And we're back! Canadian Thanksgiving was extremely busy for me; I spent Monday morning playing Rummy, and the afternoon watching the Jays pummel the Rangers (bless), so clearly there wasn't a minute to spare for this column. Today, however, the overcast in Toronto is omnipresent and the coffee is plentiful; writing conditions are perfect.
As always, follow me on Twitter here for caffeine-induced rambling and pretty pictures.
The Week As It Were
I have a new treat for you lot. Hockey has a new and improved Expected Goals model, developed by the mysterious Don't Tell Me About Heart. I'm a rather large fan of the xG model that Michael Caley has created for soccer, so needless to say I'm thrilled to see similar principles applied to the world of hockey. A full explanation of DTMA's xG model can be found here (and here), but in short it assigns a value to each shot taken over the course of a game, based on the model's predicted probability of that shot resulting in a goal. Add these probabilities up, and presto, you've got the total number of expected goals for the game. Think of it as a possession-proxy model that also incorporates shot quality.
The Avalanche opened their season at home against the Minnesota Wild, a new chapter in a rivalry that's been fueled by the exploits of both NHL schedule-makers and deviant former players. Whatever the origin, these are two teams that clearly don't think much of one another. Unfortunately for the Avalanche, recent chapters include two straight Wild shutouts at the beginning of last season, and Nino Niederreiter's Game 7, bar-down snipe in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. Times have been hard, and the Avalanche were clearly hoping to start their season off on a more positive note than last year.
The Wild scored 4 goals quicker than I could drink 1 beer— Jibblescribbits (@Jibblescribbits) October 9, 2015
It was not to be. The Avalanche were clinical with their chances during the early portion of the game, and quickly got out to a 4-1 lead, but their play was unstructured and visibly sloppy. At many points during the game, the gap between Colorado's forward unit and their defense was enormous, a gaping chasm that practically begged to be exploited by a well-timed counter. In the third period, the Parise line took advantage of a match-up against Guenin and Barrie, and the Wild scored 4 goals in 5:07 as the typically dependable Varlamov faltered badly. In the end, the Wild created the better chances, and were decisive in finishing them when it mattered most.
It's not tough to point fingers when the Avs lose and boast a CorsiFor% of 39.4, but Nathan Guenin and Tyson Barrie were particularly abysmal. In fact, I feel like Patrick Roy's sole motivation for playing Nathan Guenin at this point is because he knows it bothers me, and enjoys reveling in my frustration and despair.
The 14-9-12 line was one of the few bright spots for the Avalanche on opening night. I know that many fans are bemoaning the lack of proper linemates for Duchene, and perhaps that's true to an extent, but I like Comeau on Duchene's left. Duchene benefits greatly when playing alongside linemates who are effective in the "dirty areas" of the offensive zone, and Comeau brings this type of play in spades. Comeau comes up with the puck, Duchene distributes it, and Iginla acts as first-choice triggerman. Expect to see this line together quite a bit.
Game 2 was a significant improvement. Roy demoted Guenin to the third pairing after a disastrous first period and proceeded to match Beauchemin and EJ against the Seguin line for the remainder of the game, freeing Barrie of both Guenin and the more demanding defensive assignment. To say this turned the tide would be an understatement. The Avalanche went on to score 5 unanswered goals and had the lion's share of possession for the first time this season, recording a CorsiFor% of 56.4 during the third period. A step in the right direction.
The 92-29-40 line was consistently out-possessed yet again, despite recording 10 points between the three of them. This can probably be filed under the headings "hockey is a weird sport" and "don't give guys like MacKinnon and Landeskog the puck in high danger areas, because they'll probably score". The 4th line also had another fairly impressive game, which is a sentence Avalanche fans haven't seen in print for a very long time.
Tyson Barrie's play continues to puzzle. Not only has he been defensively anemic, the normally dynamic puck-mover has also struggled to generate shot attempts. Barrie tends to be a bit of a slow starter, which I'll touch on later, but it's disappointing to see him struggle regardless. If the Avalanche are to overcome their lack of depth on the back-end, then it's incredibly important that Barrie take another large step forward this season.
On the Avalanche
His play has been glossed over for the most part amidst all the excitement, but the question remains: what of Mikko Rantanen?
Rantanen played a paltry 7:24 against the Wild, which increased slightly to 8:39 in Game 2 against the Stars. To be perfectly honest with you, I haven't noticed him much, although the numbers suggest that he and fellow rookie Rendulic have been getting scorched during their limited ice-time.
History shows that Roy prefers to ease his rookies into the big leagues, and that's absolutely fine. However, if Roy plans to play Rantanen for just a handful of minutes per night, then it's hard to argue that be wouldn't be better off spending some time in San Antonio, from both a developmental and fiscal perspective. If Rantanen plays 9 games or less in the NHL this season, his ELC will slide. For me, the benefit of having a 21 year-old Rantanen on an ELC when the Avs are (hopefully) competing for a cup and are up against the cap certainly outweighs the limited contribution we're currently seeing. I'm happy for Sakic to wait a couple of games before making any big decisions, though.
Rantanen's play aside, if the Avalanche hope to compete in the bloodthirsty Central this season, then they're going to need a third line who they can rely on. Gone are the days of top forwards on competitive teams playing 22, 23 minutes a night. Everberg looks set to make a return to the big club in the near future, but whether he'll be able to play the sort of minutes such a role requires remains to be seen.
NOTE: It had not been announced that Guenin would be scratched tomorrow, as of this writing.
Despite openly stating that Gormley would be given a shot alongside Barrie during his preseason address on Altitude, Patrick Roy went right back to pairing Barrie with Guenin in Game 1. Given that many expected Guenin to be Colorado's 8th defenseman at best, and a candidate for AHL duty at worst, the move was unpopular if not unsurprising.
"We're going to give a shot at Gormley with Barrie," Roy said on the telecast. "We think that he's a guy that's capable of playing in the top four. He's having a really good training camp with our team so far and certainly (we're) looking forward to seeing him play with Tyson. I think that's going to be a pretty good pairing."
The experiment lasted all of 4 periods. Roy inexplicably chose to match the Guenin-Barrie pairing against the Parise line, with disastrous results. The first period of the Stars game produced much of the same.
Barrie has been a slow starter in his previous two seasons. He was sent down to the AHL for a brief stint at the beginning of 2013-2014, and was publicly lambasted by Roy for his poor play early last season. While this is no excuse for his performance thus far, does it make sense to exacerbate the situation by weighing him down with a Guenin-sized anchor? Moving forward, I'd like to see Barrie paired with Gormley; think of it as a Rocky Mountain rendition of the Karlsson-Methot arrangement. Gormley can hold the fort down while Barrie is free to roam. Zadorov, who's no stranger to roaming himself, would then have an opportunity to acclimatize in sheltered minutes alongside Stuart. Stuart's effectiveness is obviously limited (read: he's a bit of a pylon), but it's hard to argue that he's not at his best in a "stay-at-home" role.
Guenin's consistent usage is just the tip of the Patrick Roy decision-making iceberg.
Patrick Roy is a Colorado Avalanche legend, and a former Jack Adams winner, but that shouldn't make him infallible. It would be extremely reckless (not to mention stupid) to call for his head a mere two games into the season, but fans are right to be skeptical. Nick Holden should never be leading the Avalanche in ice time. Cody McLeod should not be the extra attacker when the goaltender's been pulled, despite what you believe about the impact of his net-front presence. Matching Guenin and Barrie against the opposition's top line is simply ludicrous.
I'm so tired of people suggesting NHL management is infallible... are YOU infallible? do YOU make mistakes? guess what - so do they.— Stephen Burtch (@SteveBurtch) October 13, 2015
Roy is also Colorado's VP of Hockey Operations, and his leash is likely longer than most other coaches'. However, it's tough to watch the structured hockey being played by the Leafs and Sabres, teams with considerably less talent than the Avalanche, and not consider the colour of the grass on the other side. Sure, our defense has a couple of gaping holes, and our forward group is relatively young, but more has been made out of less. A team boasting talents like MacKinnon, Duchene, Landeskog and Barrie should not be a bottom feeder.
Roy will inevitably be given the entirety of the season to work out the kinks, but if the Avalanche aren't within striking distance of a wild card spot at season's end, difficult questions are going to be asked. Roy claims he's learned from his previous mistakes, and his willingness to cut players such as Marc-Andre Cliche and Patrick Bordeleau lends some credence to that, but he still has a ways to go before fans will be willing to put their faith in him again.