Game 39 Preview: Avalanche host the Flames

Doug Pensinger

Well, this should be a lot of fun. Two atrocious hockey teams square off tonight at the Pepsi Center and lets hope the audio folks have "Yakety Sax" ready to go because this should be a real doozy. These two "NHL teams" have combined to win 4 of their last 25 games (and one was against the other). I would predict a high-scoring affair, since the the Avs and Flames are ranked 28th and 30th respectively in goals allowed per game, but the Avs are also 29th in goals scored (at least their ineptitude is well-rounded). Is it any wonder that there are a huge number of tickets available for super cheap?

If Nostradamus were to have risen from the dead and visited me back when the season started way back in January (thanks, Gary) and told me that Matt Duchene and PA Parenteau would absolutely fucking kill it this year I would have thought the Avalanche would have a good shot at making the playoffs. Well fuck that Nostradamus fraud, because he wasn't even close.

This team is a mess and I don't even know where to begin. Four years into a rebuild spurred by finishing with the 3rd worst record in the league, the Avs this year are even worse. No really.

In 2008-2009, the Avalanche had the worst offense in the league, averaging 2.32 goals per game. Joe Sakic, in his final, injury-plagued year, scored just 12 points. Paul Stastny missed half the season, leaving the team in the capable hands of Wojtek Wolski and Tyler Arnason. Ryan Smyth and Milan Hejduk led the team in scoring with 59 points. Cody McLeod scored 15 goals, 3rd on the team. Since then, the team has added lottery picks in Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, drafted Ryan O'Reilly and signed P.A. Parenteau. With all those improvements, the Avs are scoring...2.32 goals per game this year, exactly the same as the 08-09 team.

Why? Well, Duchene and Parenteau have been terrific. O'Reilly, after all the dust has settled, has been at least keeping pace with his 55-point season of last year (it's not worth $6.5 million, but that's a different story). After that, though, it's pretty poor. Paul Stastny is on pace for 50 points over 82 games, his worst season as a pro and 20 points below his career average. After those four, the Avalanche don't have any forwards on pace to even hit 40 points. Jamie McGinn and John Mitchell are both on pace for 38 points, both a bit above their career average (for McGinn, this is despite playing much of the year with Duchene and Parenteau). Those would be great numbers for 3rd line players, but neither are top 6 worthy. Landy is also on pace for 38, a disappointing sophomore effort. Milan Hejduk is on pace for 33 as he prepares to ride off into the sunset. David Jones has 7 points in 27 games and is getting paid about $1.3 million per goal. So, basically, the Avalanche have two guys putting up legit top-6 numbers, two guys putting up so-so top six numbers (Stastny and O'Reilly) and that's it. Yay for the rebuild!

That 2008-2009 team had a blueline squad of Liles, Foote, Hannan, Salei, Clark, Leopold and Tjarnqvist. If you recall, the consensus was that the Avalanche had a bunch of decent, 2nd pairing guys but lacked any legit shutdown guys (Foote, 37, missed half the season). Additionally, these guys couldn't score. Liles pitched in 39 points and had 6 PP goals, but after that the offense was woeful. Ruslan Salei was next with 21 points, 86th in the league. All of these players would be replaced in the next few years...

...and the squad is in no better shape today. In my opinion, Jan Hejda and Tyson Barrie have been bright spots but this is still a group without any top-flight studs (sorry, EJ) and with a bunch of middle-tier players. And offensively...oh man, it is BAAAAAAAD. In the NHL this year, 161 defensemen have scored at least a goal. A whopping two have done it for the Avs - Tyson Barrie and recently traded Ryan O'Byrne. All told, Avalanche defensemen have 3 goals. The NHL average is 15. Barrie is on pace for 30 points over 82 games. Hejda is 2nd with 21. The 6 current blueliners are on pace for 95 points over an 82 game season, about 17 more than Erik Karlsson scored last year. As the narrator says, the names have changed but the story remains the same.

In 2008-2009, the Avs' goalie tandem was Peter Budaj and Andrew Raycroft who teamed up to provide a woeful 2.96 goals against average. Budaj was replaced as starter the following year by Craig Anderson and Andrew Raycroft moved on to greener pastures. Anderson appeared to be the answer until he appeared to not be the answer and the Avs ultimately made a trade for Semyon Varlamov and brought in veteran J.S. Giguere to stabilize the team. This year, Varly and Giguere have a combined GAA of 2.97. Statistically, this goaltending tandem is no better than Budaj and Raycroft.

I think Avalanche fans have generally been giving Varlamov the benefit of the doubt. He's young, he's clearly talented and we all know he's not playing in front of the greatest defense of all time. But I think it's time to look a little more critically at Varly. During his tenure with the Avalanche, his overall save percentage is .909 - definitely reasonable. However, he had two red-hot months last year (.935) when we all thought he was finally turning the corner and helping us all forget about the 1st and 2nd round picks. Other than those two months, his save percentage with the Avs is a disappointing .899. Maybe the defense is not the main reason he's ranked 36th out of 47 goalies in save percentage this year? Perhaps it's simply that he hasn't been good enough.

So, here we are, four years into the rebuild and the Avalanche have arguably more question marks now than they did when they started. The Avs are struggling this year because too many good players aren't playing to their abilities - Stastny, Jones, Landeskog, Johnson, Varlamov and because most of the guys who are playing well - O'Reilly, Mitchell, Palushaj, McGinn, Hejda, Hunwick - just don't have that high of a ceiling. To make matters worse, the Avalanche don't appear to have a great number of impact players coming up on the horizon either. This isn't a situation that's going to get better with one draft pick or a big trade or a signing. Sadly, after 4 years of rebuilding and 4 seasons without playoff hockey, this team may just be right back at square one.

Happy Monday, everyone.

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