Reassessing the Colorado Avalanche After Hot Start

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon

Oct 12, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Washington Capitals in the second period at Verizon Center. Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With Patrick Roy behind the bench, the young Colorado Avalanche rattled off the NHL’s best start. After winning their first six games, the Avs became the last team to lose when they dropped a home tilt to the Detroit Red Wings on October 17. So how far can this cinderella club go?

As opening night approached, the Avs seemed destined to be bottom dwellers. In my season predictions, I personally picked them to finish dead last in the Central Division. However, Colorado’s youth up front and sudden strength in net have them rubbing elbows with the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues.

Colorado’s offensive potential has been apparent for quite some time. Twenty-two-year-olds Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly flashed star power last season. Captain and 2011-12 Calder winner Gabriel Landeskog looked destined to bounce back after an injury plagued sophomore slump, and veterans P.A. Parenteau and Alex Tanguay figured to be quality options on the wing.

It seemed that if Patrick Roy and general manager Joe Sakic could dig Paul Stastny‘s elite talent out of the snow, the Avs might be able to score quite a bit. Even if they failed to get Stastny back on track, Sakic’s shiny new top pick, Nathan MacKinnon, appeared capable of providing a spark.

Still, no one predicted that this promising group of forwards would get up to speed so quickly. Duchene, Parenteau and MacKinnon are tied for the team points lead with seven in as many games. Meanwhile O’Reilly, Tanguay, Stastny, Landeskog and Jamie McGinn have chipped in enough to give Colorado the ninth ranked offense in the league.

While Tomas “the Teenage Mutant Ninja” Hertl has stolen the spotlight with his wild goal-scoring, MacKinnon has put together a masterful start to his promising career. Though the 18-year-old has only scored once, he has managed at least one point in five of his seven appearances. Though scouts unanimously salivated over his upside, few expected him to excel so quickly. If he keeps dishing out helpers at his current rate, this offense won’t fade away.

However, the offense was never expected to be the weak link on this team. The 2013 Avs surrendered the league’s fourth most goals against, and they didn’t project to be much better this season. Yet somehow, Colorado’s once porous defense has been the NHL’s best in the early going.

The scorching-hot Semyon Varlamov has cut his goals-against average from last season nearly in half and raised his save-percentage from .903 to .950. He surrendered just six goals in his five victories despite facing 36 or more shots on three occasions. When the Russian netminder needed a rest on October 10, backup J.S. Giguere answered the bell with a 39 save shutout in Boston.

There is no question that Colorado’s goal-tending has been the very best in the NHL so far, but it doesn’t look sustainable.

Though Varlamov is as talented as they come, he is notoriously streaky. Over the past two seasons, he mustered a month-long save-percentage of .924 or higher three times. His save-percentage dipped below .900 just as often. His career average sits at .914, and though it is fair to think he can post a higher number this season, no one will end the year at his current .950.

Colorado’s defensive corps also continues to be among the league’s very worst. Headlined by the mediocre at best trio of Jan Hejda, Andre Benoit and Erik Johnson, the Av’s defensive pairings continue to allow an absurd number of shots. The goalies are currently seeing the NHL’s fourth most shots against per game.

Enduring 34.3 attempts per outing, the Avs are actually saddling their goalies with even more work than last season, when the masked-men were tested 31.4 times per game.

Even a prime-aged Patrick Roy would have a hard time lugging a team to the playoffs with that much rubber flying his way. With their current six-man sieve patrolling the defensive zone, the Avs are doomed to drop off.

It will be interesting to see if Sakic tries to chase a defenseman or two in the trade market. He has plenty of offensive assets to shop. Paul Stastny in particular could be moved with his recent play raising his trade value somewhat.

It’s not impossible to sneak into the playoffs with a bad shooting differential. Ottawa, Toronto and Washington all managed to reach the postseason despite being outshot last year. It’s also important to note that Colorado plays in the league’s shallowest division.

Though they are not equipped to battle for the division title with Chicago and St. Louis, the precocious Avs have enough upside to top the middling Wild, Stars and Jets.

The Avs currently have twice as many wins as Minnesota, Dallas and Winnipeg, and each third of that trifecta has its’ fair share of issues. The much improved Avs need only beat two of those three to have a chance at a wild card spot.

They will have to steal some games to do it, but the Avalanche are now a playoff bubble team rather than a draft lottery lock. If Semyon Varlamov can maintain his Vezina-worthy play all season, this team will make the cut. However, don’t be surprised to see Colorado hit the skids at some point and fall out of the race.

 

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Chris Blanchard is a Boston, MA native and a student at Davidson College. He began writing about hockey as a Boston Bruins featured columnist for Bleacher Report in the fall of 2012. He has been covering the NHL for XN Sports since May of 2013.
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