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Why I'm Optimistic About the Avalanche

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Blueberry muffins are delicious.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The last dozen or so games for the Colorado Avalanche have me feeling optimistic about this team. Shocking, I know. Despite a few frustrating losses, I have noticed positive trends developing, and have some numbers to back this up. Are there still issues with this team? Sure. But to continue with my theme of optimism, I think that these issues are fixable, and that this team is in a much better place to win a lot of hockey games down the stretch than people think.

Notes: I will use some advanced stats to further my arguments. However, this isn’t meant to be an advanced stats post. I want to keep things simple enough so everyone can enjoy my madness, but also include some numbers for those who are interested. Also, my cutoff point was the Calgary game (I’m writing this on Friday prior to the Winnipeg clash).

I am going to organize this into three periods. The first period is going to be the positives. The second period will identify weaknesses, and possible solutions. The third period will wrap things up, and give an outlook going forward. Let’s digggg in.

Period 1

After the rough first couple of weeks for the Avalanche, one of the more common phrases I saw and heard was, "don’t worry, they will get things turned around." The Avs had some significant flaws that were being exposed almost on a nightly basis, which had me worried, but I was completely okay with people keeping the faith.

Fast-forward to today, and I sense a lot more frustration and panic throughout the fan base. The be patient and we’ll be fine mantra has disappeared for the most part, which is ironic, because in many ways this team has done exactly what people claimed (hoped) they would -- turned things around.

Over their last 9 games, the Avalanche are 5-3-1, which translates to a 100.2 point pace. Not terrific, but a playoff pace.

Looking deeper, they are a more fundamentally sound team than they were at the start of the season, and maybe even than they ever were last year.

The switch to a zone defensive scheme correlates very well with a significant uptick in the underlying possession numbers for the Avalanche. While there are more ingredients to winning hockey than a glowing Corsi or Fenwick rating, these numbers are the foundation that many elements of quality hockey are built upon.

Last season, the Avalanche ranked near the bottom of the NHL, with a 46.6 even-strength Fenwick percentage. This was a known weakness coming into the season, with indisputable data suggesting that teams have a hard time sustaining success with possession stats that low.

This season started rough for the Avs, seeing the number dip to 45.6 ES Fenwick % through the first 14 games. The Avalanche suffered mightily, winning only 3 of those 14. Pundits were right, blah-blah-blah.

At this point, Patrick Roy switched things up, and went from a man-on-man defensive system, to a zone scheme. In theory, man-on-man has the potential to be a very dynamic way of playing defense. You can keep constant pressure on the puck carrier, and limit his passing options if played well. You can see why Roy wanted this team to play man-on-man, because if well executed, it is going to spring players into transition a lot. Unfortunately, the Avalanche couldn’t pull it off.

The zone scheme has helped the Avs really start to find a nice comfort level in their own zone. Since the switch to zone, the team’s ES Fenwick percentage has risen to 48.7%, thanks largely to a reduction in shots allowed. This includes the disaster on Long Island. It is fair to assume that the team probably had an adjustment period to really get comfortable in the zone, so let’s throw out the 5 games immediately following the switch. In their past 7, the Avs ES Fenwick % is 49.0.

This is a huge positive. Patrick Roy identified a problem, and was able to improve upon it. To me, this also is a sign that this team is growing into a more complete hockey club. They aren’t perfect, or where they need to ultimately be, but they are making progress toward becoming a hockey team with strong underlying fundamental numbers.

As fun as last season was, long-term, a 45.6 ES Fenwick % isn’t going to cut it. Everyone knew that for this team to make the jump from "fun story" to "legitimate contender," they were going to have to become a better puck-possession team in all likelihood. While the last stretch of games isn’t a huge sample size, the positive trend toward being a break-even possession team is encouraging to me.

Avs Fenwick 26

Avs ES Fenwick% Through 26 games

This graph isn’t the coolest shit I’ve ever done, but I think it is nice to be able to look at things visually. First off, my goodness that opening night in Minnesota was a debacle. I added a simple trend-line just to convince everyone that they are indeed improving. Also, after the switch to zone, the oscillations are becoming much less severe. The Avs are doing a better job at hovering right around that 50% mark for ES Fenwick. Caveat: sample size.

My eye test also supports the claim that the Avalanche are starting to find a nice balance of shooting the puck vs. looking to create scoring chances. Guys like Matt Duchene have spoken openly about wanting to create a better chance at times, rather than just shooting on first opportunity. I think this is an important identity to preserve, but am happy with the team being a bit more trigger happy of late. Greasy goals are important goals.

This is a team that is getting better at playing a more consistent and reliable brand of 5-on-5 hockey. Impressive, considering how ravaged their lineup has been due to injuries. I think a guy like Brad Stuart coming back, among others, will further cement the positive trend we are noticing.

I have had a few harsh words for Stuart this season, but the zone-scheme should highlight his skillset in a much more positive light. The man-on-man system was something he hadn’t done much in his career, and he looked out of place. In a zone, I can easily see Stuart being a very dependable second pairing guy, who will be a nice compliment to Tyson Barrie.

Period 2

Alright, so we’ve established that the Avalanche are playing fundamentally better possession hockey recently, and the zone-scheme has improved the defensive coverage immensely. Two key weaknesses from last year's team. So, why isn’t this team winning more games? What is holding this team back?

The biggest limitation the Avalanche are going to face for the rest of the season, is their poor start. As I said above, the Avalanche have played at a 100.2 point pace over their last 9 games. They are playing decent hockey. The problem is, decent hockey doesn’t cut it. The Avalanche need to play exquisite hockey, and/or get on a significant hot streak to climb back into the playoff picture.

They have re-defined the acceptable pace, to a pace that frankly would be impressive to attain. Expectations are now skewed. This is why the start of the season is still so funny to me. So many people were quick to condemn anyone who had anything critical to say about the team, or lament how hard it was going to be to make the playoffs. The critical crowd was branded as "bad fans." Now that they Avs are actually playing decent hockey, but the reality of the task at hand is setting in, many of the "good fans" are wanting to trade O’Reilly and are lashing out on twitter. Now it’s the end of the world. Pretty cute.

Most have assumed that getting Varlamov back would be what took this team to the next level. Couple that with the fact that guys like Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon are bound to start scoring some more goals, right? This team has been snake-bitten, right? I’m not so sure.

Over the last 12 games, the Avalanche have had an even-strength PDO over 100 in 10 of them. Overall, their PDO is 101.5 since the switch to zone, and 102 in their last 7 (just to correlate with the Fenwick stats above). This tells me this team is scoring the goals they should be scoring, and saving the pucks they should be saving, at even-strength. In fact, aside from the Islanders game, they have been even or positive in even-strength goal differential since the switch to zone, 12 games ago. I have a hard time seeing the Avalanche improving their goal differential much in this area. So, what other weaknesses could we explore?

To me, the biggest flaws of this team today (aside from the hole they dug themselves) are the power-play, puck-management, and not being on the positive side of timely goals and close games.

The good news is, these are fixable issues. Especially the power play.

I have attended a handful of Avalanche practices so far this season. For good reason, much of the time has been spent on zone-exit drills, and zone-coverage drills. One thing I have never seen the Avalanche work on, is the power play. Perhaps I just go on the wrong days. Who knows?

A 13.9% power-play is not acceptable, and is an area where the Avalanche can find many more goals to put them over the top. I’d say this is something you work on every single day from now on. A finely-tuned power play surely takes practice, and the Avalanche often times look lost when they have the man-advantage. Let’s get some set plays for guys like Iginla and MacKinnon to get shots from the circles. Let’s practice feeding backdoor cutters from down low. At the very least, work on something. Make Allen Iverson proud, and practice.

As far as puck management, last night in Calgary is a perfect example. The Avalanche held a 2-1 lead, and Tyson Barrie had a bad turnover that led directly to a Flames goal. I’m all for the Avalanche trying to make fancy plays from time to time. Just not when you are 5 feet from your own net, with a one-goal lead. The team has made far too many turnovers in their last two games. Clean it up, boys.

Finally, the Avalanche aren’t winning the close games. Last season, the Avs were 28-4-8 in one-goal games, best in the NHL. Obviously, nobody expected them to duplicate that success. This season, the Avs are 6-6-6 in one-goal games. Nobody expected them to be that bad either. Last season, the Avs were 35-0-3 when leading after two periods. This year, they are a league worst, 3-2-2.

I believe that psychology plays a large role in a team’s ability to win close games. Last year, the Avalanche had a "why not us" attitude, that really gave them a lot of confidence throughout the season. The winning streak they had to start the year supplemented this attitude, and made the team fearless and confident when the game was on the line.

This year, the team is searching for answers. While I think they have shown improvement over the course of the season, they haven’t found a winning groove. Sometimes, losing can be a symptom of losing. The Avalanche players need to play with that same confidence and swagger they had last season as much as they can late in games.

I know in sports, sometimes you just get on a good streak, and sometimes you just get in a funk. It’s almost cruel, because last year, any time the Avs needed a big play, someone delivered. This year, it is the other team that has been having those moments. Somehow, the Avalanche need to regain some of that magic. Perhaps a goat needs to be sacrificed in an MHH gathering.

goat

Here's a picture of a goat (credit: Wikipedia commons)

Period 3

As frustrating as this season has been, I’m still confident and optimistic going forward. I’m hopeful that Roy and Sakic have learned some lessons, and are going to be able to apply what they are learning to get this team to become a Cup contender.

Last season was such a wild, and unexpected joy-ride, that I think everyone was flying by the seat of their pants in a lot of ways. In the offseason, Roy and Sakic had the mindset they could just throw in a few veteran guys, and it would solve some of the issues this team had. Or perhaps, there simply weren’t better alternatives.

I’m hopeful that they are now getting a chance to really evaluate this roster, who is essential, and who is in need of an upgrade. To me, the momentum of this season is still trending positively, despite the less than stellar results on the ice. Last year, the Avalanche shocked the world of hockey. This year, they are learning how to belong.

Post Jets Game Edit: Would just like to comment, that although that game was BRUTAL, it was pretty amusing watching and knowing I had this piece written and on the docket for today! Go figure.