In the NHL, there is no definite script on how a rebuild will pan out. In the case of the Edmonton Oilers, they are at the point of rebuilding the rebuild, so they are in a state of hockey purgatory that has not been seen in awhile. On the other hand, the Colorado Avalanche have experienced the highs of having a talented youth-laden roster, but have also seen the lows that come with a squad destined for growing pains. After a 2013-14 campaign that cumulated in a playoff spot by finishing first in the Central division and second in the Western Conference, the Avs have since crashed, as they are last in their division, and third to last in the West.
How does a team on top fall so fast? Critics pointed to good luck and an outstanding season by goaltender Semyon Varlamov as the main reasons for their success. So far, the team’s detractors are being proven right. Last season, the Avs were one of the worst teams in terms of analytics, such as Corsi close and Fenwick close, which measures puck possession. Colorado also allowed way too many shots, which made the over-reliance on Varlamov even more glaring. So far this season, Varlamov hasn’t equalled last year’s performance, which is a big factor in the team’s decline. He has been injured this season at times, but his numbers, a .914 save percentage and 2.87 GAA through 19 games, haven’t been ideal. However, young goalie Calvin Pickard showed a lot of potential in his 14 games with the team before being sent back to the AHL.
The offensive drop-off from the team’s top players has to be the most concerning phenomenon. Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon have all performed well below expectations. Duchene in particular is expected to lead this group offensively, and the fact that he is fifth in team scoring is not acceptable. His lethal combination of speed and skill is one of the best in the league, so his struggles this season have been puzzling. O’Reilly has long been the subject of trade rumours during much of his time in Colorado. Contract negotiations have been long and tiring between the two parties, so there has been a lot of speculation as to whether there is a long-term future between O’Reilly and the Avs.
Landeskog is the captain, but isn’t expected to be the offensive leader in the same way as Duchene or even MacKinnon. Instead, Landeskog is at his best when playing a strong two-way game, with a blend of physicality and scoring touch. However, his game hasn’t been up to par so far this season, and that needs to change if the Avs want to win. MacKinnon has been scrutinized so far this season for not morphing into a superstar right off the bat, and although 22 points in 38 games isn’t terrible, when you win the Calder trophy and have skills most can only dream of, the expectations can get out of hand. Not every guy is going to put up Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos like numbers, but considering MacKinnon is only 19, there is no reason to panic.
One area the team could stand to improve is the defence corps. Erik Johnson has improved drastically since Patrick Roy took over as head coach, showing flashes of why the St. Louis Blues took him first overall in 2006. Tyson Barrie was an absolute find in the 2009 draft, where Colorado nabbed him in the third round. He has emerged as a solid offensive defenceman for Colorado and is a big part of this team going forward. However, the rest of the defence corps just doesn’t have the kind of players needed to compete with the better teams. The Avs have decent defence prospects in the pipeline, such as Chris Bigras, Duncan Siemens, and Will Butcher, but none of them are sure things.
Another point of interest is the veteran presence on the Avalanche. While it seems like players are more equipped to take on more responsibility at increasingly younger ages, it’s hard to deny the presence an experienced veteran can bring. Really young teams can lose their way, or struggle without strong veteran presence, as displayed by the Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs at times. The Avalanche have guys like Alex Tanguay, Jarome Iginla, Daniel Briere, and Max Talbot, who have Stanley Cups and Olympic gold medals between the four of them. There is a bit of wonder as to whether or not the Avs miss Paul Stastny, who signed with St. Louis this past summer. A youthful veteran at 29, he fit in well with the younger players, and his steady play down the middle was big for the team.
Looking ahead to the 2015 NHL draft, the Avalanche are currently in a position to pick in the top ten. While the season is far from over, they aren’t looking like a playoff team. Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, and Noah Hanifin appear to be the consensus top three on a lot of draft lists, but there are a lot of really good players ranked variously after them. A defenceman like Oliver Kylington would be a nice fit for a team in need of high-end defencemen, or perhaps a big power forward like Lawson Crouse can be a good fit alongside Duchene or MacKinnon on the wing.
Despite the setbacks so far this year, the Colorado Avalanche are in good position for the future. Their core of young players is enviable, and they have the potential to do great things one day. Rebuilds don’t happen overnight, so patience is needed when the growing pains are evident. The Avs have time to figure this out, so there is no need to push the panic button in Denver just yet.
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