Colorado Avalanche

Avalanche Putting Matt Duchene in Position to Succeed

(Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

There’s been a lot of digital ink spilled over the past couple of years lambasting the Colorado Avalanche. The wheels came off quickly and the fall from grace has been precipitous once they stopped benefitting from a string of fortuitous bounces. It’s been a comedy of errors the last year-plus, making it awfully easy for people to line up and take shots at them (both quite literally and figuratively, in this case).

It doesn’t help that much of it has been self-inflicted, as the guy pulling the strings — and for all intents and purposes the guy doubling as the current face of their franchise — has remained steadfast in his vehement dismissal of not even necessarily analytics, or advanced stats, but what are elementary hockey principles. While it’s understandable that the constant stream of snake oil being peddled in such a condescending manner can be off-putting for some, much of the criticism and backlash honestly comes from a place of disappointment more than anything else.

It’s frustrating to see so much potential and fun, young talent be squandered because of a combination of poor decision making both on the ice with tactical decisions and off of the ice with roster construction. At a time in which there’s perpetual conversations being had about how to increase goal scoring and generally make hockey a more viewer-friendly product for fans, the Avalanche possess the requisite horses to help alleviate some of those concerns. Instead, they’ve been stuck in mud, spinning their wheels, headed nowhere fast until there was a plan and direction in place.

The situation nearly reached DEFCON1 earlier this season when Matt Duchene’s name began to surface in trade rumors. While it may never be known how much merit there ever actually was to those rumors, when the league’s heavy hitters say that someone’s name is being thrown around in trade discussions you listen. Especially for a player as talented as Duchene, regardless of the degree to which he’d been sputtering up until that point. There was roughly a 48-hour period there following the reveal of those rumblings where fans of the 29 other teams were all simultaneously playing Armchair GM trying to figure out what it would take to get Duchene into their lineup.

Since then, Duchene’s quickly put much of that discussion to rest with a barrage of goals unlike anything we’ve ever really seen from him before. For all of his exploits since bursting onto the scene in his teens as a penalty-drawing wizard and dynamic playmaker, something we’d yet to see from Duchene is a 30-goal season. Given that he now has 14 goals in his last 18 games (to go along with nine assists), it looks like he’s well on his way to finally getting there.

The narrative that the rumors lit a fire under him is a convenient story to spin. There’s also the accompanying shooting percentage spike that certainly hasn’t hurt his cause. But beyond all of that, the fact that he’s finally being put into a position to succeed shouldn’t be overlooked.

Sure enough, much of his recent success coincides with Patrick Roy’s decision to not only move him to the wing, but also put all of his eggs into one basket by pairing Duchene with Nathan MacKinnon on the top line. The two of them have, to the surprise of no one, excelled:

Time on Ice Corsi For/60 Corsi Against/60 Corsi %
Duchene + MacKinnon 223.5 57.72 52.35 52.4
Duchene without MacKinnon 191 48.7 63.15 43.5
MacKinnon without Duchene 187.5 48.35 73 39.8

It seems weird considering how long he’s been around, but Duchene still hasn’t celebrated his 25th birthday. As someone who’s enjoyed watching him when he’s on his game over the years, it’s nice to see him being utilized as optimally as possible.

He came up as a pivot and it makes intuitive sense that he’d be a natural there given the space and time with the puck it provides him. The issue is that aside from a run with Paul Stastny back in ’12 (and a less successful, but still notable partnership with Ryan O’Reilly two years ago), the list of people he’s most frequently played with is disheartening.

A late stages version of Milan Hejduk, Jamie McGinn, David Jones, Brandon Yip and TJ Galiardi are amongst the names that have flanked his wings since he came into the league. Even this year, he started out between Jarome Iginla and Blake Comeau. Before now, he’s never really had the luxury of being freed up to attack on the wing while playing with someone who could keep up with his blazing pace.

While the notion that good players playing with other similarly good players will lead to positive outcomes isn’t necessarily a novel one, the general idea behind front-loading the lineup provides an interesting proposition. We’ve seen teams like the Stars, Ducks and Capitals all go power versus power with the opposition banking on the belief that the fringes of their roster will hold the fort long enough for their stars to come through and overwhelm the competition.

It can be an effective strategy if executed prudently. With the catch-22 of course being that your depth needs to hold up under duress, otherwise none of it will really matter. That’s where the marriage of roster construction and in-game tactical decisions comes into play.

For all of Roy’s faults as a coach, his hands are somewhat unfairly tied here based on what he has to work with. Using Emmanuel Perry’s invaluable app that sorts how specific lines have done together, it becomes quickly apparent that beyond that top line, essentially every other combination is being completely caved in whenever they step onto the ice.

Time On Ice Corsi % Scoring Chance %
Tanguay-MacKinnon-Duchene 18.36 60 61.9
Landeskog-Duchene-Soderberg 39.03 59.42 63.64
McLeod-Mitchell-Skille 21.63 53.12 58.82
Grigorenko-MacKinnon-Duchene 31.52 52.83 60
Landeskog-MacKinnon-Duchene 171.69 51.92 56.95
Comeau-Duchene-Iginla 46.89 51.81 56.57
Tanguay-Mitchell-Iginla 16.95 50 28.57
Landeskog-MacKinnon-Skille 15.57 48 57.14
McLeod-Mitchell-Martinsen 17.05 47.37 50
McLeod-Grigorenko-Skille 23.64 46.94 48
Comeau-Soderberg-McLeod 62.49 46.61 44.44
Comeau-Soderberg-Iginla 70.02 46.03 43.75
Martinesen-Grigorenko-Iginla 55.05 45.24 45
McLeod-Street-Skille 15.16 42.42 45.45
Tanguay-MacKinnon-Iginla 56.98 41.07 43.64
McLeod-Grigorenko-Mitchell 19.02 40.91 66.67
Landeskog-MacKinnon-Tanguay 80.1 39.49 40.32
Comeau-Soderberg-Martinsen 25.22 37.84 58.33
Comeau-Grigorenko-Everberg 15.05 37.5 40
Comeau-Soderberg-Everberg 14.39 34.29 36.84
Rantanen-Duchene-Iginla 28.52 33.33 33.33
Tanguay-Grigorenko-Iginla 19 31.25 31.25
Landeskog-Duchene-Skille 20.94 30.56 27.78
Everberg-Wagner-Skille 18.14 26.92 33.33
Rendulic-Soderbereg-Rantanen 19.01 25.81 33.33
Comeau-Soderberg-Mitchell 64.77 24.37 34.21
Everberg-Street-Skille 16.23 23.81 36.36

They simply don’t have enough chess pieces for Roy and his staff to utilize in even a passable manner. That’s a major concern that’s difficult to get around any way you slice it.

Unfortunately for them, their strategy of carelessly throwing money around on poor investments ranging from players on their last legs to players that aren’t as useful as they clearly thought they’d be has come to roost. That issue is only being intensified given the division they play in, and how it’s littered with teams that have been delicately constructed so as to maximize every single active lineup spot possible. Whether it’s the Blackhawks, the Wild, the Predators or the Blues, they all come at you in relentless waves making it next to impossible to hide your weak links.

That leaves the Avalanche in an understandably precarious position. By staggering their stars, they in theory provide a life raft for the other members of the team. The key words there are “in theory” because it didn’t really work out that way when they tried it to start the season.

By now it looks like their best bet may very well be to keep Duchene and MacKinnon together and hope they generate enough damage to at least make the other team recalibrate how they’ll approach defending them. At the very least that duo is channelling some of that aforementioned excitement that they boasted on paper.

In the past couple of weeks we’ve seen Duchene finally being put into a position where his talents can optimally shine through. Now the question is: what do the Colorado Avalanche do about everything else?

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