamov is back on the ice and has been on fire recently, meaning the Avalanche are very much alive in the race. The question on everyone’s mind remains: how? Specifically, how did this team get to the playoffs last year, and with all of the regression they’ve seen this season, how are they alive to once again crash the postseason party?
The numbers from last season suggest the Avalanche could not expect to be a team with sustainable success. Colorado was sixth-worst in shots allowed per game and fifth-worst in shot differential per game. They were also sixth-worst in 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage, which assesses positive and negative hockey outcomes such as shots, missed shots and blocked shots created and allowed. In short, the team’s defense was laughable, but they were bailed out by a ridiculous season from Varlamov in which he faced the most shots in the league and still won a league-leading 41 games by posting a .927 save percentage and just 2.41 goals allowed per game, even with a daily barrage of shots. Hockey Reference says he was worth 27.45 goals saved above an average goaltender, and he was worth a league-leading 15.5 goalie point shares. Varlamov was far and away the team’s most valuable player and he received a healthy contract extension as a result. All this after having been about league average or worse for parts of the previous four seasons.
But the team’s offense was another surprisingly potent asset. After finishing in the bottom seven in goals per game in each of the previous two years, the Avalanche rocketed up to the fourth-best mark in 2013-14 with 2.99 goals per game. Nathan MacKinnon exploded onto the scene with 24 goals and 63 points, Matt Duchene had a career year with 23 goals and 70 points and Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O’Reilly and Paul Stastny all chipped in with 20+ goals and 60+ points. Factor in breakout defenseman Tyson Barrie’s offensive surge at the end of the season taking him to 13 goals and 38 points and the Avalanche had an offensive unit with deep production. Here’s where the fluke watch comes in: the previous two Avalanche teams had bottom-four shooting percentages, meager marks of 7.70 and 8.06 percent. The 2013-14 Avalanche had the second most mark in the NHL at 10.12 percent. This year’s team is back in the bottom third at 8.84 percent, accented primarily by MacKinnon (10.0 down to 5.9 percent), O’Reilly (13.9 to 7.5) and Landeskog (11.7 to 6.7). Those declines in shooting have taken Colorado from a top five power play unit to one in the bottom four in scoring and the team overall to the bottom eight of the league in goals.
The 2014-15 Avalanche have run into the same problems they did last year, except so far they have not had the luxury of great offense and goaltending (although credit deserves to be given to Calvin Pickard, who filled in during Varlamov’s injury and posted marks of .936 SV percentage, 2.18 GAA, and .727 quality start percentage). The Avalanche remain horrible defensively, posting the second-worst 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage at 43.9 percent. MacKinnon has just 25 points in 45 games and can’t seem to find a rhythm. The team’s two leading scorers are not any of the young budding stars from last year, but instead 37-year-old Jarome Iginla (31 points) and 35-year-old Alex Tanguay (30). The highlight reel goals where MacKinnon and Duchene would dazzle with their deadly wheels on the breakaway have not been present.
But in spite of all this, there is hope. One reason: defenseman Erik Johnson has been great, with 12 goals and 22 points and a team-high 4.7 point shares, contributing equally on offense and defense. Unfortunately, we’ve seen that Johnson can’t carry the team by himself. The real cause for hope is Varlamov’s recent uptick in play. He was not good early on, but over the last five games he seems to have found his form from last year. The streak started with a 54-save shutout of the Chicago Blackhawks. To elaborate, he stopped all 54 shots against one of the top five teams in the league, and on the road no less. His next four performances read: 36/38 in a win, 37/40 in a win, 36/38 in a loss, and 30/32 in a win. Something’s clicking, and his numbers (.922 SV percentage, 2.71 GAA, .545 QS percentage, 7.50 GSAA, and 90 goals allowed percent minus, where 100 is average and lower is better) are starting to creep back closer to the ones he posted last year. He’s still facing way too many shots–last year’s shots against divided by games played had him at about 32 shots faced per game, and this year it’s above 34–but if Varlamov returns to form, apparently the Avalanche can be a playoff team, using last year as evidence.
Great goaltending can get some bad teams into the postseason; that’s bound to happen in a league that invites over half its teams to the playoffs. And so far, the Avalanche have been a pretty bad team. So what we have at this very moment is an Avalanche team playing the same way it did last year on defense and in the net, but with an offense that has regressed to where it had resided in previous years. Last year’s formula was good for a division title; we’re about to find out just how important offense is to this particular team, and see if the overall decline in team production will be small enough to still garner a wild-card spot. What the Colorado Avalanche are capable of is, at the moment, a mystery. And if last year serves as any indicator, it’s going to be one heck of a ride trying to solve it.