Why Defense and Goaltending Will Have to Carry The Avalanche to Playoffs
The high flying Colorado Avalanche of the past few seasons seem like a distant memory.
Because right now, this team cannot score goals. It has been a problem all season long.
And I don’t know if a quick fix is on the way.
Last season, the Avalanche finished fourth in the NHL with a whopping 308 goals scored. 198 of those goals came during 5 on 5 play, which happened to be fifth in the NHL.
What a difference a year makes.
Night and Day
This year, the Avalanche sit 24th in the NHL in goals scored. That’s disappointing already, but the numbers just get uglier when you look at 5 on 5 production.
They currently sit 29th in the NHL with only 84 5 on 5 goals. The only teams below them are the Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators, and Anaheim Ducks. Not exactly the group of teams you want to surround yourself with.
A dip in scoring was to be expected after losing guys like Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky in free agency. Not having Gabriel Landeskog around at all certainly hasn’t helped matters. But who saw this big of a dip coming?
One man has, quite literally, carried the team at even strength, and that’s Mikko Rantanen. With 27 even strength goals, he sits second in the NHL behind only Jack Hughes. His 19 5 on 5 goals are 10 ahead of the next closest player on the team, Alex Newhook. Rantanen has not gotten much help, though.
Poor Shooting Luck?
Last season, the Avalanche had nine regular skaters shoot over 10% at 5 on 5 play. This year, they only have three. Is it bad luck, regression toward the mean, or just a result of the talent they lost?
It’s probably a little bit of everything, to be honest.
This year, the Avalanche sit second to last in 5 on 5 shooting percentage, at only 6.62%. Last year, they were at 8.94%. That’s not some ridiculously high number, unlike some other teams that have learned the hard way what true regression to the mean is (Hello St. Louis and Minnesota).
Still, it’s a dip. Some guys are shooting a lot worse this year than last, and big names too. Nathan MacKinnon and Valeri Nichushkin have seen significant drops their shooting percentages. One would expect that to turn around eventually, particularly Nichushkin’s (2%!). However, we’re a good chunk of the way through the season, so those numbers probably won’t change too dramatically.
The one thing you can’t do is bring back the talent you lost.
Lost Talent Looms Large
Everyone knew Nazem Kadri was going to be difficult to replace, but I think people underestimated what the loss of Andre Burakovsky would mean.
Evan Rodrigues has been great, and he has replaced a good bit of what Burakovsky did in transition, but he’s not a sniper. He’s a volume shooter, and certainly likes to distribute the puck. As good as he’s been, he isn’t the pure goal scorer Burakovsky is.
In the prior three seasons, Burakovsky was the second leading 5 on 5 goal scorer for the Avalanche, with 47 goals in total. The impact of losing that for nothing has been felt. I know Burakovsky was often criticized for other parts of his game, but there’s no denying that losing his ability to score out of nowhere has been missed.
These guys aren’t coming back. Landeskog (hopefully) will, but until you see him on the ice, you just don’t know what you’re going to get.
Salary cap decisions had to be made this summer, and the Avalanche decided to invest in their defense. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to see what that investment looks like all that often.
Defense and Goaltending From Here on Out
When the Avalanche made the decision to re-sign Nichushkin, Josh Manson, and invest long-term in Artturi Lehkonen, it signaled things were going to be a little different this year.
Sure, they might not score as many goals as they had in prior years (I don’t think they anticipated this big a drop off), but they’d be harder to play against. And for the most part, they’ve defended well. They’re the seventh best team in the league in terms of goals allowed.
That’s not bad at all, and considering what they’ve dealt with, it’s kind of remarkable. Nichushkin has been limited to just 22 games. Manson hasn’t played since early December. Bowen Byram missed a little over three months. And as much as you miss Landeskog offensively, his all-around play is where his true value lies.
Alexandar Georgiev has been a revelation in net. Pavel Francouz has been his usual steady self as a backup. For this team to make the playoffs, they’ll have to continue their strong play.
I’m not sure how much their shooting luck will change over the course of the final 32 games. However, with a Manson return on the horizon, and potential return of the Captain, they should become much harder to play against. And with that, they should become even better defensively.
And that’s what’s going to have to carry them to the playoffs.