For a team that boasts the young offensive talent that they do, the Colorado Avalanche have been surprisingly underwhelming over the past few seasons.
Outside of a strong 2013-14 season that saw the Avalanche finish first in their division, the club has remained a middle-of-the-pack team at best, failing to make the playoffs in five of their last seven campaigns.
However, 2015-16 seemed destined to be a different story.
The club’s trio of young offensive phenoms – Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, and Gabriel Landeskog – looked set to continue building on their potential and finding their true level. Behind them, veteran scorers like Jarome Iginla (who paced the team with 29 goals last season) and Alex Tanguay returned, providing leadership alongside crucial secondary scoring.
Colorado’s offseason looked fairly solid as well. General Manager Joe Sakic brought in centreman Carl Soderberg to shore up the second line, alongside some other potential secondary scoring options in Blake Comeau and Mikhail Grigorenko.
The offensive upgrades have worked well enough, as the Avalanche currently sit eighth in the league in terms of goals-for per game, and are in fact just a few tallies off of the third-place Washington Capitals. The exceptional play of their first line has been a key factor in this, as MacKinnon, Duchene and Landeskog all currently have more than 20 points through the team’s first 24 games.
Former first-overall draft pick MacKinnon leads the way with 24 points – a scoring pace that has him set up to easily surpass his 38 points from last season. MacKinnon’s 85 shots also rank first on the team, as does his average ice-time – he’s the only forward in Colorado currently averaging over 20 minutes per game.
However, even with Colorado’s scorers seemingly doing their job admirably, the club’s overall success has been minimal. With the first quarter of the season in the books, the Avalanche sit dead last in their division, having won only nine games so far.
At the core of their lacklustre 9-14-1 record is the team’s horrid goaltending situation. While the Avalanche brass did a fine job of upgrading the team’s forward corps in the offseason, there were very few changes to the back-end. Veteran Francois Beauchemin was added to the fold to provide some leadership to the team’s young blue-line, but the 35-year-old is hardly a franchise-altering pick-up.
In the crease, Sakic opted to stick with former Washington netminder Semyon Varlamov, after the 27-year-old posted a pair of strong seasons as the team’s unequivocal starter.
It was seemingly a valid choice. Just two seasons ago, Varlamov led the NHL in wins and posted the league’s second-best save percentage as the Avalanche reigned as one of the top clubs all season. Last year, despite the team’s overall struggles, Varlamov still managed to finish in the top 10 in terms of goals-against-average and save-percentage among all netminders who earned starting minutes.
And yet, even as it seemed the former standout would be coming into his prime this season, Varlamov has been nothing short of abysmal.
Through 14 games, he’s managed a save-percentage of only .887 and a goals-against-average of 3.28 – both marks presently standing as the worst of his career. Even worse, both marks rank as the worst among all NHL goaltenders who have played equal or more games this season.
It isn’t just veteran stars that are consistently performing better than Varlamov this season. Newcomers like Canadiens back-up Mike Condon have better numbers, as do seemingly lesser talents like Chad Johnson and Karri Ramo – even after playing either equal or more games.
Varlamov’s own back-up, Reto Berra, has handily outplayed him as well, posting a save-percentage of .923 and a goals-against-average of 2.39, alongside two shutouts.
Neither netminder has been of much use for the Avalanche, however, as Berra’s hot start evaporated into four straight losses that included a combined 13 allowed goals. The slide prompted head coach Patrick Roy to put Varlamov back in the crease, but the results were similarly mediocre, as Varlamov went 2-2 while allowing 11 goals in four games.
While it’s still early in the season, and Varlamov could certainly turn his campaign around like Blue Jackets’ goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky did, the Avalanche may not have time to wait on such a resurgence. And make no mistake, a noted upgrade is needed – Colorado currently ranks third-last in the league in terms of goals-allowed per game.
The key issue that makes their situation a dire one is the absurd strength of their division. The Avalanche currently sit in last place in the Central Division with the following teams above them, in ascending order: the Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, and Dallas Stars.
Besides the Jets, all of these teams have winning records at the moment, and it doesn’t seem likely that any of them slow down any time soon. Colorado could perhaps contend with Winnipeg and Minnesota, but they simply don’t seem to be well-stocked enough to overtake Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis, or Dallas.
Furthermore, the gap between the Avalanche and these top teams is already significant enough that it seems unlikely that Colorado could climb their way up into one of the top spots in the division, seeing as the top four Central clubs have all the tools needed to win on a consistent basis.
The situation wouldn’t be nearly as serious if Colorado were, for example, in the Pacific Division, where the Arizona Coyotes sit in third place while still drawing questions about whether or not they’re a legitimate Western contender. But instead, the Avalanche have Dallas, St. Louis and Chicago to deal with.
Two of those teams account for four of the top five scorers in the league right now (Patrick Kane, Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and John Klingberg), while the other is led by rising superstar Vladimir Tarasenko.
That being the case, it seems subpar goaltending is perhaps the most fatal weakness a Central Division team looking to stage a comeback could have. The Avalanche have been able to earn wins against a few of these division rivals so far this season, but unless their netminding situation improves rapidly, it seems only a matter of time before these previously mentioned scorers start making a bigger mark in divisional games – a shift that could shave crucial points off of Colorado’s comeback effort.
With three quarters of the season left to play, there’s still plenty of time for the Avalanche to right the ship, but a change in goaltending personnel seems to be an immediate need at this point, as the Avalanche simply don’t have time to wait for Varlamov to slowly round into form.