Everybody knows that Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars have already won the 2014 offseason. Of course, that doesn't mean that the other six teams of Conference III spent the summer sitting on their hands. No. The Central Division is about to get fun.
Which is why we're taking the opportunity this summer to look at the offseason moves and acquisitions of the other Conference III teams. Who's improved, who's trending in the other direction, and what to watch for in the 2014-2015 season. We debuted with the Winnipeg Jets, then looked at the Nashville Predator's summer of stopgap measures. Following that we revealed that the Minnesota Wild are actually pretty good, looked at perennial regular season under-achievers the Chicago Blackhawks, and last week focused on the St. Louis Blues getting even better. The final installment? Yeah. It's on last season's division winners, the Colorado Avalanche. Who saw that coming a year ago? Be honest now.
Many times last season I and other jealous fans predicted that the Colorado Avalanche would crash and burn. Yet they never did, unless you count losing a Game 7 in overtime as crashing and burning, which you shouldn't.
So after not learning that lesson throughout the entirety of last season, I'm gonna go ahead and predict that this year the Colorado Avalanche are going to crash and burn.
I could point to a ridiculously high PDO as the reason for that, except I think PDO is a useless stat. Why? Well, consider the top two teams in that category at even strength last season were the Boston Bruins and Anaheim Ducks, while the bottom two were the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers. I sense a correlation! If we're going to point at Colorado's PDO last season and say they weren't a good team, we would have to point at Buffalo's PDO last season and say they weren't a bad team.
Wouldn't that be fun?
No, Colorado sported such a high PDO last season for one primary reason. That being that all goaltenders are not created equal. Take your bow Semyon Varlamov. A secondary reason would of course be that the Avs sported the second highest even-strength shooting percentage in the league behind the Ducks. Put those together and whaddaya know? (On a side note, you wanna talk about luck, talk about Anaheim. A shot percentage a full percentage point higher than the second team? Pricks.)
Of course, the majority of teams that fared well in both shooting percentage and save percentage turned out to be playoff teams. Ten of the top eleven teams in shooting percentage qualified for the playoffs. The Maple Leafs being the only outlier, but then, we all know about Toronto's "shot quality."
In summary, are good teams lucky? Or are lucky teams good?
The Avalanche were neither. And there are other metrics we can turn to in order to reflect on how not good the Avs really were. 25th in the league in Corsi For %? Ahead of only Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Buffalo, and, you guessed it, Toronto. And if you prefer the more alliterative Fenwick For, they were 27th in the league.
And yet they won the Central Division. Go figure. So I reached out to fellow Conference III blogger and internet personality Anthrax Jones to talk about the main reason for that anomaly, and what to expect this coming season.
Me: If one player deserves credit for the season Colorado had last year, it's Semyon Varlamov. Do you see him repeating his 2013-14 performance?
Anthrax: That's probably asking a bit much. The adjustments that Roy and Francois Allaire made to Varlamov's game aren't likely to be abandoned, so I think Varlamov has the potential to maintain his status as a top 5 goaltender, but teams have had all summer to take aim at his game, and the law of averages makes it unlikely he will post the type of save percentage he posted in 2013-14. An overlooked aspect to the goaltending discussion in Denver is the workload Varlamov will be expected to carry this season in relation to past seasons. People forget what an excellent first half of the season JS Giguere had last season. I'll be very interested to see what a summer spent with Allaire will do for "Rodeo Bear" Reto Berra, who most Avs fans will be watching with their hands covering their eyes and a small crack between their fingers. Allaire was said to covet either Ben Scrivens or Berra as an acquisition last season, believing he could do good work with either. Let's hope he knows what he's doing in this case, because Berra won't be able to hide this season.
There, you have it on authority. The Avalanche will be awful this season.
So what then did they do over the offseason in an attempt to mitigate that? Have they done anything to mitigate that? The general consensus would probably be "no". But let's not just leave it at that. You came here for
snark something to read whilst avoiding work in-depth analysis. So let's at least pretend you've come to the right place.
The Avs were involved in perhaps the biggest Central Division splash of the offseason. But they won't be the ones benefiting from it. They created waves by not re-signing Paul Stastny and then watching him sign with Central Division rivals the St. Louis Blues. I'm not actually too upset about this, since the Blues were already really good. So I'm kind of ambivalent about them getting better. Colorado however, essentially swapped Paul Stastny for Jarome Iginla, who was their biggest acquisition of the summer. This pleases me because, while Jarome Iginla isn't awful, by the end of that three-year, $16 million dollar contract, he probably will be.
Mile High Hockey has a great article about how these moves made a lot of sense. Something about a logjam of top-6 centers (what a tough problem to have) with Stastny, Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly, and the need for a power forward. For a team though whose bread and butter last season was a high-flying multi-faceted offense, shifting to a more traditional top-6/bottom-6 setup could be a significant setback. The essential swap of P.A. Parenteau for Daniel Briere doesn't help with that either...
Well, besides Stastny and Parenteau, there's one notable name absent this year. And while backup goaltenders are sometimes forgotten, it will be interesting to note what the absence of Jean-Sebastien Giguerre does to the stability of that position for Colorado.
Anyone else? Well, I hear Brad Malone signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. Who? Exactly. Moving on.
The Colorado defense is still going to be a weak point. Completing the triumvirate of "late-30's acquisitions", the Avs traded a couple of draft picks to the San Jose Sharks for Brad Stuart. Oh look! Another declining player! It would appear the Avalanche are very keen to get this whole "regression" thing started. To further shore up the defense, they then also signed Zach Redmond and Maxim Noreau and extended Nick Holden. You'll be forgiven for not knowing who any of those guys are, seeing as how their combined NHL experience doesn't total up to a single season.
Anyone else get the feeling "the beleaguered Semyon Varlamov" will be a common theme this year?
One final thing in the "dog days of summer" rumor mill, Kevin Hayes, who featured in our write up of the Blackhawks a couple weeks back, did indeed decline to sign in Chicago. And, along with 28 other teams, the Avalanche are rumored to be interested! For what it's worth, they are mentioned first in this article, and they have a terrible prospect system, so, who knows?
Anyway, Mr. Jones and me continued our conversation about the state of the Avs. My questions, his answers:
1) Paul Stastny left. PA Parenteau left. There was the whole Ryan O'Reilly contract fiasco. How have the offseason moves been viewed in Avalanche land?
With all the grace you'd expect from the fan base of an organization that spent the past 5 years acting like a disinterested spouse who promised "things will be different this time, baby, I swear."
That said, I don't think it's an entirely fair reaction. I don't think there was ever a chance that Paul Stastny was going to re-sign, given that he was bound to be relegated to a third line role behind the Duchene/MacKinnon dragon within two seasons at most, and was it a risk for the Avs to hold on to him at the trade deadline? Of course it was, but it was one of "those seasons", where everything had gone right for the team, and you have to ride that wave out. As far as l'afffaire de la Brierenteau, I'm indifferent. Parenteau looked wonderful in the bastard 2012-13 Frankenseason under Joe Sacco's "system", but he had his struggles in 2013-14 playing under Patrick Roy. Parenteau isn't the best skater, and he struggled to fit into the system Roy implemented. Will Daniel Briere be a better fit? I'll say this: I believe he can be a more versatile player than Parenteau, a guy who can play several roles in a pinch. He's also a hedge against the potential/inevitable Alex Tanguay injury. I have a hunch Briere has some gas left in the tank to burn for a coach who trusts him (unlike Michel Therrien in Montreal, who never liked nor wanted Briere on a roster where he was redundant).
As far as Ryan O'Reilly goes, how much time you got? I was terribly disappointed this became a drama once again, and I recognize the fault on both sides. When it comes right down to it, I expected (and still expect, against all odds) that Ryan O'Reilly's long-term fate in Denver was sealed when the Avalanche let Paul Stastny walk. I think he gets a lengthy deal at the end of his new two-year contract, at a fair value for both sides, because the Avalanche cannot be so stupid (or CAN THEY) to not recognize the value he brings. Very simply, you win Cups (multiple) when you add strong, versatile players like Ryan O'Reilly to elite talents like Matt Duchene and generational talents like Nathan MacKinnon.
2) Tell me why the Avalanche won't regress this season.
The expectation seems to be that Semyon Varlamov is suddenly going to turn into Mikhail Shtalenkov, and that his performance last season was a fluke. While it will definitely be hard to top (or even maintain), this is still a very good goaltender playing on a team who will have a full season under its belt playing under Patrick Roy's system. Paul Stastny leaves a hole, but the expectation is that Nathan MacKinnon is ready to play center full-time, and if the kid isn't ready to handle the responsibility, Ryan O'Reilly slots in there. Jarome Iginla is going to make the sometimes inconsistent power play much more dangerous. There's lots of flexibility and versatility in the lineup, and while the defense isn't loaded with world-beaters, the speed and offensive skill of this team should (theoretically) lighten the load the defense has to carry. The bottom six is stronger with the addition of Jesse Winchester, who should relegate Marc-Andre Cliche to the press box. Winchester is a big body who can skate, and his advanced statistics would indicate he will make the Avs' fourth line much more difficult to control than they were last season. Patrick Roy will not let the confidence of this young team waver. I can easily see Gabriel Landeskog having a legitimate superstar-breakout style season.
Plus, that MacKinnon fella oughta be a little more comfortable now that he isn't a rookie anymore. Maybe be a little improved. We'll see.
3) Tell me why the Avalanche will regress this season.
They were 52-22-8, first place, in the toughest division in hockey. If they don't regress in some way, I won't have enough blood left in the rest of my body to run my brain properly by April.
The Avs' "regression" standings-wise is probably inevitable. As I said before, last season was a dream season in many ways (at least until the end of April), and it's unfair to expect things to sail that smoothly again. Not only did Varlamov post ungodly statistics, not only did the Avs' poor possession numbers and high shooting percentage indicate that they proooooobably shouldn't have finished where they did, but they also enjoyed a relatively injury-free season, aside from Matt Duchene's knee injury in late March. As I consoled Avs fans (and myself) with after the playoffs, this will be the easiest, most enjoyable Avs season we will see for a long, long time. Expectations are now there to be met. I was a Quebec fan long before there was a Colorado Avalanche, and the Sakic-era Nords had a similar type of "breakout" season, 1992-93. Several years in the basement of the Adams Division were wiped away with a 47-27-10 mark, good for 2nd place, and that was followed by a heartbreaking, lesson-learning loss in the playoffs to Montreal. The young Nords went into the 1993-94 season with colossal expectations and laid a colossal egg, dropping to 5th in the newly christened Northeast Division, out of the playoffs. This Avs team has several advantages over that Nords team, but things like this don't always follow the most linear path. Patience will be needed.
4) Who are the unknowns that might become knowns this season? Any young guys set for a breakout? Prospects knocking on the door? In short, who is the Nathan MacKinnon of the Avalanche this season, besides Nathan MacKinnon?
The Avs' prospect cupboard is surprisingly thin, given their high draft positions of the past few seasons. A big part of that, however, is accounted for by the fact that most of the prominent picks they DID have are already in the NHL. A strong training camp from 2011 first-rounder Duncan Siemens could see him push one of the more veteran defensemen into the press box (lookin' at you, Nate Guenin) or put the Avalanche in a position to deal one of their surplus defensemen. Colin Smith is a name to watch as a possible bottom-six energy type player. Zach Redmond was an under-the-radar free agent acquisition who could also challenge for a roster spot on the blue line. The loss of Redmond seemed to really upset all the fans in Winnipeg, or at least all the fans in Winnipeg who were thawed out by July 1st.
There's one name that really stands out to me though, and that name is Joey Hishon. This kid was the Avs' "surprise" first round pick in 2010, selected a good 40 slots higher than many people thought he would be. A smallish forward with lots of skill to spare, Hishon's career was nearly ended before it began after a dirty Brayden McNabb headshot in the 2011 Memorial Cup. Hishon struggled to get back to full strength, a nearly two year journey, before he found himself playing with the Avs' AHL affiliate in Lake Erie. Last year, Hishon got the call up to the Avalanche in a pretty critical spot: game 4 of the series in Minnesota. Hishon acquitted himself well in the playoff environment, didn't seem to be tentative or overwhelmed. He seems like more of a playmaker than a shooter, and if the Avalanche do suffer any injuries to their top 6, Hishon should be the first call up. If he can stay healthy, he will not be out of place. Lots of people are rooting for this kid, after what he went through to continue his career.
5) And lastly, your turn to play seer. Where do the Avs end up in the standings this season?
I'm notoriously terrible at this sort of thing, because I'm completely unable to take off the homer glasses [Ed. note: This is exactly why you were asked to contribute]. I could see them challenging the Blackhawks for the top of the division all season, and I could also see them in the mix for 3rd/4th in the division. A hot start is critical, in my opinion, to keep the momentum and positive vibes from last season going. I don't want to see Patrick Roy decide one day in December that the best way to shake his team from a worrisome slump is to murder a linesman with a hockey stick. Gun-to-my-head, I say the Avalanche finish 3rd, 100-105 point range, and a first round date with the dumpster-divers from St. Louis and their high-profile free agent signing.