When most Avalanche fans were focused on free-agency and the amateur draft this offseason, the organization made a below-the-radar move that was equally significant. Chris MacFarland, an Assistant General Manager for the Columbus Blue Jackets, was hired on May 18th to serve under the same title for Colorado GM Joe Sakic. Columbus famously operates a very progressive front office and this hiring was widely speculated as an effort by the Avalanche to catch up to an increasingly analytics-driven NHL.
Just a year ago, Colorado was stumbling out the gate after a remarkable 112-point 2013-14 season. The analytics community, adamant the team had far exceeded expectations the previous year, howled with delight when the team's record finally regressed to their metrics. They screamed even louder when coach Patrick Roy, on local sports-talk radio, largely dismissed the practice, saying they had their own way of evaluating players. The mainstream media piled-on shortly after, with ESPN The Magazine proclaiming the Avalanche to be in the dark ages among professional sports franchises (117th out of 122) using analytics. Near the top of that list among NHL teams was the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were credited with developing an industry respect quality-of-competition model in-house.
Hiring MacFarland was an admission by the Colorado front office that they'd neglected these evaluation tools for far too long. The subsequent roster turnover was perhaps even more telling. Gone were possession black holes like Patrick Bordeleau and Marc-Andre Cliché, declining vets like Jan Hejda, and 4th-line players like Max Talbot and Jordan Caron getting way too much play on top lines. In their place are positive possession players so far in 2015:
- Francois Beauchemin (0.78 CF%Rel)
- Blake Comeau (7.66 CF%Rel)
- Jack Skille (9.64 CF%Rel)
- Borna Rendulic (-19.54 CF%Rel)
- Mikko Rantanen (-11.46 CF%Rel)
- Brad Stuart (-2.86 CF%Rel)
It's hard seeing your 1st Round draft pick get an NHL opportunity right away and struggle, but it's encouraging to see the team notice he's been a real drag on the team. I mean, it actually appears Joe Sakic and company are making their evaluations based on more than just an "eye test" and that's a revelation. Of course, you still have "Mr. Negative Corsi All-America" himself, Nate Guenin (-12.91 CF%Rel), in the lineup, but that might be more a function of Tyson Barrie's suspension more than anything right now. It will be interesting to see what transpires after Saturday's game.
Tagging in so far are players like Brandon Gormley and Mikhail Grigorenko who, in albeit really small samples, have put up positive possession numbers in place of these negative players. It will be fascinating how the roster continues to adjust going forward. Can the new guys keep it up? If they do, will they continue to be on the active roster?
The beginning of this season has been difficult, but we should be encouraged by the active roster tweaks so far. It will certainly be something to keep an eye on.