The other day head coach Patrick Roy was talking about the Avalanche’s focus in practice and games for the coming year to ESPN. Given the Colorado Avalanche’s propensity for giving up boatloads of shots last year I was hoping he would mention defense. He did not.
We all know that the Avalanche’s offense boasts some of the best players in the league. Between center Nathan MacKinnon’s natural and still developing abilities, center Matt Duchene’s finesse and speed, right wing Jarome Iginla’s shot and scoring touch, captain Gabriel Landeskog’s power forward gifts and left wing Alex Tanguay’s still glossy hands and playmaking abilities the team is ripe with offensive talent.
On top of that I would place defenseman Tyson Barrie in or near the top 10 offensive defenseman in the league and Erik Johnson close behind. It seems natural that the Avalanche would be an offense first team with all that talent, and the players certainly prefer it to former coach Joe Sacco’s old defense first style. However, it may not be what’s right for the team.
You may be wondering how could the system be a bad fit when I will readily admit it’s the natural system for the team, and the highly paid coaches and players seem to like it? The answer lies in breakouts and their effect on shot differential.
One of the main focuses of an offensive minded team is quick zone exits, often by having the weak sided winger leave the zone early to pull the opposing offside D with him. This, in theory, should open up opportunities for odd man rushes and breakaways while also easing the pressure of the forecheck. However it leaves the weak side D open during a turnover in the best case scenario; in the worst case scenario it leaves the entire middle of the ice unguarded.
Now combine MacKinnon’s speed with the fact that he’s shooting out of zone early, and you end up with forwards far out of zone before the Avalanche defenseman can even get his head up to find them. It’s a great system when you have Duncan Keith, (or Tyson Barrie or Erik Johnson), evading a forechecker then hitting long stretch passes out of the D zone to the forwards for odd man rushes. But toss Brad Stuart in the corner with two of his forwards flying zone, and a hard forechecker coming in, and well, we’ve all seen what happens.
This isn’t to say that I think the Avalanche are cherry picking or aren’t committed to defense. But when you preach offense first, guys are going to look for the odd man rushes. And when the forwards are as fast as the Avalanche core you end up with players across the red line before they realize they need to get back in zone.
Here we have Iginla, the right winger, way out of position. Instead of being in the high slot- AKA the giant hole where Orpik is getting a prime scoring opportunity- Iginla (circled below) cheated to the high strong side hoping a pass would be chipped out from Tanguay or center Ryan O’Reilly (or looking at the cool signs in the stands). Even now Iginla’s feet are still pointing up the ice as he’s turning around, a far cry from the start and stop hockey you see from a solid two way team.
Here’s another example I was able to find after watching a bunch of recaps, (the things I do to prove a point). This time it’s Tanguay (circled below) who had started breaking and as result leaves the high slot wide open. It’s especially ugly because the Flames only have 3 players in the picture while the Avalanche have 5. At least Tanguay is giving it the old college try to get back, although it was much to late to prevent the goal.
Note: It looks from the screen shot that the Flames player could be Guenin’s responsibility. However Glencross was coming in from near the blue line — definitely Tanguay’s guy.
So we’ve looked at the theory of things, and even looked at some pictures that had cool art on them, but where does that leave the Avalanche in terms of measurable results?
If the Avalanche are going to be an offense first team and allow the the third most shots per game, they need to compensate with tons of shots of their own, (and a high scoring percentage). However that didn’t happen last year as the Avalanche’s offense was fourth last in the league in shots per game.
The only thing that kept the Avalanche somewhat afloat was a shooting percentage of 8.75%, good for fifth in the league. So while they were converting at a great rate, which is to be expected of such a talented team, they were still struggling to put a meaningful number of shots on net. And their shot differential? Third worst at -5.3 a game.
I save this point for second because I think it’s a function of the breakouts again. Not only are the Avalanche forwards leaving the zone early, which leaves the defense with fewer options, but then when the puck is turned over because Redmond is a journeyman D for a reason, it results in odd man plays in zone. So we miss the opportunity for clean breakouts and end up with good chances against instead.
Yeah, don’t drop pass there.
So What’s the Point?
This brings me to what is roughly my last point: the Avalanche are so talented at forward they don’t need to think offense first to score. If MacKinnon gets the puck at the top of the circle instead of a foot outside the blue line, I still like the odds of his getting a good shot off. Same goes for Duchene, or Landeskog, Tyson Barrie, EJ,
. The Avalanche have so much speed and skill to burn they would win more games playing a New Jersey like trap, allowing a handful of shots a game and waiting to pounce on their opportunities.
Granted the majority of the players had that under Sacco and never bought in, which I think is sad. True, the talent wasn’t nearly as deep then, but who knows what the results could have been like if the players bought in. Two of the best successes last year were coaches going into organizations built for one side of the game and implementing a mindset completely opposite (Peter Laviolette in Nashville and Barry Trotz in Washington.)
I don’t expect the Avalanche to turn into the Devils any time soon — nobody wants that. But I do think it’s time to realize having one of the deepest sets of forwards in the game doesn’t mean the focus should be on offense. These guys can create offense while playing goalie. The focus should be on solid two way hockey and continuing to capitalize on their chances.
I’ll be following the Avalanche’s systems for changes this season. Let your opinion loose down below and make sure to look for my weekly recaps of Avalanche systems and positions!
More from Mile High Sticking
- Could Colorado Avalanche move on from Pavel Francouz next offseason?
- 4 goalies to replace Pavel Francouz if he has to miss time
- Colorado Avalanche make sneaky signing with Tatar
- Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog could return in 2023-24 playoffs
- Colorado Avalanche rookie face-off tournament roster