The Colorado Avalanche got torched by the St. Louis Blues Sunday night by a score of 5-1. The loss effectively ended Colorado’s playoff hopes, as they’d need to win every game remaining on the schedule and have the Minnesota Wild lose every game remaining on theirs in order to qualify for the postseason.
This marks the second season in a row that the Avalanche will be missing out on playoff hockey, after making a surprise run to the top of the Central Division in 2013-14. That season was head coach Patrick Roy’s first behind the bench in Colorado, and one that was considered a monumental success; after all, the Avalanche had finished in 29th place the year before.
Despite their regular season success, the Avalanche were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs in the first round, falling to the Minnesota Wild in seven games. With a young core and star netminder, some expected the Avalanche to come back next season ready to dominate the Central Division yet again.
Others, on the other hand, took one look at the team’s puck possession numbers, and arrived at the easy and obvious conclusion that the 2013-14 had been nothing but a fluke — a statistical outlier where the Avalanche only found success by getting every bounce imaginable to go their way.
They had a 46.6 percent Corsi For percentage, the 26th total in the league, and were taken to the woodshed on a nightly basis; very rarely did the Avalanche manage to control play, and often, they were forced to rely on their goaltender in order to win hockey games.
Relying on a goaltender can work in a team’s favor, if that goaltender goes on to post a 0.927 save percentage in all situations. Semyon Varlamov stood on his head night in and night out, and essentially carried his team, kicking and screaming, into the postseason. For Varlamov, it was a career year, as the then 26-year-old played in a career high 63 games and posted a career high 0.927 save percentage.
There should be an added emphasis on the words “career year”.
Players typically peak from ages 23-27, and Varlamov was right at the tail end of that range in 2013-14. Varlmamov’s career save percentage up to the 2013-14 season was only a measly 0.912; it’s not as though he had a history of being elite. Given all of these factors, it was more likely than not that Varlamov wouldn’t be able to sustain his exceptional play.
During the offseason, however, the Avalanche doubled down on their net minder, and even went so far as to reject many widely accepted modern hockey statistics.
The 2014-15 season went as predicted by the numbers, with Colorado falling to 20th overall in the league standings. Their possession numbers got worse, with their 43.5 percent Corsi For percentage being the second lowest in the league, better than only the Buffalo Sabres, who literally were trying to be the worst team in the NHL.
Despite this, there was still a belief in Colorado’s front office, however, that they were legitimate playoff contenders. They added several players over the offseason, with Blake Comeau, Carl Soderberg, Jack Skille, and Mikhail Grigorenko coming to the team via free agency or trades.
They also traded away Ryan O’Reilly, one of their best puck possession players, because it was believed that O’Reilly didn’t fit in Colorado’s future plans. His contract demands were too high, and besides, general manager Joe Sakic viewed Carl Soderberg as a solid replacement for O’Reilly.
The O’Reilly trade is one move out of many that have put the Colorado Avalanche in the position they’re today. Ever since Joe Sakic and Roy took over hockey operations back in 2013, they’ve managed to rid themselves of key puck possession players almost every offseason.
After the 2013-14 season, they let Paul Stastny walk, and the veteran center signed with the St. Louis Blues. They traded a useful P.A Parenteau for Daniel Briere, who was one year from retirement and nowhere near the player he once was. They signed Jarome Iginla to a three-year contract, despite evidence suggesting that the veteran was no longer capable of controlling play. They traded for 34-year-old pylon Brad Stuart, then signed him to a two-year extension before he had played a single game.
In the summer of 2015, they traded Ryan O’Reilly to the Buffalo Sabres, getting a number of good prospects in return, but no true NHL roster players. They signed 34-year-old Francois Beauchemin to a three year contract, despite declining puck possession numbers.
These are just the big moves; the Avalanche have also insisted on playing Cody McLeod, John Mitchell, Jack Skille, and Andreas Martinsen in their bottom six, despite the fact that all four are fringe NHL skaters at best.
All of these moves could have been easily avoided through the use of puck possession metrics. They’ve led to the Avalanche being the NHL’s worst puck possession team this season, with dismal 5-on-5 performance being propped up by a good goalie, and good special teams.
Insanely enough, and despite the fact that the front office has carved apart what could’ve been a good possession roster, the Avalanche still have a solid enough group of players to be making the postseason.
Matt Duchene, Nathan Mackinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog are all elite NHL forwards, while Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson give the team an excellent first pairing. With Varlamov providing above-average goaltending, the Avalanche had the potential to grab the second Wild Card spot in the Western Conference, especially given how terrible the bottom of the Pacific Division is this season.
This is where coaching comes in. As a coach, your job is to get the best possible results out of the players that you are given. This means devising on-ice systems that maximize player talents, motivating players to put in the work needed on and off the ice to play to their full potential, and other things. The job of an NHL coach is not easy, but they are supposed to be the best of the best.
Patrick Roy has shown that he doesn’t belong in the NHL, at least not right now.
The Colorado Avalanche clearly do not live up to their potential, and a very large reason why is the abysmal nature of their on-ice systems. Roy may be an excellent motivator, capable of getting 110 percent out of his players, but the way the Colorado Avalanche play the sport of hockey is painful to watch.
Their defensive zone coverage is a joke. Forwards and defenders alike can be seen skating around the zone, completely oblivious to the opponent that is about to score on them.
Example 1: Dwight King sneaks behind everyone.
The Kings are in the middle of a line change. One forechecker gets the puck, beating out four defenders. Then, those defenders completely ignore the new players coming onto the ice. Dwight King gets wide open in the slot, despite the fact that the Avalanche outnumber the Kings down low.
Example 2: Jason Chimera gets open for a tip.
When the Capitals enter the zone, the initial shot is deflected, and the puck caroms around the boards. For some insane reason, all five Avalanche skaters are below the faceoff circles. Four are below the dots. The points are so wide open, the eventual shooter has enough time to make himself a cup of tea before making a slap pass to teammate.
Then, three Avalanche skaters manage to bunch up next to each other, with none of them covering Chimera, the goal-scorer.
Example 3: Jordan Schroeder doesn’t need to be covered, I guess?
A nice stretch pass opens up the defense, but four skaters get back. The situation becomes a 4-on-3, which should be easy to shut down.
Then Nick Holden and Erik Johnson decide to charge the puck carrier, despite him being at a terrible shooting angle, and Mikhail Grigorenko and Andreas Martinsen decide to cover the same player, who is at the top of the slot.
The most dangerous opponent in the entire play is Jordan Schroder, who goes to the net entirely unimpeded, and scores.
In their own end, the Avalanche run around like headless chickens. Players are focused on protecting the slot, so forwards swing down into the faceoff circles, only to have swing back up to the blue line to cover the point. Defenders get lost in coverage, and are totally unaware of who they’re supposed to be covering at times. The forwards are swinging all over the place, wasting energy, and getting in the way of the defensemen, who are already struggling to get in the right position anyways.
It’s mass chaos on a play that really shouldn’t be difficult to figure out.
Then there’s the breakout. In order to transition from offense to defense, NHL teams have to be able to break the puck out of their own zone.
The Colorado Avalanche utterly fail to do so at times, and it costs them dearly.
Example 1: If only secondary assists could be awarded for goals scored against your team…
The Avalanche have a 5-on-3 down low in the zone. There’s plenty of open space in the corner (which is where the puck gets dumped), and if one of Nick Holden or Cody McLeod goes to that open space, then the Avalanche might be able to control the puck and break it out of the zone. Instead, McLeod goes up to cover the point, and Holden focuses on covering the guy that gets the puck instead of going and getting the puck himself.
Despite being so focused on defense, both Avalanche skaters fail to cover their opponents, and McLeod’s man ends up scoring off a one-timer from the point.
Example 2: Erik Johnson and Carl Soderberg struggle.
Winnipeg dumps the puck in, then the forwards go for a line change. One player stays on, and manages to disrupt the breakout. The Avalanche have four people back in their own zone.
When the second Winnipeg forward arrives, the pressure is too much for the four Avalanche skaters and they turn the puck over.
Two vs. Four, and two wins.
The Jets would get about 25 seconds of offensive zone time before scoring.
There are plenty more examples to be shown, but at this point, it’s rather obvious that the on-ice systems in place in Colorado are severely lacking. The Avalanche are utterly inept when it comes to defensive zone coverage, and their breakout can be downright pitiful. (Some more examples of bad defensive zone coverage can be found here and here.)
The fault for this lies at the hands of the coach. Patrick Roy has not given the Avalanche the chance to live up to their potential this season, and it shows.
So, to summarize, Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic have taken a promising young team and turned them into the NHL’s worst puck possession squad. There was plenty of talent to work with when the duo arrived, but a lot of that talent is now gone, and the replacement players are inferior in many ways.
Then, Roy’s defensive system is one of the worst in the NHL. Players get completely lost in coverage, and the breakout is atrocious.
One could say that the vast majority of the blame for Colorado’s season falls on Patrick Roy, and yet, he refuses to admit it. After the team’s loss to St. Louis last night, Roy ripped Matt Duchene for celebrating after Duchene scored his 30th goal of the season.
The Avalanche were down 4-0 at the time, and with 4:14 left in the third period, the game was all but over. Roy told Mike Chambers of the Denver Post “The thing I have a hard time with is the reaction of Duchy after his scores. It’s a 4-0 goal. Big cheer. Are you kidding me? What is that? I mean, it’s not the reflect that we want from our guys. Not at all.”
Roy would continue, stating that, “I think we have some good leadership. Maybe not enough from our core. We need more from these guys. They need to prove to us that they can carry this team… Our core players are having a hard time, [carrying] this team. That’s the bottom line.”
For starters, the core of the team is the only group on the team actually doing anything. Matt Duchene, Nathan Mackinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog, and Carl Soderberg are the only skaters over 50 points. Tyson Barrie might be the only other player to crack the 50 point plateau, with guys such as Jarome Iginla and Blake Comeau needing more than five points in the team’s remaining three games.
The Avalanche have four forwards who will play more than 70 games this year, and not reach 30 points. Three of those will fail to hit the 20 point mark, and there’s another forward who will play 55+ games and not reach 20 points.
The core of this team has carried them to the edge of a playoff spot. If there was any depth on the roster, Colorado might be ahead of the Minnesota Wild.
Even without depth, they’ve gotten this close. Roy’s defensive system has held the team back.
Matt Duchene is in the prime age for NHL skaters. He just watched another one of his seasons go down the toilet because of Roy and Sakic. He still managed to reach the 30 goal mark for the first time in his career, a feat that only 201 other players have accomplished over the past two decades.
It’s incredible that Roy called out Duchene, and questioned the leadership abilities of his team’s core.
The Avalanche are not bad because of Duchene, Landeskog, and Mackinnon; they’re bad because there is no one on the roster to support those three, and because Patrick Roy’s systems are haphazard, ineffective, antiquated, and completely fail to harness the strengths of his top line.
He’s a bad coach, who is completely out of touch with what his team needs. The Avalanche have been run into the ground, and it’s because of the choices Roy makes.
It’s time to fire Patrick Roy. He may make it back to the NHL at some point, but right now, he has a lot to learn before he can lead a team to the playoffs, let alone to a Stanley Cup.
Statistics courtesy of war-on-ice.com, and are score adjusted at 5-on-5 unless specified otherwise