What happened to the Colorado Avalanche?


The question I get asked the most these days, is “what’s wrong with the Avalanche?” The problem is, there really isn’t a clear or simple answer. However, being the resident super-Avs fan among those who know me, I feel I have been letting people down, when my response to their question is a shrug of the shoulders and a tear sliding down my cheek.

So, what’s wrong with the Avalanche? What happened to the team that won the Central Division, and shocked the world of hockey last season? Is there hope going forward? Open your beaks baby birds, and I’ll feed you.

Let’s start with the premise that the Colorado Avalanche are a fragile team. What I mean by this, is they play a style that can easily be shattered, and historically, they have had core players who have collapsed when facing adversity.

Last season, the Avalanche were top-five in the NHL in scoring goals, and were a respectable middle of the pack team in goals against. However, the big narrative surrounding the Avalanche in the off-season, was how sustainable those numbers would be. This post isn’t meant to be a huge diversion into advanced statistics, but they do need to be discussed briefly, because what those numbers tell us is a big part of the puzzle.

Last year, the Avalanche were the 6th worst team in the league in even strength Corsi. Essentially, this statistic shows the Avalanche were one of the worst teams in the league last year at generating shots toward the net, relative to their opposition. An argument can be made, that this correlates to possession, but I’m more worried about the shots at net.

How does a team that is consistently having more rubber thrown at their net able to still outscore their opposition on most nights? Pretty simple. Your shooters hit twine on a high rate of shots that they do take, and your goaltender is able to post an above average save percentage. The Avalanche had both ingredients to this recipe working in beautiful fashion last season, as evidenced by their PDO (sum of shooting percentage and save percentage) of 101.8, good for third in the NHL.

Many looked at the shot metrics of the Avalanche, and adamantly said that those statistics indicated a regression for the Avalanche this season. I don’t think this mindset is entirely the correct approach, and have an analogy which I believe explains things much better.

Let’s call it the glass house vs. brick house analogy. Last season, the Avalanche advertised their style of play, as placing value on creating an optimal scoring chance over a mediocre shot, and allowing shots from the outside if it meant avoiding giving up a prime scoring opportunity. Playing the way the Avalanche played last season is analogous to building a house of glass. This also circles back to the premise that the Avalanche style of play is fragile.

The reason I liken this to glass-work, is you need high amounts of skill to pull it off. Your scorers need to be elite finishers when they do get good scoring chances. Your passing and offensive-zone control need to be excellent, in order to set up those chances. Your goaltender needs to be top flight in order to keep the biscuit out of your net. In theory, it sounds like a decent formula for success, given the world-class talent the Avalanche have acquired on their roster. Last season, the Avalanche created a stained glass masterpiece.

Utilizing a glass house analogy is a good way to understand the Avalanche brand of hockey. When they are on their game, it’s beautiful. Throw a few stones of adversity their way, and things are primed to shatter.

The reason things worked so well last season, is the Avalanche were fearless. They believed in themselves, and a lot of this belief was instilled by Patrick Roy. Confidence is critical in pulling off a season like the Avalanche had last year, and executing an approach where your scorers are relied on to execute with minimal margin of error. This season, the Avalanche have lost all confidence and belief, which is shattering the glass house approach.

The other method of building a house, is by laying bricks. This is analogous to having a high volume of shots directed at net. It also correlates well with having puck possession. It’s pretty simple, having the puck on your team’s sticks, gives you more opportunities to create scoring chances. Shooting the puck at the other team’s net, gives your team more opportunities for a scoring chance to occur. This isn’t always a flashy approach, but in the long run, it sure takes the pressure off of your scorers and goaltender.

Ideally, you want a team that can do both. A brick house with glass windows if you will. You want the skill guys to be creating works of art with glass, and executing the finer points of the game. But you still want that undercurrent of brick laying within your team.

The Avalanche didn’t address their lack of ability to lay bricks in the off-season, and are now the second worst team in the NHL in Corsi. In fact, many believe the Avalanche objectively got worse over the off-season. This means that they are behind the eight-ball every time they step on the ice. Many will say these shot metrics are evidence of a “bad” hockey team. This might be a fair assessment, but at best, it is a dangerous way for a team with aspirations of being “good” to play hockey.

Having more shots at net means you have more chances to get a shot right and find twine. It means you are inducing more potential lucky events, where a favorable bounce leads to a goal. It means you are putting pressure on the other team, and forcing them to utilize large amounts of mental and physical energy on the defensive end of the ice. The Avs give these advantages to the other team almost every single time they hit the ice.

This is where the psychological fragility of the Avalanche has begun to show its colors. The Avalanche showed everyone, you can be successful without strong shot metrics, but you need a team that is mentally strong in order to do it. You need a “why not us” attitude. You have to be able to overcome the bad bounces, bad breaks, and bad games that will inevitably happen. The Avalanche never really faced adversity last season, which makes it easy to believe in yourself. This season is a different story.

This season, not much has gone right. It is much harder to stick to your guns through times of trouble. But the Avs should know that they are likely to have stretches where the other team is going to have more go right. Statistical evidence supports this. When the other team is directing more shots at your net, they are bound to get lucky more often than you. The Avalanche have not appeared mentally prepared to handle and overcome adversity.

The Avs PDO has regressed to 99.2 this season, which isn’t atrocious, but certainly isn’t the sparkling number they had last season. The big question, that even I don’t have an answer for, is what is the root cause of this regression? My theory is, that it has a lot to do with guys gripping their sticks too tight, and to a lesser extent, luck not going in the favor of the Avalanche. But like I said above, you’re playing with fire when you lose the shot battle. The other team is statistically more likely to be “luckier” when you lose the shot battle.

So, what’s wrong with the Colorado Avalanche this season? In a sentence, they failed to address an issue of puck possession in the off-season that puts a lot of pressure on their top players to execute, and when faced with a bit of adversity, those top players have fallen apart and aren’t executing at the same level they did last season.

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So is there hope going forward, and how do you go about fixing the Avalanche?

There are still a lot of reasons to be hopeful. The Avalanche are still loaded with elite talent at many key positions. Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Erik Johnson, Tyson Barrie, Ryan O’Reilly, and Semyon Varlamov are all young players, who give hope going forward.

What the Avalanche need to do, is address the areas that make them fragile. They need to adjust their systems, and acquire players, particularly on defense, who can better execute those systems. The glass-house approach can be successful, but it isn’t a reliable way to play hockey. They need a few more brick layers on this roster.

Secondly, they need to improve the mental fortitude of this team. Radical inconsistency from season to season is becoming a theme in Colorado. Since Duchene and O’Reilly were drafted, the point totals have oscillated drastically every season, which to me, indicates core players who are able to ride the highs, but can’t persevere through the lows. A hockey team can’t completely derail when they have a couple of bad weeks.

I get that you are more confident when you are winning, and many have said this team just needs to get its confidence back. But to me, this is a problem. If players can’t function, and lose entire seasons, because of a bad stretch of hockey, you need to get those players specific psychological help. It is frustrating, because this team is too talented to tank like this.

For now, Roy and the leaders of this team, need to keep doing what they can to instill belief. They Avalanche have won 6 of the last 30 games they have suited up for (playoffs, preseason, regular season). I know some people will say, hey, those preseason games don’t count. In the context of this team, they absolutely do. A losing culture has crept into this locker room. It’s a shame, because I’ll say it again, there is too much talent in that room to not be a playoff team.

So there you have it. That’s a look at what’s wrong with the Avalanche.