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It’s said that distance gives perspective. As we head into the third week of the Avs’ off-season, it still might be too early to fully assess everything that caused this extremely frustrating campaign. After a magical 112 point finish and Division Championship only a year ago, this drastic crash back to earth obviously had to be caused by something.
More importantly, it’s raised the question: which team is closer to the truth, the high flying 2014 or floundering 2015 version? And what can be done to elevate 2016’s iteration back to relevancy in the tough Western Conference?
When assigning blame and asking for changes, it’s important to question who actually had control over the situation. Sometimes the culprit isn’t who or what it initially appears to be, and simple bad luck did play a significant role in the Avs fall from grace. However, mistakes made by management, coaches, and players all significantly contributed to a flawed final product and disappointing overall result, so it’s unfortunately going to take far more than wishing on a star to ensure the Stanley Cup Playoffs return to Denver in 2016.
As Patrick Roy has stressed in the past few weeks, injuries did play a part in the failure of the team. The Avs suffered 495 man-games lost this season, which equates to over 6 players missing per night.* Even if the 59 man-games by AHL call-ups Street, Rendulic, and Carey are ignored, the Avs lost roughly a full season from Bordeleau, McGinn, Wilson, and Winchester, not to mention most of another split between their #1 goalie (Varlamov), #1 defenseman (Johnson), and #1 forward (MacKinnon).
While injuries are a fact of life in the NHL, it’s extremely difficult to remain competitive when dealing with the 5th highest MGL total in the league since 2009-10. This extensive amount of loss not only removed talent and bottom six scoring from the lineup, but it also meant more minutes and larger roles for mistake-prone players, dragging down the overall effectiveness of their more talented linemates and adding to both the offensive and defensive woes of the team.
Even though it’d be easy to assume this will clear itself up by next year, that may not be the case. In the past six seasons, the Avs own the miserable title of “Most Injured Team in the NHL” with 1885 MGL, or approximately 4 players missing each game. If the TOI impact is calculated, the Avs still finish 5th.
Since it’s next to impossible to pinpoint the cause of this trend, a reasonably healthy roster for next year should not be assumed. 2014 is looking more and more like an outlier in this regard, so it falls to the front office to better prepare the team to deal with these losses.
With that in mind, the first active errors involving the lineup were actually made before the season began. To gear up for 2014-15, Sakic traded for Reto Berra, Danny Briere, and Brad Stuart.
While the intention was clear behind each of these moves at the time – they needed a reliable backup goalie, a forward who could play both Bottom 6 and Top 6 minutes, and a top pairing defenseman on the cheap – none of these players adequately accomplished their roles, actively harmed the team with their substandard play, and represented instances of clear trade over-payment on the part of the Avs’ management.
While Sakic and Co. do deserve some credit for seeing the weaknesses on the roster, their poor talent analysis undermined any gains. Unfortunately, if the Max Talbot for Jordan Caron trade is any indication, this could be an ongoing issue.
To make matters worse, Berra and Stuart were signed to multi-year contract extensions before they even suited up for the team. While the logic behind not wanting to trade a 2nd round pick for a single season of play is understandable, these rash decisions tethered the organization to individuals both more expensive and less skilled than what is commonly available in free agency.
The same can be said for the multi-year 1-way contract extensions to Guenin, Holden, McLeod, and Cliche. Even though none of these deals individually are crippling, they still represent $9.5 million and 6 largely dead-weight roster spots.
With a limited number of contracts available each year and a set salary cap, these extensions severely damaged the team’s ability to place waiver claims, explore trades, comfortably send players down to the AHL if better options came available, and sign meaningful talent to improve the blueline and depth.
In short, the admirable but entirely misguided loyalty shown to these mediocre players has made it very difficult to improve the roster of a team that finished 11th in the West, and due to limited contract turnover this summer, is likely to continue hurting the club into next season.
Finally, the Paul Stastny situation is worth a mention. Even if he was kept in the lineup as a “rental” for the ’14 playoffs, and even if Sakic matched STL’s offer in early July, the fact that a core player was allowed to hit UFA while on the Avalanche roster is still unacceptable. His contract situation should never have been allowed to become so dire.
His former teammates struggled greatly without him early in the season, and even with his playoff performance factored in, losing him for a first round exit and nothing more was an incredibly hard blow to the team.
For any GM – especially an inexperienced one – mistakes are part of the job. Repeating those mistakes is not. Sakic and his advisers dug themselves a hole last year via bad trades and extensions, probably based on the false assumption that their club could keep up a near 112-pt pace year after year. Unfortunately, the red flags raised by advanced stats were justified, regression occurred, and now they have to find a way to move on and repair the damage.
Luckily, the roster has a strong core in place, but the defense, bottom 6 forwards, and call-up ready depth still need to be addressed, plus the O’Reilly situation must be nipped in the bud before becoming another Stastny fiasco. There’s definitely still hope for the future, but if the roster is left as-is or more of the same mistakes are made, Avalanche Nation will be forced to sit through at least one more lost season before that dream is realized.
Perhaps the biggest failure on the ice this season was the Avs’ transition. Even when the defensemen did get possession of the puck (a rare occurrence in its own right), turnovers in the neutral zone often lead to more shots against. To make matters worse, the team struggled to utilize its speed to get goals from the rush, and their inability to consistently gain the zone meant fewer scoring chances overall.
While the front office is partially to blame for creating an older, slower roster and poor decisions made by individual players contributed to the breakdowns, the fact that systems modeled off the Wild’s playoff strategies continued to work so well against the Avs also implies that Roy was slow to adjust. The same could be said for the man-to-man defense, as it took 17 games and a 4-8-5 record for Roy to make the switch to zone.
Another area of concern involved the forwards. Any way it’s sliced, the Avs blueline this year was largely outmatched, especially beyond Barrie and Johnson. To help cover that weakness, the top attackers needed to be impeccable, but instead, they were often caught not supporting their defensemen, breaking out of the zone early, standing still on offense, and passing into each other’s feet, killing all momentum and creating costly turnovers.
The club also combined for the 2nd lowest number of road takeaways despite rarely having the puck, indicating a forecheck that could still use some improvement. Roy the coach can’t be blamed for a bad blueline, but it is his responsibility to strategize around it. Additional focus on details and certain in-game strategies could have milked better results from the Top 9, thereby minimizing the impact of the subpar talent elsewhere on his roster.
And then there’s the power play. For all the Avs’ issues, they still finished 9th in the league in 5-on-5 scoring. They also finished 2nd to last on the man advantage, which dropped them to 22nd overall. Even if the PP had been league average, it would have resulted in 9 extra goals, 18th overall in scoring, and probably a few extra standings points. The lack of movement away from the puck and unwillingness to shoot are areas that should be easy to fix through different systems or increased player confidence next year.
Finally, Roy’s insistence on deploying the roster based on roles rather than pure talent proved to be extremely frustrating. While it’s not an inherently bad strategy, it does begin to break down when injuries and lack of NHL-ready depth means Cody McLeod becomes the best power forward option and is awarded a spot on the power play.
It’s also an issue when a starting-goalie-in-training is left in the AHL while Varlamov struggles with a groin injury and the backup is nailed to the bench, or when offensive defensemen like Elliott and Redmond are scratched/ demoted so lackluster stable blueliners like Stuart and Guenin can get playing time.
As Roy and Sakic continue addressing the depth, this should become less of an issue, but the mismatch between this mentality and the available lineup did represent a severe inefficiency in roster usage this season.
Despite all the other mistakes, at the end of the day, the players are still the only ones with direct control over the results of each game. Sakic and Roy can no longer skate out to score goals or stop pucks for this team, so it was the sloppy play, lack of focus on detail, and disappointing individual performances that ultimately killed the 2014-15 Avalanche.
Although it’s easy to blame the club’s failures on the obvious blunders made by the less-talented depth, due to cap constraints, there will always be individuals of questionable skill on the roster. It’s up to the core to lead by example and cover for them. Yes, certain upgrades are still needed around the lineup, but it was the lack of crisp passing, shooting, positioning, and vision from the top minute-munchers that truly separated the Avs from the elite teams of the league, not who populated their 4th line.
If this core wishes to reach that level, no acquisition is going to magically do it for them; they must each personally commit to refining their games and cleaning up their micro-mistakes to make it happen.
They may need to reevaluate their mental preparedness as well. While bad luck and cold snaps did play a role this year, most of the roster still didn’t seem ready to start the season. Whether they expected the games to be as easy as in ’13-14, the influx of veterans to take the pressure off of them, or were simply ill-prepared out of training camp, the points lost during the first quarter of the season ultimately cost this club the playoffs.
Even as their play improved as the year went on, they never recovered enough to establish a team identity. The speed, swagger, and cohesion that defined last year’s squad never reappeared, so the the Avs New Age began to look a lot like the Avs Old Age – a whole bunch of guys that never transcended into anything more.
Regardless of injuries or management decisions, it’s still the job of the players to define the character and playing style of the team. Despite their efforts, “What is Avalanche Hockey?” remains a question yet to be answered.
More than anything, this year proved to be a learning experience for all involved. The organization still has an incredible amount of potential, so if they ever get it figured out, they’ll be an absolute blast to watch. However, whether or not they have the smarts and dedication to take that next step remains to be seen.
Sakic, Roy, and the bulk of the core are still relatively young, but the clock is ticking. If they don’t start correcting these problems now, in a blink of an eye, aging and the cap could mean it’s too late. Besides, it’s high time the Stanley Cup Playoffs returned to the Mile High City, so hopefully the lessons learned from this forgettable season turn into gains in the near future.
* stats credited to mangameslost.com