The Colorado Avalanche finished the 2011-2012 season with 88 points, good enough for 11th place in the Western Conference and no playoff appearance. A lot of ups and downs throughout season concluded with a failed attempt to grasp the last seed in the West. Was there an underling weakness that could help us better understand this result?
Last season the Avalanche finished the year with a Power Play at 18.4% which was good enough for 9th in the NHL. Certainly not a weakness for the club. Shorter handed, the Avalanche killed off 83% of their opponents Power Plays. Not great, but good enough to be right in the middle of the NHL. The stats would seem to spell that the Special Teams for the Avalanche were not an issue and in fact at times a great strength to the club. So that leaves one aspect of the game left.
The Avalanche finished the season with a total 5 on 5 +/- Per Game of -0.3 which "earned" them 25th place in the league. The Avalanche finished just barely ahead of Carolina, Toronto, Minnesota, Columbus and the New York Islanders. What is the common them with all of those clubs: they all missed the post-season. So what exactly does a "-0.3" 5 on 5 +/- per Game even mean? In simple terms it means they allowed more goals at even strength than they scored, 19 fewer goals in fact. While 19 goals may not seem like a lot, keep in mind how many games are won by a single goal and when you finish just 7 points out of the playoffs, those goals become huge.
Too much emphasis in the past few season has been placed on the Power Play and the goals from it. But the true strength of team comes from their 5 on 5 play. Last season, the Avalanche played 49 minutes a game even strength or roughly 83% of the game. To this point, the top teams in the East and West finished with positive 5 on 5 numbers: New York finished at 0.3 and Vancouver at 0.4.
How can the Avalanche improve their 5 on 5 play? Does that strength come from the back end or the forwards? From the style of play or the players themselves? Avalanche coach Joe Sacco remains committed to a fast paced, up-tempo breed of hockey. This certainly is entertaining to watch and generates a lot of excitement, but does it win games? If the Avalanche struggle out of the gate, the onus really falls on the style of play. Teams like St. Louis, Boston and Detroit all play tough, puck possession games and guess what, they were the top 3 teams in terms of 5 on 5 goal ratio last season.
While the popular opinion maybe that the puck possession, trapping style of play is boring hockey, it may be the best way to turn the Colorado Avalanche into a real threat. Time will tell if the Organization realizes this and hires a coach with a better offensive system that allows for increased 5 on 5 play and less reliance on the flash and awe tactics of now.