At the beginning of the season, nearly everyone expected the Avalanche to finish in the 7th-10th range in the West. Improvements had been made to the roster that placed 11th the year before, and it looked like some of the young talent was finally coming into their own. With a little bit of health and a little bit of luck, a low playoff spot wasn't out of the question.
Instead, the club finished dead last in the West and now have the 1st overall pick in the upcoming draft. So, what happened? What went wrong?
The short version is that everyone - forwards, defensemen, goalies, coaches, management, and owners - all critically under-preformed and failed the team this year. One bad move lead to another, and they simply weren't able to overcome the negative momentum.
And as for the long answer? Well, that's a bit more complicated.
Unsurprisingly, it's very difficult to win games when most of your forwards aren't scoring. Despite Matt Duchene and P.A. Parenteau having career years, we didn't get many goals from Paul Stastny, David Jones, Jamie McGinn, Gabriel Landeskog and Ryan O`Reilly. Yes, they had issues like bad zone starts, injuries, shots ringing off the posts, sophomore slumps, and contract disputes, but it's pretty inexcusable when John Mitchell is your 4th leading goal scorer. Our net presence was awful, and even though losing Steve Downie early in the season hurt, our other power forwards like Landeskog and McGinn weren't creating rebounds, screens, tips, and second scoring chances like they were last year. Too often they tried for a "pretty" goal instead of scoring a dirty one. The forwards also struggled with backchecking, playing defense, and waiting to break out of the zone. While the absence of defensive players like McClement and Winnik was clearly felt, even supposed 2-way guys like O'Reilly took a major step back this year. Passing also proved to be a problem since more often than not, small errors like poorly aimed pucks killed our speed and made transitioning or maintaining possession very difficult.
While there were a few bright spots on our forwards corps, our defense was absolutely awful everywhere for most of the year. The majority of them would often stop moving their feet, watch the puck, be out of position, not cover their man, allow forwards to stand in the crease, accidentally screen their goalie, and just generally do dumb things down around Varly and Jiggy. Even on the rare occasions when they did get possession, their mishandling of it and poor passing often led to a turnover or getting stuck in their zone. Perhaps it was a lack of skill, concentration, chemistry, or communication, but their inability move the puck quickly and reliably to the forwards killed our transition. They didn't even make up for it in the offensive zone where they scored an embarrassing league-low 4 goals. Both the accuracy and timing of shots from the blueline desperately need to improve, as does their ability to see the ice and make the right pass in all three zones. Young additions like Stefan Elliott and Tyson Barrie showed that there's hope for the future, but massive improvements are still needed for next year.
As far as goaltending is concerned, Semyon Varlamov started strong but rapidly collapsed around mid-season. Perhaps he was shell-shocked from facing so many shots, but he needs to refocus this summer or talented prospects like Sami Aittokallio and Calvin Pickard are going to start challenging for his spot. J.S. Giguere was solid as a backup, but there's only so much a 35-year-old with a known history of groin problems can handle. He's no longer a franchise goalie, so it's imperative that a member of the younger generation steps up to claim that title. Varlamov certainly has the talent to secure the job, but his future in Colorado is much murkier now than it was a few months ago.
Yet despite all of our positional mishaps, it was the mental aspects of the game that really did us in. Even on the rare occasions when the team didn't come out of the locker room flat and disinterested, the second something went wrong - such as allowing the first goal - they completely imploded. The same can be said of their season, especially their preoccupation with Las Vegas when they started to slump. They often played up or down to meet the level of their competition, such as showing up for games against tough competition like Chicago but being embarrassed by so-called "easy" teams like Edmonton. Dumb penalties and general lack of discipline also plagued the season. Perhaps it was the lack of leadership (especially veteran leadership) that caused these issues, but I believe it was immaturity and complacency on the individual level that created the Tank. More veteran guidance would help the process, but until our best players internally refocus their priorities and find some consistency, no other organizational changes will fix this team.
The management of the defensive personnel was an absolute nightmare. Depth defenseman Matt Hunwick was second on the team in ice time, and he averaged over 1:30 more than Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda while still contributing 3rd pairing levels of scoring and defense. Greg Zanon, by far the worst Avalanche blueliner in almost every category, was the TOI leader for a disturbing number of games, and top rookies Tyson Barrie and Stefan Elliott were both random healthy scratches on a number of occasions. Our lack of depth and injuries to our top pairing certainly made the job more difficult, but it's very hard to have a successful blueline when the remaining top players aren't being given top minutes.
The power play was particularly putrid as well, converting only 15% of the time (24th in the league). Some blame certainly rests with the players, but the mid-season decision to play two forwards on the point was bizarre and largely unsuccessful. Duchene and O'Reilly lack the natural skillsets to be effective from the blueline, so the strategy essentially neutralized two of our top offensive assets. Granted, the defensemen available at the time weren't exactly desirable options either, but the choice to move the team's 2nd leading scorer (Duchene) to the point was highly questionable and spoke of desperation. System-wise, the drop-pass zone entry was largely unsuccessful, and the team struggled to establish any sort of sustained pressure or cycle even when they did successfully manage to gain the zone.
It's also impossible to ignore the team's struggles against the division. The Northwest was notoriously weak this year, yet the Avs only managed to win 5 of 18 games against them. Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated occurrence: in the four years under Sacco, the team picked up just 36.7% of the points possible against the division, compared to 50.3% against the rest of the Western Conference and a whopping 67.6% against the East. When a correlation this strong exists between familiarity and lack of success, it implies that the coaching staff struggled to effectively alter their system once other teams figured out how to neutralize it.
There were also a number of other murkier issues that can't be blamed solely on the coach, such as the team's inability to start games on time, play a full 60 minutes, maintain a high compete level, or break free of cliches during post-game interviews. The bizarre best-at-home but worst-on-the-road penalty kill is difficult to explain in any manner, although it does help illuminate why there's such a large discrepancy between the two records. Sacco's frequent line juggling, occasionally questionable line matching, and peculiar healthy scratch decisions were often troublesome, but it's impossible to know if behind-the-scenes occurrences affected his choices. In the coaches' defense, the lack of a training camp and a compressed season meant less time to address issues as they arose, but it's still pretty obvious that it was time for a new voice and fresh perspective behind the bench.
The Management and Ownership
Over the past few years, it's become clear that the Avalanche front office has had a deep culture problem. Management's chronic aversion to criticism lead them to either censor (Rycroft) or blacklist (Dater) anyone who even mentioned the club's faults, and despite struggling to adapt to the salary cap era, they tried to fix their problems by only promoting from within. Unfortunately, these incestuous hires had no experience when it came to successful post-lockout roster building and often over-reacted to problems, such as converting a blueline that was too small into one that was too big and slow. It seemed as if Pierre Lacroix and everyone under him had the team's two Stanley Cup rings stuffed in their ears and were pridefully unwilling to accept any outside perspectives or ideas.
The management's reliance on outdated methods didn't end there. Their refusal to negotiate on contracts was nothing new, but when Ryan O'Reilly didn't agree to their first take-it-or-leave it offer, they misjudged his trade value and let him sit on the market too long. Unlike in the past where a magical deal has bailed them out, this time they were outfoxed, publicly shamed, and stuck with a massive qualifying offer instead. Furthermore, the lack of a full-time goalie coach was (and still is) rather troubling. Even though we didn't require one under Roy, times have changed. The five young goalies in our system desperately need the extra help, and we can't keep relying on Giguere to be both a backup and a full-time mentor. On top of that, the team's fan relations were dreadful, their in-game entertainment fell flat, their marketing was near non-existent, and they stubbornly refused to fully embrace new forms of media. It's as if the entire club's mindset was trapped in the late 1990s and refused to evolve to fit the modern era.
But even beyond the culture, the front office made some very questionable moves in regards to the roster this season. Not only did the Ryan O'Reilly debacle force Sacco to deploy forwards in undesirable ways (such as using Stastny as a defensive center), but the decision to sign a number of mediocre defensemen to multi-year contracts created both a severely under-talented blueline this year and a nasty log-jam for next fall. Sherman was luckily able to unload O'Byrne at the deadline, but no other significant trades were made. Also, while the acquisitions of P.A. Parenteau and John Mitchell were excellent, the large contract extension for David Jones was, shall we say, less than outstanding? Even as a rebuilding team, it's difficult to argue that management did everything they could to ice the most effective roster possible.
Unfortunately, the problems didn't end with the management. Ownership likely imposed an internal budget on the Avs this year, and while that's not necessarily a bad practice (especially while rebuilding), the desire to meet this constrain was probably to blame for both the O'Reilly situation and the untimely demotion of Tyson Barrie due to his 2-way contract. Even though KSE has spent big in the past, given their recent history, it's unclear if the financial commitment will be there again when this roster is ready to compete.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Now that Josh Kroenke and Joe Sakic have displaced Pierre Lacroix at the head of the franchise, there's finally a chance that the front office will begin to open up and modernize. At least two new coaches, a few new players, and some Eastern Conference match-ups should also have a positive impact.
However, this team still desperately needs an infusion of talent, specifically veteran talent, at all three levels of the organization. The Avs have a solid young core, but they're lacking accountability and people who can teach them how to win. The future's bright for this franchise, but even more changes are necessary before a winning culture can be created. Either way, it's going to be very interesting to see how this club develops over the next few years.