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The Colorado Avalanche are one of the more unbelievable stories of the season. If the playoffs started today, Colorado (the first wild card spot) would face the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round. That positioning comes after a disastrous 2016-17 campaign. What a difference a year makes, right?
Last season, the Avalanche finished dead last in the NHL, with an embarrassing record of 22-56-4 (48 points). The team scored 166 goals (30th/30) and allowed 278 goals (30th/30).
This year, the Avalanche (in 72 games) are 39-25-8 (86 points) and have scored 231 goals and allowed 209 goals in 72 games. Oh yeah, and they are 6-1-3 in their last 10 games and 4-1-0 in their last five.
As of 8:00 am PST on March 20, 2018, the Western standings look like this
Predators: 106 pts
Jets: 96 pts
Wild: 90 pts
Knights: 97 pts
Sharks: 89 pts
Kings: 86 pts
Avalanche: 86 pts
Ducks: 86 pts
Stars: 84 pts
Blues: 83 pts
Flames: 80 pts
Hockey fans have grown accustomed to the Blackhawks, Wild, Kings, and Flames fighting for the wildcard, but Colorado? What’s even more impressive is fact that the Avalanche retained their General Manager, Joe Sakic; their captain, Gabriel Landeskog; and head coach, Jared Bednar from last season. So what’s changed?
If you ask the team’s MVP and star center, Nathan MacKinnon, he’ll tell you that trading former 2c Matt Duchene is the reason for the culture change that has turned into this unlikely season. While I’m sure that helped the day-to-day attitude in the Avalanche locker room, I suspect something more is at play. This roster has actually been extremely well constructed and I believe they will only get better as their players develop more and they eventually bring in more young talent.
Here’s how the Avalanche have turned their team around:
Elite NHL Forward Talent Being Elite
In this league, you cannot compete if you lack high-end talent. Ask any GM in the league and they will tell you that the draft is the first place to start looking for it. Luckily for Colorado, they’ve found some big-time players in the lottery and, overall, have drafted well.
First their biggest pickup. In 2013, Colorado won the draft lottery and selected one of the best young players in the game, Nathan MacKinnon, with the first overall pick. In 64 games this season, MacKinnon has 38 goals and 51 assists for 89 points. He currently leads the team in goals and points, and is second on the team in assists. He is currently a dark horse MVP candidate and deserves every vote he gets, if not more.
As we’ve seen from several teams, one amazing center cannot be substituted for a great core, but MacKinnon’s linemates have been just as instrumental to the Av’s success.
Gabriel Landeskog (2nd overall pick in 2011) is third on the team in points (56) and goals (24) and is fourth on the team in assists (32).
Mikko Rantanen (10th overall pick in 2015) is second on the team in goals (25), assists (52) and points (77).
Number One Defenseman
A solid top line can win you some games, but defense typically separates the contenders from the pretenders. While a great defensive corps plays a huge factor in making the post-season, there are two different ways to construct one. The first is to be a team like the Anaheim Ducks, where you lack that marquee number one d-man (like a Doughty, Karlsson, Hedman or Burns), but instead have a plethora of number two and three d-men (Fowler, Lindholm, Manson, Montour, for example).
The second is to have a true number one defenseman and build around him. See Ottawa, LA, San Jose, etc.
The Avalanche certainly have a number one defenseman: Tyson Barrie. While Barrie is not the most elite of NHL defensemen, he is quietly having a fantastic season. So far, he has produced 11 goals and 39 assists for 50 points in only 58 games this season. He is also averaging 22:21 minutes of ice time per game.
The Av’s has subtly produced a very deep hockey team. Although their roster is not without flaws, it is much more complete than they are given credit for. There have been three additional reasons (from the last few years) for their current success: free agency, waiver pickups, and under the radar trades.
A. Free Agency
Although the Av’s lost the rights to college free agent defenseman Will Butcher (signed with New Jersey), they turned around and stole one of NJ’s college free agent prospects, Alex Kerfoot.
Kerfoot has scored 15 goals and now has 36 points in 68 games as a rookie. Not bad at all.
Losing Calvin Pickard to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Once thought as one of the worst moves of Joe Sakic’s tenure as a GM, Pickard has already been traded to the Maple Leafs and has only played one NHL game this season, spending the bulk of it in the minors. Meanwhile, Sakic filled the back-up void by signing goaltender Jonathan Bernier. After a successful stint in Anaheim, Bernier earned a one-year deal from Colorado. He has provided steady support, going 18-11-0 in 31 games, compiling a .914 sv percentage, 2.81 GAA, and a .533 quality save percentage.
After having one of the worst seasons of his career in 2016-17 (8 goals, 20 pts, -19 in 77 games), Blake Comeau has returned to form. He is currently 7th on the team in scoring (12 goals, 31 pts, +5 in 69 games) and is averaging 2:41 of ice time short handed (most of Colorado forwards). In the last year of his three year contract with the Avs, he is showing exactly why the Avalanche signed him away from Calgary.
Lastly, the Avalanche took a gamble and signed Nail Yakupov after the Blues chose not to extend him a qualifying offer. While Yakupov’s numbers are not what they were his first few years in Edmonton, they have slightly improved, making him a worthy depth piece. He currently has 9 goals, 7 assists, and 16 points in 55 games. His goal total is the highest it has been in the last 3 years and his PDO (102.7) is the highest of his career.
I personally believe that the NHL’s waiver wire is the most underrated way to pick up useful pieces. Although waiver pickups are not usually flashy (JT Brown to Anaheim for example), sometimes they can yield absolute steals (ex. Malcolm Subban to Vegas).
The Avs have been busy on the waiver wire and have picked up some quality depth pieces.
On January 5, 2017, Matt Nieto was claimed off waivers from San Jose. Struggling with the Sharks, Colorado took him and man, has it paid off. In 2017-18, Nieto has 13 goals, 9 assists, 22 points, +4 in 64 games. He also has a 102.0 corsi and plays 3rd most of all Avs forwards on the penalty kill.
On February 2, 2017, Mark Barberio was acquired by the Avs off waivers from Montreal. At that point, he had managed only 4 assists in 26 games with the Canadiens. However, he regained his top 6 status in Colorado, adding 9 points in 36 games with the Avalanche. This year, he has 13 points in 44 games, also significantly contributing off the scoresheet: +4, 17:12 toi, 49.4 corsi, 100.8 PDO.
On October 3, 2017, Patrick Nemeth was acquired off waivers from the Dallas Stars. Finishing with only 3 assists in 40 games, -4 in 2016-17, Nemeth has provided great defensive value for the Avs. He has 3 goals, 12 assists, 15 points in 58 games and is a remarkable +28. While his 45.0 corsi could use some work, he is also averaging 19:53 in ice time and he has a 106.1 PDO, the highest of his career.
The Avs still have several players from their blockbuster trades of the 2010’s: Erik Johnson, Semyon Varlamov (whose return has immensely helped Colorado this year), and Nikita Zadorov (currently having the best season of his career). But with only Samuel Girard (17 points in 58 games) playing a major role for the Avs out of all their acquisitions in exchange for Matt Duchene, the Avs have had to look elsewhere on their roster for support.
June 25, 2015: Avs trade a 6th rounder for the UFA rights to Carl Soderberg
Boston didn’t want to pay him, so the Avs took a gamble and it sort of paid off. After a terrible 2016-17 (14 points in 80 games), Soderberg has regained his scoring touch. As of today, he has 15 goals, 19 assists, and 34 points and is +1, 101.1 corsi. He also is a key penalty killer on this team. While Soderberg still has a massive cap hit ($4.75 million per season) compared to his overall production (hindsight says Boston probably didn’t lose this swap in that regard), he has heavily factored into the success of this year’s Colorado Avalanche.
March 1, 2017: Avs trade Andreas Martinsen to Montreal for Sven Andrighetto
Andrighetto has been a solid depth acquisition (6 goals, 13 assists, 19 points) this season. Although an eye-popping -19, Andrighetto has provided some solid possession numbers (49.4 corsi). His PDO (96.8) could use some work, but he has certainly been much more productive than Andrea Martinsen and has offensively chipped in a bit this year.
To answer the question of how they turned the corner, the Avs turned top draft picks into super stars and built a quality team out of spare parts.
The Avalanche’s biggest problem is their lack of possession, as only MacKinnon (50.8%) and Rantanen (50.5%) have a corsi rating over 50%. While corsi isn’t the “be all, end all” statistic that some analysts think it is, it is still important. That being said, the young Avs should improve in that category as they develop more in the league.
Still, this marvelous Avalanche season should be appreciated by all hockey fans, as Colorado has been one of the best stories in the NHL this season (especially considering that this has been a season comprised of special moments). I hope they stay in the wild card. It would be fun to watch MacKinnon play against the Knights in the first round.
*stats from NHL.com and Hockey-reference.com
*cap information from capfriendly.com