Unless explicitly stated otherwise, all numbers can be reasonably assumed to have come from extraskater.com. Learn it. Love it.
1. Matt Duchene (CAN)
Matt has 20 points, including 12 goals, in his 22 games so far and not in easy situations. His 29.6% offensive zone start rate is 10th on the team among forwards with 10 GP (maybe misleading since that includes both Downie and Talbot ahead of him), and his competition quality numbers are right at the top of the Avs forwards as well. This includes being tied with O'Reilly for the very highest quality of defensive competition on the team.
The only trouble Duchene has in terms of making the Sochi roster is his birthplace. He is Canadian. Let's' take a quick look at the top ten Canadian goal scorers per NHL.com (I was surprised how easy this was) and drool a moment.
Corey Perry (15)
Chris Kunitz (14)
Steven Stamkos (14) on one leg
Sidney Crosby (13)
Ryan Getzlaf (13)
Patrick Marleau (12)
Jonathan Toews (12)
Bryan Little, which surprised me (12)
Tyler Seguin (12)
Matt Duchene (12)
So while Americans like myself may be wishing super hard that Canada take Kunitz with them, even if they do, Duchene could have a place on the top two lines at wing no problem. Can you guys imagine a Tavares - Crosby - Duchene top line? Oh my.
2. Paul Stastny (USA)
Stastny is a guy who's been buried under difficult usage since he was on Team USA in 2010. National pundits are counting him somewhere between Forward 10-15 for the US. But the sheer proximity of USA Hockey in Colorado Springs could play a role in how much exposure they have to him, let alone everything he's quietly brought to the ice. His 8 goals and 9 assists so far this season leave him 18th in scoring among US forwards; however he has done so with about 5 fewer games than everyone above him. Three whole points would propel him to T-6th.
There's also the factor of international teams being "sticky." Stastny was an important player for Team USA in Vancouver on a killer line with Zach Parise and has been a captain with the US World Championships team as long as the Avs have been cellardwellars. Being in your prime years and having been in the games before is good enough to merit strong consideration on its own, let alone his play since then.
Stastny would likely slot in high in the American forward corps because the hockey universe is out to get Toronto, and a James van Riemsdyk - Paul Stastny - Phil Kessel line would just be absolutely sick while flipping off the Centre of the Universe at the same time. (Maybe we could even let Canada start a top line of Bozak+2nd - Crosby - Kunitz.) He might also reprise his role next to Parise or, more true to his professional game lately, play a more defensive role. Prominent center iceman competitors include David Backes, Joe Pavelski, and Ryan Kesler. Even Patrick Kane if he hasn't forgotten how to play the position.
3. Erik Johnson (USA)
Johnson is another guy with the "sticky" factor in his favor. He won silver in 2010 in the vital "not Jack Johnson" defenseman role. (Please, Team USA. Please just say no to Jack.) He has been with the World Championship team as well, although that was a team that included Matt Hunwick.
Team USA's other 2010 defensemen:
Paul Martin and Mike Komisarek were replaced due to injury, thus sayeth Wikipedia. Which is interesting because Paul Martin is hurt again and should remain that way right up until the team is selected. It's safe to assume Komi isn't coming back, Suter should be #1, Orpik could return, and Dustin Byfuglien, Kevin Shattenkirk, Keith Yandle, and Ryan McDonagh have all received attention from NHL.com's Dan Rosen, and all for good reason. (I'm not so sure that old friend Shatty's an Olympian on the North American surface, but he could be magic on the big ice.)
Johnson is probably a likely pick given his steady improvement over the last three seasons and could easily be paired with either Suter or McDonagh.
4. Jan Hejda (CZE)
So it turns out there aren't that many NHL defensemen from the Czech Republic. There's 11. I checked. Among them, Hejda is 3rd in points and playing nearly a minute more per game than the others. He also carries a +17 rating, and I'm not sure whether the Jibble Signal is visible from Prague, so that may factor in as well.
When the competition is Marek Zidlicky, Zbynek Michalek, Jakub Kindl, and other similarly made-up names, plus, sure, the KHL's best, whatever, Hejda is pretty much a lock. Have fun playing with Jaromir Jagr and Jaromir Jagr's favorite player, Jaromir Jagr.
5. Semyon Varlamov (RUS)
This one... is a funny one.
Varlamov is the guy for the home team, because, come on. Who starts ahead of him? Sergei Bobrovsky won a Vezina in half a season but outside last year has never been elite. Evgeni Nabokov isn't on that level. Ilya Bryzgalov is, by all appearances, done with Team Russia. Anton Khudobin isn't there. Nikolai Khabibulin is held together with string and old mustard bottles. And who's your top KHL goalie? During the lockout, it was fucking Varlamov wasn't it? Not Team Russia orientation camp invite Konstantin Barulin (whose .929 SV% in 45 games with Atlant Moscow per en.KHL.ru is kind of awesome).
Which--Don't get me wrong, Barulin is going to be invited to Sochi, but he won't play any minutes that mean anything. Russia has some weird political thing where they always handicap themselves by taking KHLers on principle, leaving better, NHL guys behind. (There's only like 20 Russians in the league now of course.) Barulin may well be Russia's second best, though. I've never seen the guy play eh?
It's gonna come down to Varlamov's legal situation. He'll be named to the team, 100%. Will the courts grant him permission to travel to his home country, which has no extradition treaty with the United States? Varly is due back in court in January, so we should see then.
6. Gabe Landeskog (SWE)
Sweden would be remiss to leave Thor Himself off their roster. Tre Kronor or however you spell that isn't the deepest team up front and Landeskog's 20 points this season have him 7th among Swedish forwards. Factor in his alternate captaincy in Sweden's 2013 World Championships gold medal (and the fact that WCs are A Big Deal in Europe) and Gabe is another lock.
7. The Turtle Club
I'm out of Olympians with three parts to go, so let's talk about MHH's Goat of the Month. It's a big topic that I want to approach in three parts anyway so hell yeah. The Turtle. I think it was our local Lobster, Pinchy, who said something that sent me this direction. I've got a theory of what's going on.
When the Avs get a lead they get shelled. That's normal, you guys, it's called score effects. And it's not even necessarily always the leading team taking its proverbial foot off the proverbial gas. The trailing team also plays more aggressively, takes more risks. More on that in a sec. That's not Point 7. Point 7 is the Avs suddenly play Hot Lava with the puck when they get a lead.
In 5v5 score-close situations, and I had to go to stats.hockeyanalysis.com for this one, the Avalanche are very middle of the road in possession metrics (18th and 19th in Corsi and Fenwick percentages respectively). They're 10th in Fenwick For% with the score tied. But give the Avs a lead, and hooboy.
|Situation||Corsi For%||Fenwick For%|
|5v5 tied||50.5% (14th)||52.6% (10th)|
|5v5 leading||40.8% (27th)||40% (28th)|
|5v5 leading by 1||43.1% (25th)||41.9% (29th)|
|5v5 leading by 2 or more||36.8% (29th)||36.4% (29th)|
Holy crap, what's going on? As you might expect, the team's PDO in leading situations is astronomical, 104.2 (3rd). If it weren't for a .952 SV% when leading, the Avs would be blowing so. many. leads. and there's absolutely no reason to think that is a sustainable number.
8. Looking forward
As we've seen in recent games against St. Louis, the Avs have a pretty rough job of it when the opposition does a good job of working the puck down low and setting up their neutral zone. A quick transition team is predicated on capitalizing on the other guy making a mistake. Give a good team defense time to set up and that just isn't there. You can't enter the zone with possession. After a tough time with David Backes along your own boards you're happy to get the puck to the red line so you can dump it and go breathe.
Enter the Avalanche defensemen, of which two (2) are good and 802052 are average or worse. Why were the Avs bleeding goals under Sacco when suddenly the defense seems competent under Roy? Holden and Guenin and Benoit are upgrades but not that big of upgrades. The team still carries like seventeen third pairing guys. The answer has been in Roy's system, which first emphasizes a man approach, and second counts on the forwards to play lower to the goal line and help relieve the pressure from their D.
So riddle me this. You're up a goal in the third, and the other guys are pushing hard to at least force overtime, at least secure one standings point. You want exactly not that, so you're probably trying not to be too risky. (Score effects.) Suddenly the other team has the puck in your zone a bit more, and they're working it hard, they're wearing you down. And, oh yeah, your defense corps isn't very much better than mediocre. Are you, as a forward, looking to spring a breakout, or are you sinking down, trying to keep the puck from doing anything very dangerous, to keep the D from getting burned by Joe Goddamn Pavelski again, until you can get it back, or at worst, get a whistle?
9. The answer is simple: we replace the bad man.
So now the forwards are EXTRA low to be safe, and the other team is pushing EXTRA hard, and you're stuck in your own zone. Tada, long shift, you dump it as fast as you can, the opponent gets back in the zone as fast as possible and you're doing good to complete your change, rinse, repeat. You don't have the puck, and you for damn sure don't enter the zone with it, so of course the Avs are being outshot in the third.
(Rant intermission: How the hell is it impossible to find shot differential by period? NHL.com has goal differential by period. Just add shots to the same page. Easy. Extra Skater, Behind the Net, Stats Dot Hockey Analysis, please fill this gap. Rant over.)
No puck = no shots = no goals. The opposite is true for the other team, and that means the Avs are going to start to lose their leads as soon as Giguere and Varlamov stop playing like gods. So how do you fix it? Ideally you fix it by using the same breakout, but if you don't trust your defensemen, that's not going to happen. You need the forwards helping out. The answer is simple. Get better personnel. Easy? Hell no. Very simple though.
Anyway, that's my theory, and a question I'd like to pose to the commentariat of MHH: Does the Avalanche forwards sinking lower when they're ahead because protecting a shitty defense corps becomes higher priority than scoring goals explain The Turtle?
(Shoutout to 18-year old Chris Bigras, by the way, the Avs' 2nd round pick in 2013, who was one of 8 defensemen named the other day to Canada's U-20 WJC training camp roster. Goat of the Month edged you out of a full bullet point.)