What has happened to the Colorado Avalanche in this 2014-15 season?
You cannot say that the Avalanche have had it easy by any means, considering both the NHL has studied up on the team since their explosion last season that saw them #1 in the Central, #2 in the West and #3 in the entire NHL. A gutsy rookie that came into the league like he had something to prove, after all, he was taken first in the 2013 entry draft. A captain that seemed to be getting his sensational rookie form back, played like he had nothing to lose and played like a twenty year veteran that had led many clubs into the playoffs before. A young goalie who seemed to have found his game and was playing with the highest of expectations from himself in Semyon Varlamov. Before an injury late in the season, a Steller performance by Matt Duchene had him eyeballing a top 10 finish to his season, if not a top 5. But the Minnesota came to town and shocked the Avalanche with a game 7 overtime win. That led the Avalanche into a rut for the summer offseason, a rut that they just have not dug themselves out of. So what happened between then and now?
Nathan MacKinnon, Calder trophy winner 2014; sensational, amazing, pure-raw talent, next Crosby? Are all words that described the 17 year old before his draft, and MacKinnon did not disappoint, although he did not have the 102 points as a rookie MacKinnon put up 63 and a +20. MacKinnon had the organization feeling good about their pick that saw Aleksander Barkov, and Jonathan Drouin fall 2nd and 3rd behind him. Nathan MacKinnon was fearless as a rookie and let the entire NHL know it, powering through defenses, standing up for teammates and himself, he was exactly what the Avalanche needed. Over the offseason, MacKinnon put on twelve pounds of muscle to help himself against the walls, in the corners and one of one against much bigger defense. Everyone coming into the 2014-15 season has had high expectations for the now 19 year old NHL sophomore, but they all have been disappointed to say the least. This season, MacKinnon has not been scoring as it took Nathan 11 games to get his 1st goal of the season, where he also scored his 2nd, since then MacKinnon has had 3 goals in 16 games and zero goals in his last 9. MacKinnon’s defensive play has been just as brutal and the entire team has been no better. MacKinnon has had only four games this season where he was a +1 or better, 9 that resulted in a -/+ 0 and 13 games that have been a -1 or worse. He has also seemed to be absent on the power play even though 3 of his 5 goals are power play goals, that is all MacKinnon has to show for his scoring along with no game winners. The -10 sophomore does have a positive side with 13 assists this season, which is not bad for any 2nd or 3rd line forward, but we are talking about Nathan MacKinnon here, his own teammate on defense has 17 assists. MacKinnon’s runner up to the Calder, Tyler Johnson, is sitting 5th in the NHL with 20 assists and has confidence that is soaring. So we all know when MacKinnon should be, but this season, he is making one too many passes that lead to turn overs and rather than using his goalie killing shot he is making passes that are not there. His confidence is all but gone and he finds himself unable to stay ready for a defensive outbreak that has lead him to a -1,-2, and -3 in his last 3 games.
Now we cannot let all the blame land on MacKinnon’s shoulders as he is only in his second NHL season. So we will focus on a much larger much more important leader on the Avalanche in the human form of Gabe Landeskog. Now here is a guy that knows the entire aspect of the game, though he is not projected to be the next Crosby, Gretzky or even Peter Forsberg, Landeskog is known for his leadership. Named the youngest captain in the history of the Kitchener Rangers, Gabe was also named the youngest Captain in the history of the NHL, thanks in part to Milan Hejduk stepped down from his responsibilities. To start the 2014-15 season it felt like Landeskog was being paid $5,571,439.00 to sit in the penalty box. Through the first 18 games of the season, Gabe racked up eleven penalties for 22 minutes, not somewhere you want your captain to be. In those 18 games, Landeskog had only 4 goals and 2 assists. It seems that Patrick Roy helped solve that issue by putting him on a line with Nathan MacKinnon and Jarome Iginla though. Since playing with these two guys in the last 9 games, Gabe has only taken one penalty which came in their last game on December 5th against Winnipeg. Landeskog has had 7 assists, 3 goals, though his plus minus was looking great at going +9 in the previous 6 games Gabe has found himself a -4 in the last 3 games with only two points. His confidence and leadership is in full swing form this season, if he and the Avalanche want to get on a roll, it is vital that Gabe finds a rhythm for himself and his young team.
I personally am very bias when it comes to goalie Semyon Varlamov, I love the dude, class act and certainly deserved the Vezina for his stellar play last season. Yet I have come to understand in watching him that it’s the same old same for Varly. The guy has the ability to be a Patrick Roy, Brodeur, Rinne, Crawford, Quick or Price (I know I missed a lot of great goalies) but his ability to not shake off frustration or rust has cost him. Varlamov is a goalie that when his confidence is going, he is straight up the best goalie in the NHL, he has proven that. He has also proven that injuries are an every other year thing and he cannot seem to stay healthy. His ability to bounce back from a back bounce is usually fairly good, but Varly has not been able to adapt to that this season. He lets in a few bad goals (A lot of which can be pinned on the Avalanche terrible defense) and it is a lost goalie in net for the Avalanche this year. The same thing can be said about his back in Reto Berra, who has played less than good since his injury in Ottawa. After a 6-0 blowout by the New York Islanders on November 11th, Varlamov slammed the door on the Rangers and Devils stopping 53 of 58 shots, but then Varlamov would sustain his second groin injury of the season in the 3rd period against the Devils. Since his return in two games the Avalanche have played only twice, once against the Calgary Flames, where they gave up a 3-2 lead with just over 1 minute in the third remaining. None the less, Semyon would only face 25 shots and give up the game winner in overtime. His second game back was an entirely different animal, the Jets had a banged up defense and it looked like a game Colorado could win. A terrible lack defense would leave huge rebounds and uncovered players for Winnipeg to slam home a few goals. One of which Varlamov made an amazing save one, a save that could have changed the mindset of the entire team. This save though under review showed Varlamov’s glove crossed the goal line with the puck in sight, no save but a good goal for Winnipeg. This would certainly destroy any confidence the Avs had built up, Berra would replace Varly after he allowed 5 goals on 30 shots, Reto would make no difference and allow a 6th goal on his 6th shot of the game out of only 7 total. The Avalanche do not seem to have much confidence when Berra is in net lately and Varlamov is off to a poor start since returning from injury, though you cannot expect much more from a goalie who missed 20 days’ worth of practice and 6 games. The Avalanche have three days off before facing Nashville in Colorado, Varlamov will be expected to be playing his best hockey of the season in this game.
The good news for the Avalanche is that they have had one player show up to every game he has played this season. Despite taking and Alex Ovechkin shot to the face, Alex Tanguay has showed up in all 25 games he has played in. He did miss two games with a jaw fracture he sustained from the blocked Ovi shot. Alex Tanguay may not be leading the NHL in goals, assists, points, -/+ or much of anything else, but he is playing like a true leader for the Avalanche. His 9 goals are tied with Matt Duchene for the team lead and his 17 points are tied with Jarome Iginla for 4th on the team. It is not the points that are making Alex stand out though, it is his constant shift in and out working his tail off. He has 1 game winner but also has several shootout goals that have helped to win the games won in the shootout. Tanguay seems to be playing at a level he has not played at in a few years, he looks healthy and is making smart choices. He is the only forward on the top two lines with a + in the plus/minus category for the Avalanche
Rookies are trying to make a name for themselves in the Avalanche AHL affiliate Lake Erie. Colorado has had to call up a lot of players this season because of the injury bug, which I might prefer of the Mumps bug. Call ups, Andrew Agozzino, Tomas Vincour, Michael Sgarbossa, Ben Street, Colin Smith, and Paul Carey have all been called up at the forward position. These six forwards total for 16 games played, 0 goals, 3 assists and a -1. On defense Zach Redmond and Karl Stollery have been the two call ups for the Avalanche having played 19 games total with 3 goals. 5 assists and a plus 8. Combining these call ups gives the Avalanche 8 AHL players with 35 games played, 3 goals, 8 assists and a plus 7, these guys have all played like they want to play in the NHL and have at many times looked far better than the players on the Avalanche season opening roster. Goalies Calvin Pickard and Sami Aittokallio have both been called up for the Avs, Aittokallio was back up to Pickard when both Reto Berra and Semyon Varlamov were injured. Sami has seen no action this year but Pickard was the story of the Avalanche just last week. The 22 year old opened a lot of eyes with 2 comeback wins after Colorado was down 3-1 or 3-0 to end the first period. He would go on to win his first ever game as a starter against the Dallas Stars while also stopping 68 of 75 shots against the Montreal Canadians and Chicago Blackhawks losing 4-3 and 3-2 in both games. The play of the Colorado Avalanche call ups is the only reason the Avs are 9-12-6, they could most certainly be 6-15-6 without those young players.
At this point in the season, every game that is lost, even in overtime, is that much closer to the Avalanche down the drain. A team with no confidence to start the season is a team that has the hardest time winning more than back to back games down the stretch. Colorado has only won back to back games twice this season and have yet to get to a three game winning streak. There are only seven teams worse than the Avs at this point these 8 total teams have a few things in common and it starts with inconsistency and lack of leadership stepping up. The most shocking of late is the Buffalo Sabers who seem to have found a little confidence going 6-4-0 in their last 10. In 13 home games, the Avalanche are just 5 losses away this season from their 11 last season. With 28 home games remaining, the Avalanche are on pace to lose at least 15 games at home. Same can be said of their road record this season, the Avalanche were an identical 26-11-4 on the home and road last season. This season their road record so far is 4-6-4, their nearly identical in the opposite direction this season as the Avs are on pace for what looks to also be around 15 losses on the road. Only two teams have allowed more goals against than Colorado, the NHL’s worst Edmonton Oilers with 90 and the Dallas Stars with 94, Dallas and Colorado are mirror images this season as far as line up, potential, struggle and inconsistent goalies.
The season is 1/3 in the books and the outcome has been sufferable for fellow Avalanche fans. If the Avalanche were the likes of a Canadian team or high profile Philadelphia team, maybe a Red Wing team, people would be calling for Roy and Sakic on a platter. They would want trades or change now, but they are in a much more lax system and that sort of thing does not happen as much in Colorado. That is no excuse for this club though, everyone needs to be held accountable and it starts with the players that are just not playing. Nathan MacKinnon cannot use his youth as an excuse, he has been in the NHL for 109 games not, he should understand how to simplify the game by now. Shooting the puck more and thinking less will produce more than passing the puck away and creating a turnover. Gabe Landeskog is in his 4th NHL season with 226 games under his belt and 144 of them as an NHL captain. He needs to begin to take responsibility for his team and learn a better defensive aspect, is he was in Claude Giroux’s shoes right now, they would want him benched or moved to the 4th line. Semyon Varlamov wants to be that number one guy, he wants to win a cup and be the one everyone looks up to. That has to start with confidence in himself and consistency, last season Varly was the guy that made the huge save that kept them Avs in it and help the Avs comeback to win. This season, he is swiss, a 3.22 GAA and .909 save percentage has been a bust. 34th and 39th in the NHL out of goalies, which means several backups have been better than this Avalanche starter, if he gets hot and the Avs get going that is their only chance for playoff hopes 27 games into the season.
The Colorado defense has been worse than unbelievably horrible this season, the first and second pair has been mediocre, but the third pair no matter who it is has just been awful. Tyson Barrie started the season off pretty gross, his points were low and his -/+ was horrid, but a few good games from Calvin Pickard had the young D on his game. He went from -8 to -/+ 2 and was looking good. Erik Johnson has been hit and miss in many games, though his defensive play has not been a death blow it also has not been a diamond gallery either. Jan Hejda and Nate Guenin have been fairly quiet this season, other than a few bad bounces Hejda has played decent most of the season, yet he has a very quiet -9. Guenin has played 21 games, other than Zach Redmond and Karl Stollery, Guenin has been the best guy on the back end for Colorado, point wise you don’t expect much, but Guenin is a +1 and has only taken 2 penalties all season. Karl Stollery has only played 3 games, but he is making a stand that is hard to scratch him or send him to Lake Erie in his last two games. The night mare has been Nick Holden on offense and defense, in 25 games, Holden played defense he was a -16 and had 4 points. Holden could not stop a beach ball if it was being passed nor could he stopped a turtle on a half break from the blueline. He himself admitted, "I'm kind of embarrassed about how I've been playing defensively," Holden said December 3rd. "'m going to make the best of this opportunity he's giving me at forward." Patrick Roy moved Holden to the wing against the Flames and Jets this week to help the young guy out, hoping to create confidence. Nick Holden got a lucky bounce off his foot when Michael Sgarbossa won a faceoff and Zach Redmond tossed the puck backhanded at the net. That was Holden’s first goal since he scored against Toronto on November 6th, nearly one month. Nick Holden was only played for 8:21 against Calgary, which is the lowest amount of time he has played with Colorado since his first ever, November 1st 2013 against the Dallas Stars where he saw only 4:39.
Even with a healthy Brad Stuart and Ryan Wilson, Colorado’s defense if grossly horrible this season, I am not even sure Adam Foote could fix the mess they are in. If Colorado hits the halfway point in the season and nothing has changed, Coach Roy could look into giving his other young guys their first taste in the NHL. Guys like Duncan Siemens, Gabriel Beaupre, or Cody Corbett, we could also see call ups for guys like Bruno Gervais, Markus Lauridsen, or Maxim Noreau (who Matt Duchene has high praise) these guys could try and prove to the Avalanche that they might be NHL ready. Although their inexperience could prove killer next season. Unless the Avalanche make a block buster trade for a top 2-4 defense, the Avalanche will not make the postseason and will continue a free fall toward last place where they can duke it out with Edmonton for Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. The turnaround in confidence and leadership needed to start a while ago, but more than ever needs to start now.