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Twin Teams - The Early Season Struggles of the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars

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Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season began, everyone expected the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche to be neck-in-neck. The Stars were praised for improving their Top 6 firepower over the summer by adding Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky, and the Avs, despite a looming regression and loss of Stastny, had acquired the legendary Jarome Iginla to minimize the blow.  The young stars of both teams - especially their forwards - were expected to be nearing their primes, and sophomores MacKinnon and Nichushkin would be given larger roles.  It seemed both were destined for at least a 5th place finish in the division, maybe even higher.  It promised to be a great season for both clubs.

Fast forward to today.  The off-season prediction that they'd be close in the standings holds true, but unfortunately, with only a handful of wins, they're grouped together in the basement, closer to McDavid than to 8th in the West.

What's going on?  Why are two teams that are clearly more talented than their records suggest so low in the standings? And is there still hope for them to salvage their seasons before it's too late?


Defense

Overview:

Without a doubt, the biggest culprit for each team is poor defense.  Both clubs are in the top 10 for shots against per game, and between injuries and summer moves not panning out, they've found themselves in a lurch.

Dallas Stars Defense (Age, NHL GP)

John Klingberg (22, 8 GP) - Alex Goligoski (29, 422 GP)
Trevor Daley (31, 711 GP) - Jason Demers (26, 303 GP)
Jordie Benn (27, 126 GP)  - Jamie Oleksiak (22, 41 GP)
Jyrki Jokipakka (23, 7 GP) 

Rotation of: Brenden Dillon (24, 150 GP, traded for Jason Demers 11/21), Kevin Connauton (22, 44 GP, claimed off waivers by Columbus), Patrick Nemeth (22, 13 GP, injured),

Top Prospect Depth: Cameron Gaunce (24, AHL), Julius Honka (18, WHL)

Dallas decided to rely on prospects to shore up their depth.  They had quite a few under 25 to choose from, with Klingberg, Dillon, Oleksiak, Connauton, Nemeth, Jokipakka, and old friend Cameron Gaunce in the wings.  Many of those young defensemen helped the Stars' AHL affiliate win the Calder Cup last year, so there's obviously some talent and potential in the group.

Over the summer, Tom Gaglardi, the Stars owner, even went as far as saying "I think for people to criticize our defense is flat wrong."  He used the the talent of the prospects and the strong play of Daley and Goligoski in the second half the season to justify his claim. It was clear the Stars' management had placed their trust in their young players instead of free agency or trades for the upcoming season, and they were seemingly very confident about doing so.

However, after the trades of Sergei Gonchar and Brenden Dillon, only Trevor Daley, Alex Goligoski, and Jason Demers have hit the 200 GP mark on Dallas's defensive corps. That means there's not much experience on the blueline for the young players to hide behind.  Klingberg especially has had a lot asked of him in what's already turning into a top 4 role, and the vets of Benn, Daley, and Dillion (before he left) have found themselves starting the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone.

Colorado Avalanche Defense (Age, NHL GP)

Erik Johnson (26, 431 GP) - Jan Hejda (36, 569 GP)
Tyson Barrie (23, 129 GP) - Nate Guenin (32, 117 GP)
Nick Holden (27, 84 GP) - Zach Redmond (26, 30 GP)

Rotation of: Brad Stuart (35, 999 GP, injured), Ryan Wilson (27, 230 GP, injured)

Top Prospect Depth: Duncan Siemens (21, AHL), Maxim Noreau (27, AHL), Stefan Elliott (23, AHL), Chris Bigras (19, OHL)

Colorado went the opposite way this summer.  After striking out on the big-name defensive free agents, they brought in veteran Brad Stuart to fill in a top 4 role and added free agents Zach Redmond and Maxim Noreau to shore up depth.

However, unlike Dallas, Sakic and Roy were still uneasy about their blueline.  Elliotte Friedman was recently quoted as saying that "you name a defenseman [that might be traded or signed], they're in on it".

Much of the issue resides in their farm team.  Siemens and Bigras look to be potential Top 4 players, but neither were deemed NHL ready out of camp.  Offensive defensemen Noreau and Elliott both had poor showings in the preseason and were quickly pushed down the depth chart.  While there is still some hope for all 4 prospects, none of them are close enough to significantly help the team any time soon.

Core Problem:

Since high-end defensemen are near impossible to acquire, both clubs did about all they could over the summer.  However, the deeper issue isn't who they gained;  it's how they over-valued all their blueliners, both young and old.  They entered the season believing they had more talent on the back end than they actually did, and both teams have been thoroughly burned because of it.

For Dallas, they overrated the ability of Goligoski, Dillon, Daley, and Benn to be able to cope with more difficult minutes. Benn and Daley especially have been booted to the defensive zone and subjected to more difficult competition in order to shelter the younger players.  They did bring in Demers to add experience and help out, but he's not the overall solution they need.  It also seems that the team's prospects were less ready to make the jump than expected.  While Klingberg and Nemeth (before injury) have so far impressed, Oleksiak and Connauton have found themselves scratched quite often this year, and Connauton was recently lost to waivers.  Either way, the over-reliance on prospects coupled with an already so-so blueline has resulted in a train wreck the team probably should have seen coming.

For Colorado, their poor analysis of defensemen extends far beyond on-ice usage.  After a lucky season, both Holden and Guenin were signed to multi-year contract extensions (Roy even listed Holden as a member of our core during camp) and Stuart was extended before even playing a game with the team. Unfortunately, as Holden and Guenin's numbers normalized to that of depth defensemen and Stuart struggled to adjust to the system, Wilson was injured.  Soon Stuart followed.  Redmond has proved a decent depth addition with a bit of potential, but beyond Johnson, Barrie, and the sometimes 36-year-old looking Hejda, the Avs D has been a complete disgrace all year.

Outlook:

In their own ways, each team gambled on D.  So far, both have lost.  It may be possible for one of the Stars youngsters (especially Klingberg) or someone like Duncan Siemens to come in and establish themselves as a solid Top 2 option by the end of the year, but it's unlikely.  The Avs could also be helped by the return of Stuart, assuming he eventually adjusts to the system.  Trading is also an option, one that Dallas has already taken advantage of, but as the market as it stands, a true top pairing defenseman is probably going to cost more than he's actually worth.

So, unfortunately for both teams, defense is likely to remain a struggle all season.


Goaltending

Overview:

Along with sub-standard D, both teams have had issues between the pipes.

Dallas Stars Goaltending

Overall:
23 GP, 79 goals / 729 shots, .891 Sv%, 3.39 GAA
Last year:  215 goals / 2485 shots, .913 Sv%, 2.72 GAA

Lehtonen: 20 GP, 60 goals / 632 shots, .905 Sv%, 3.03 GAA
Career:  465 GP, .915 Sv%, 2.68 GAA
Lindback: 4 GP, 15 goals / 97 shots, .845 Sv%, 4.52 GAA
Career:  89 GP, .902 Sv%, 2.82 GAA

With Dallas, it's very clear-cut.  Both goalies have been under preforming this year.  Be it bad luck or a bad season, a save percentage that low just isn't going to win many games.  And while the defense is certainly to blame for allowing so many shots, the save percentage itself is on the goalies.  They've simply not been good enough this season.

Colorado Avalanche Goaltending

Overall: 23 GP, 73 goals / 792 shots, .908 Sv%, 3.09 GAA
Last year:
209 goals / 2671 shots, .922 Sv%, 2.63 GAA

Varlamov: 13 GP, 38 goals / 462 shots, .918 Sv%, 2.95 GAA
Career: 112 GP, .917 Sv%, 2.57 GAA
Berra: 9 GP, 21 goals / 180 shots, .883 Sv%, 3.57 GAA
Career: 40 GP, .891 Sv%, 3.15 GAA
Pickard: 5 GP, 10 goals / 150 shots, .933 Sv%, 2.24 GAA
Career: same

In Colorado's case, injuries have derailed their save percentage.  Before Varlamov went down, they were getting near league average.  Their GAA was obviously high due to the large number of shots against, but there weren't any red flags in the numbers.

However, since Varlamov's most recent injury on the 18th, Berra has had a complete meltdown, destroying his respectable numbers from earlier this season and dragging the entire team's stats down.  Luckily, Calvin Pickard has played three very solid games and may have earned the permanent back-up position, but he is only 22 and is playing at an unsustainable rate.

Core Issues:

The trouble isn't just that pucks are getting by them; it's that good goaltending isn't covering up any of the other areas of weakness anymore.  This is especially true of the Avs, a team that rode a Vezina worthy performance by Varlamov to a division championship.

But even for Dallas, the .67 rise in goals per game against certainly hasn't helped.  By and large, this is the same team that made the playoffs last year with league-average goaltending.  The sub-par save percentages reflect very badly on the already troubled defense, and the greater goal deficit means more work for the slumping forwards.

The same can be said for Colorado, although this form of regression was fully expected.  What wasn't expected is the reliance on Berra and Pickard.  Varlamov hasn't looked super-human this year, but he's still picked up a heavy workload and faced the highest number of shots per game in the league.  With him off the roster for a significant amount of time, it places Colorado's backups in the uncomfortable position of being asked to do the same.  For a club struggling in so many other areas, relying on them like that is bound to cause problems.

Outlook:

Unless Lehtonen's game has completely fallen off a cliff, I expect his numbers naturally to stabilize before too much longer.  Lindback is a bit more of a question mark, but as a backup, his influence is less crucial.  Once Dallas's goaltending gets back to normal, it should release some pressure off the other areas of the team.

Colorado will be holding on for dear life as long as Varlamov is out.  Pickard has looked great, but it's unlikely he'll be able to keep it up, and Berra's confidence is completely gone.  Luckily, it appears that Varlamov will be off the injured reserve by early next week, which will help relieve some of the pressure on the rest of the team.


Unlucky/Under-Preforming Forwards

Overview:

Dallas Stars Top 6 by TOI/GP (goals, shooting %, career shooting %, 5-on-5 PDO)

Tyler Seguin: 18 G, 19.1%, 12.0% average, 104.8
Jamie Benn: 8 G, 10.8%, 12.1% average, 104.6
Jason Spezza: 4 G, 8.3%, 13.8% average, 99.8
Cody Eakin: 4 G, 8.7%, 10.2% average, 102.3
Antoine Roussel: 5 G, 13.2%, 13.2% average, 98.5
Ales Hemsky: 1 G, 2.4%, 10.8% average, 96.4

Valeri Nichushkin: Injured, 4 GP, 0 G

There is absolutely no doubt that Tyler Seguin has been carrying the Stars forwards.  He's shooting quite a bit over his career percentage, but he's still been the only bright spot in an otherwise disappointing corps.  It's likely that his goal scoring will drop off soon, but there is still potential for others to cover for him.

Benn suffered through an 11 game scoreless drought in early November.  His numbers have normalized, but he's still due for a few more goals.  Antoine Roussel and Cody Eakin are about what they are, but Spezza's been producing far below his career average, and Hemsky just recently scored first goal in a Stars uniform.  He's been a healthy scratch at times this year, but his shooting percentage is still far below his norm.

Complicating Dallas's situation is the hip injury to Nichushkin.  The sophomore is expected to miss 3-4 months, removing the team's 6th leading scorer last season from the equation.

Colorado Avalanche Top 6 by TOI/GP (goals, shooting %, career shooting %, 5-on-5 PDO)

Matt Duchene: 7 G, 10.9%, 12.1% average, 99.7
Ryan O'Reilly: 3 G, 5.7%, 10.0% average, 95.2
Gabe Landeskog: 6 G, 8.3%, 9.4% average, 96.5
Alex Tanguay: 7 G, 22.6%, 18.8% average, 102.0
Jarome Iginla: 3 G, 7.0%, 13.2% average, 101.9
Nathan MacKinnon: 5 G, 7.2%, 9.4% average, 99.8

On the Avs, Alex Tanguay (of all people) is the goal scoring driver right now.  Just like with Seguin, there's a good chance that his numbers will even out sometime soon.  Matt Duchene is also playing about as well as usual, so as long as he keeps on keeping on, he'll be fine.

But the rest of the Avs?  O'Reilly is rocking a very low 5.7%.  Goaltending for him has also been atrocious, with only 87.8% of shots he's faced while on the ice being stopped.  Landeskog's situation is almost as bad, but it's begun to normalize now that he's on a line with Iginla and MacKinnon.

Speaking of Iginla, it's well known that he's a notorious slow starter, but his shooting % is around half of what it usually is. And MacKinnon?  He's been mired in a doozy of a sophomore slump for the bulk of the season, haunted by thinking too hard and not playing to his strengths.

Core Issues:

It's very difficult to win games when so many members of a Top 6 are slumping.  Dallas has had some issues, especially on the injury front, but the Avs situation is laughably bad.  Colorado went from averaging 2.99 G/GP last season to 2.48 this year.  That's just a silly drop-off, even when natural regression is factored in.  So far, Dallas is actually surpassing their last year's totals by .09.

Depth scoring is good to have, but the lack of normal production from each club's top forwards is a good part of why they're so low in the standings. Just like goaltending, it's no longer covering up other issues, and since both teams are built on offense, it's a huge issue that needs to be overcome before either team can move forward.

Outlook:

Dallas is already recovering from their Top 6 slump.  They might be able to expect a bit more production, but it's finally starting to even out.

Colorado's Top 6 have just been flat out unlucky.  Even Mirtle recently claimed that Landeskog was the unluckiest player in the league.  Maybe it's effort or chemistry or some extended slump, but more likely, it's just that the puck hasn't been falling.  Once that corrects, the goals will follow, and with any luck, the wins will too.


Systems / Chemistry

Overview:

Due to all the positional issues listed above, both teams have struggled to get anything going.  From poor zone exits and entries, lack of support from the forwards, poor passing and decision making, line shuffling, and in one case, altering the team's overall defensive system, the players and coaches in both cities are struggling to find answers.

Dallas Stars

Number of Starting Lineup Shuffles: 12
*Including Recalled Scratches: 19
*Mid-game Shuffles:  10
Overall Record under Lindy Ruff: 105 GP, 49-40-16

The culprit behind the bulk of the Stars lineblendering has been their recalled scratches and call-ups.  They've swapped out young defensemen 10 times this year, and have a tendency to sub forwards Eaves and McKenzie in an out of the lineup on a whim.

Even with that taken into account, Ruff has shuffled the starting lineup for more than half of the games looking for some chemistry.  While Benn and Seguin have almost always been paired together, there has been virtually no consistency anywhere else.  Ruff has switched up the lines and pairs mid-game quite a bit too, including his club's two most recent contests.  Dallas fans have complained about lack of chemistry, and with so many rotating parts, it's not hard to see why.

The other issue Dallas fans have mentioned is the drop pass even strength zone entry their team is currently employing.  Even in the Carolina game I watched around a week ago, it's clear that the rest of the league has figured out how to shut down the pass, and the club has struggled to gain the zone all year.

Their zone exits have been just as bad.  While I wasn't able to find a site tracking them, Josh Lile over at Defending Big D did an excellent look at the struggles the Stars' defensemen have had initiating the rush.  Between the passes to no one, the insistence of firing the puck up the boards instead of making a pass, ignoring the simple plays, and Jordie Benn being Jordie Benn, it's been very difficult for Dallas to break out of their defensive zone.

Colorado Avalanche

Number of Starting Lineup Shuffles: 11
*Including Recalled Scratches: 15
*Mid-game Shuffles:  10
Overall Record under Patrick Roy: 101 GP, 58-30-13

Chemistry has been just as fleeting in Denver as in Dallas this year. Colorado's struggles have been made more difficult due to a large number of injuries plaguing the team, but even while relatively healthy, very little has clicked and remained consistent above the 4th line.  Even last season's givens - such as Duchene and O'Reilly, Johnson and Hejda - have produced mixed results.  Add in the struggles of the Top 6 as discussed above, and Roy has tried just about everything he can think of to get the team moving forward again.

That has included changing the team's defensive system.  After running man-to-man for over a year, Roy finally relented and switched to a more traditional zone.  After a transition period, it seems to be paying off, but players like Nick Holden who thrived in the man-to-man seem to be struggling moreso than before.

Effective zone entries and exits have been difficult this year too.  Other teams have figured out that taking away the Avs speed in the neutral zone is a very good way to kill their offense.  This pressure combined with Duchene's linemate issues, MacKinnon's lack of confidence, and absolutely horrid passing has essentially removed the team's transition game.  And just like with the Stars, bad decisions by lack-luster defensemen has resulted in more turnovers than strong zone exits. (Just for reference, Jordie Benn = Nate Guenin)

Core Problems

Blaming the coach can be easy, but in both cases, I don't believe he's at fault.  I think the bulk of the responsibility lies with the forwards and their commitment to some of the less flashy elements of the game.

Last year, Friedmann asked scouts about the biggest differences between Colorado and Edmonton's young players.  Their response was two-fold:  the Avs aggressive forecheck and their forwards' willingness to come back to retrieve the puck so the defensemen didn't have to handle it much.  This year, those hallmarks are far less visible, and the club's overall game has suffered greatly.  Add in poor passing, and it's no wonder they're having issues generating transition offense.

Perhaps it's slightly different in Dallas, but there's no denying that the forward corps is the strongest element on both clubs.  Given their struggles in scoring, it seems they've departed from their basics of using aggressive speed to create chaos and turnovers.  The lineblendering is only a symptom of a much deeper problem likely stemming from forwards concentrating on snapping out of scoring droughts instead of "keeping it simple" by supporting their defensemen.

Outlook

Both teams have solid systems in place, but until they tweak some of the things that aren't working - such as their neutral zone passing - the struggles will likely persist.  However, the biggest culprit of an under-preforming Top 6 seems to slowly be turning around for both clubs.  Hopefully once some of the goal-scoring pressure is off, they'll return to their old, confident selves and resume using their aggressive speed to their advantage.


Special Teams

Overview:

Dallas Stars Special Teams

Power Play: 12 G in 80 attempts, 15.0%, 22nd in League
- Shots: 74, 30th in League
- s%: 16.2%, 5th in League

Penalty Kill: 61 kills in 77 attempts, 79.2%, 21st in League
- Shots Against: 116, 21st in League
- Sv%: .862, 19th in League

Neither of Dallas's special teams have been helping them much.  Their penalty kill is average, but their power play shot attempts are horrendously low.  They're the only club in the league that is yet to hit 80+ shots on the man advantage this year.  Unless they start shooting more, it's unlikely that they'll even remain at 22nd as their shooting % comes down to more reasonable numbers.

Colorado Avalanche Special Teams

Power Play: 9 G in 75 attempts, 12.0%, 28th in League
- Shots: 97, 22nd in League
- s%: 9.28%, 25th in League

Penalty Kill: 73 kills in 84 attempts, 86.9%, 3rd in League
- Shots Against: 138, 29th in League
- Sv%: .920, 3rd in League

As bad as Dallas's power play has been, Colorado's has been worse.  They have generated more shots (which is saying something), but they've produced fewer goals.  A good deal of this ties back to the Top 6 struggles discussed earlier, but one would think that it should start turning around for the better eventually.

The Avs penalty kill has been outstanding, but that is squarely on the team's goalies.  Only one other club has faced more shots on the PK than the Avs, yet Colorado is still one of the top 3 in the league.  Even though this seems to be the MO for Avalanche netminders, it's still unlikely that they keep up this pace.

Core Issues

For both teams right now, the struggling power play is likely a symptom of the overall struggles of the forwards.  They aren't shooting - and therefore not scoring - like they should be.  For all the talk Colorado gets about their reliance on "high quality chances", Dallas's power play is the current poster child.  As rough as it has been, it will likely get worse until they start getting more pucks on net.

The PK issues both rest with the goalies.  For Dallas, the lackluster even strength showing has continued to their time shorthanded.  For Colorado, the club's overall numbers look great, a closer look shows that Berra and Pickard have allowed 10 goals in 45 shots.  The reason they're not at the bottom of the league is Varlmov's insane .989 sv%, the result of only allowing ONE power play goal in 95 shots.

Outlook

Colorado's PP and Dallas's PK should probably turn around soon.  However, Dallas's PP and Colorado's PK have some warning signs that might not bode well for the teams.



Strength of Schedule / Winning Streaks

Overview:

Dallas Stars Win/Loss

vs. '14 Playoff Team Win: CBJ, PIT, LAK, LAK
- Loss: CHI, PHI, STL, ANA, MIN, LAK, SJS, MIN, CHI, MIN

vs. '14 Non-Playoff Team Win: VAN, NJD, ARI, ARI, EDM
- Loss: NSH, NYI, NSH, CAR

Longest Winning Streak: 3 games 
Longest Losing Streak: 7 games

Dallas has played a good number of last season's playoff teams.  They've also faced Nashville twice and the Islanders once, which are likely playoff teams this year.  Through all of this, they've still managed to gain 4 wins against strong clubs and have gotten points out of most of the easier match ups they've faced.

Colorado Avalanche Win/Loss

vs. '14 Playoff Team Win:
BOS, NYR
- Loss: MIN, MIN, MTL, SJS, STL, ANA, PHI, BOS, CHI

vs. '14 Non-Playoff Team Win: VAN, NYI, TOR, NJD, CAR, ARI
- Loss: TOR, OTT, FLA, WPG, VAN, NYI, WSH

Longest Winning Streak: 2 games (x2)
Longest Losing Streak: 4 games

Colorado has a bit different story.  They've lost a good number of points against some fairly poor teams and haven't been able to gain many against the better ones.  While it seems to be turning around for the club, those easier points are ones they won't be able to get back as the schedule continues to become more difficult.

Core Issue

The strength of schedule is partially to blame for Dallas's slow start.  According to Hockey Reference, they've faced one of the toughest sets of opponents in the NHL this season to date.  Colorado's not far behind, but it's hard to argue that Dallas has made more of their situation than Colorado has of theirs.  Every tough match up now is an easier one at the end of the season, and with that in mind, Dallas certainly has an advantage.

Outlook

Both clubs need to start winning games.  Period.  However, Colorado really needs to begin putting their "easy" ones away.  Both clubs should have a few more favorable match ups as the season goes along, so if they can start cashing in on those W's, the playoffs start to look more likely.

Conclusion

Tonight, both clubs will face each other in the first of five meetings.  They each desperately need the points.  Things have recently started to correct after a disastrous start for the teams, but there's still clearly a long road ahead of them.

A quick look at the standings show Winnipeg and Calgary as the two most likely candidates to fall out of the playoff race in the West.  There's still hope for Dallas and Colorado, but Minnesota and San Jose will be fighting for those spots as well and are ahead in the standings.  With the OTL point, jumping clubs in this day and age is a difficult undertaking.

Yet regardless of whether or not either club makes the big dance this season, they should improve as the year drags on.  Their forwards should break their slumps, their situation in net should stabilize, and hopefully chemistry and special teams will regress in their favor.  Each organization has a good number of prospects that should bolster the lineup by season's end, and one can only hope that they take advantage of some of the easier match ups ahead of them.

Despite the rough start, the future looks bright for the Central Division rivals.  With the number of young players learning what it takes to deal with hype and find a way to win, the struggles seen this year are unlikely to continue. However, the mirror-like qualities of the teams should make for a great rivalry as they mature into Stanley Cup threats.

So, settle in tonight.  You're in for one of the most even match ups the NHL has to offer.