After the incredible ride of the 2013-14 season, it's hard to argue that this year has been anything but a massive letdown for the Avalanche. The club is dead last in a division they won eight months ago, and closer to picking 1st Overall than making the playoffs.
The short answer to what ails this team involves regression to the mean. Last year, the Avs were a bad possession club that got lucky. This year, they're still a bad possession club, but all the good bounces have turned sour. They went from a crazy .700 win % in one goal games in '14 to a .364 this year. They've lost 8 of 13 OT games, instead of the 8 in 23 mark they posted last season. Their shooting percentage and save percentage are down, and they've had to deal with a nasty string of injuries instead of relative health. If hockey is a game of averages, the Avs are neither as good as they looked last year nor quite as bad as they appear right now.
However, that macro view fails to pick up on the smaller problems facing this team. No team can control puck luck, but the Avs are sabotaging themselves by not concentrating on the things they can control. Stats can give the easy answer by telling us that the Avs are bad at holding onto the puck, but the why they're so bad offers far more insight into the team's underlying issues.
There are as many theories out there as Avs fans, but two of the most common right now are effort and talent. Its possible both hold merit. This team is desperately missing the swagger, the #WhyNotUs attitude, the never-say-die mentality of last year. Late in a game, there's not that push anymore, and there are periods when the players seem to mentally stay in the locker room instead of coming to play. It's also hard to argue that a blueline employing both Nate Guenin and Brad Stuart is anywhere near the best in the NHL. There are clearly a number of holes on this roster still holding it back from taking that next step.
Yet I propose a third option - efficiency. Unmotivated players don't make the NHL, and this team has too many high draft picks to be ultimately untalented. However, there is a difference between playing hard and playing smart, and neither the players or coaches are getting as much from their talent as they should be.
Roy is not immune from criticism right now. He's chosen to start the 4th line in the offensive zone a larger percent of the time than his scoring lines. This has understandably raised a few eyebrows, especially at home where he gets last change. With that 4th line still a possession disaster dispute those sheltered minutes, it's minimizing scoring opportunities for the top lines and opening the team up to more shots against. Roy has also played them in the final minutes of games when the team is down by 1, taking critical minutes away from the top scorers. A number of poor line match-ups have also resulted in predictable goals against.
Certain usage decisions have proved questionable as well. Positive possession players like Redmond and Everberg have been nixed from the lineup from time to time in favor of more traditional, and less technically skilled, depth players. On top of that, Roy has repeatedly used Holden as a forward after the defenseman played himself off the blueline, leading one to wonder if he's actually helping or hurting the team in such an unnatural role. Top scorers aren't being played in the offensive zone - Iginla and Landeskog being the two top examples - and Tanguay continues to ineffectively be used on the power play's point. Varlamov was also given the nod in both games of a back-to-back this year, likely contributing to the goalie's re-injury of his groin.
Then there are also the systems-based questions. Roy did show his adaptability earlier in the year when he switched the team from a man-to-man to a zone defensive system, but the power play has been putrid all year, and he's seemingly slow to implement change when teams start shutting down the neutral zone.
However, many of the coaching issues have come about as a result of the players not playing as they should. Passing still remains the bane of this team. For a club that relies on speed breakouts, nothing kills transition faster than passes into skates. While the Avs waste time tripping over pucks, teams are able to set up in the neutral zone, shutting it down and forcing dump-ins and turnovers. Decision making is also lacking, with outlets heading towards covered players or down the ice for unnecessary icings. Overall, it's next to impossible to get a read on Roy's systems when the players are so busy mucking up the fundamental basics of hockey.
Perhaps part of this issue is chemistry. Roy has tried nearly every line combination possible since nothing seems to be working. Forwards aren't circling back to support defensemen, and they often look out of sync with each other. Individuals are trying to make fancy plays or do it all by themselves, destroying any flow that might exist. No one seems to be on the same wavelength as anyone else, and for the most part, it's not a talent problem. The top players especially have made good passes in the past, so either their focus needs to be redirected to it in practice or whatever else is causing the mental issues needs to be addressed. A huge part of this team's possession woes are due to ineffective transitions and bad passing. Clean up that issue, and most others go away.
This applies to the offensive zone as well. The team's poor passing has almost completely negated their ability to cycle 5-on-5, resulting in many shifts that end in a mere loss of possession instead of a shot. This is nothing new for the club, but the shot attempts per game have dropped slightly this season (28.7 instead of 29.5), and the shooting distance has increased from 32.85 ft to 34.01 ft. Landeskog's, O'Reilly's, and MacKinnon's individual shot distances have lengthened as well, which could partially explain their drop in shooting %. No one can control the primary culprit of puck luck, but statistically, the closer and more frequently you shoot the puck, the more often it goes in. By the eye test, the Avs seem to be crashing the net less this year as well, resulting in fewer goals off rebounds.
The switch to zone D has significantly helped the team since it plays to the strengths (or rather, weaknesses) of the defensive corps, but there are still hiccups. Confusion is fairly common, resulting in wide open opponents and easy goals against. The team is doing a better job keeping the puck to the outside, but their one-on-one battles along the boards don't seem all that effective. Obtaining defensive-zone rebounds has drastically improved since the switch to zone, but clearing the puck still remains an issue.
The team's faceoff record could also be improved. Overall, they're winning around half of their draws at 49.5%, but Duchene and Mitchell are the only individuals above 50%. This is great considering how most of those draws are occurring in the defensive or neutral zones, but the offensive zone faceoff leaders (Cliche, O'Reilly, MacKinnon) are averaging under 48%. Increasing those totals will help increase scoring chances.
I'm not arguing that by fixing these areas, the Avs will become Cup contenders. There are still some legitimate talent concerns that need to be addressed before that happens, and besides, the deficit they created at the beginning of the season will almost certainly prove too large to overcome.
But by focusing on what they can control instead of worrying about what they can't, they might be able to dig themselves out of this slump and prove to themselves and their fans that they can do it. At the very least, it would serve as a valuable lesson for the future, correcting many of the underlying issues and moving the club that much closer to success.
Long term, there's still hope for this team. It's just up to them - not luck - to find it.