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Launch Codes: The Early Failures Of 2014-15 and How It Can Be Avoided

Colorado set the tone for each of their past two seasons from the outset. Let's take a look at each as we build expectations for the coming year.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Rookie Head Coach Patrick Roy shot the 2013-14 Avalanche out of a cannon. Riding the emotional catharsis of a certain first-game plexiglass assault, the team exploded out the gate to a 14-2 record -- a start that would provide a sizable cushion in the Central Division for the rest of the season. 2014-15 was nearly the exact opposite. Saddled with high expectations from the previous year, Colorado came out flat, unprepared, and quickly looking for answers during a dismal 4-12 start. Players hung their heads as the losses and injuries piled up for a team that would only manage 90 points by season's end, ultimately missing the playoffs.

One-fifth of the season isn't enough time for most statistics to normalize, but it is a significant portion of the season in the standings, and even the early outliers tell a story.

Back-Up Goaltending Is A Big Piece To The Puzzle

You don't need me to tell you Semyon Varlamov is a fantastic goalie. The statistics speak for themselves. Over the past two seasons, the 27-year old Russian has put up Vezina-quality numbers despite playing behind one of the more challenged defensive groups in the league.

But how directly has Varly contributed to the Avalanche's early season success and failures? The graph below shows his save percentage for the first sixteen games the past two seasons as well as his correlating season average. As expected, his numbers are top-notch, but not anything more extraordinary than normal. So if the starting goaltending is consistent, where do the losses come from?

Games Started Team Wins Save%/First 16 Games Save%/Season SA Allowed/gm - First 16 Games
2013-14 11 9 0.937 0.927 31.45
2014-15 10 2 0.924 0.921 36.8

One major reason is the backup goaltending. Jean-Sebastian Giguere was simply on fire to start 2013 and his subsequent retirement became a major storyline the following season when the Avs discovered the had no ready backup to Varlamov. Below is a similar graph featuring the Avalanche's backup goalies during this stretch. Giguere was otherworldly in 2013-14, and Calvin Pickard and Reto Berra in 2014-15 were very, uh, not...despite facing a closer-to-league-average (32.11) amount of shots.

Games Started Team Wins Save%/First 16 Games Save%/Season SA Allowed/gm - First 16 Games
2013-14 5 5 0.968 0.913 33
2014-15 6 2 0.899 0.926 32

Prescription for 2015-16: Whomever wins the back-up goalie battle must be prepared for the job from the onset. Both Pickard and Berra settled down considerably as the season progressed, but neither got the job done early on. Roy can't afford for this to happen again. One of those two needs to earn the job early in camp and get plenty of in-game repetitions before the regular season begins.

The next lesson we learn from this data segways nicely into the next topic.

The Defense Cannot Fall On Its Face

I can't add much here that hasn't already been said. The Avalanche defense last year outside of Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson (and arguably Zach Redmond) was deplorable -- but it was especially bad to begin 2014-15. Still employing a man-to-man scheme (seemingly designed for anyone other than the too many slower-footed defensemen on the Avalanche blueline), the team allowed an astonishing 35.00 shots per game to start the season -- that's Buffalo Sabres bad. A change to a zone system mitigated many of these problems, but the cause was mostly personnel -- namely Brad Stuart and Nate Guenin, and to a lesser extent Nick Holden and Jan Hejda.

Prescription for 2015-16: The team has to eliminate as many negative possession players in its defensive group as possible. The signing of Francois Beauchemin should help (even neutral possession numbers will be a major improvement) and the trade for top defensive prospect Nikita Zadorov should provide hope for the near future if not pay immediate dividends. But what should provide the biggest boost for the Avalanche is keeping Stuart or Guenin (or both!) as far from the ice as possible -- even if you're paying them significant money to do so.

Jerome Iginla Has To Be More Effective Early-On

When the future Hall Of Fame forward signed in Colorado, we were aware of his slow-starting ways, but nothing could have prepared us for the dearth of scoring that would start his 2014-15 campaign. In five of his first 16 games, he failed to even register a shot on goal. And when he was getting shots on the net, they weren't going in. Just 5.8% of his shots went in during this early stretch -- this is for a career 13.2% shooter. As we all know, this frustrating trend would eventually subside with Iginla scoring 29 goals at a 15.3% clip by season's end, but it was pretty brutal to watch in the early going.

Prescription for 2015-16: Iginla isn't the new guy on the team anymore. He's figured out how to be effective on a number of lines, found his niche on Colorado's power play, and his teammates now know how and when to look for him. Yes, he's another year older and even less likely to perform on his skates, but that deadly shot is not going away -- and it's going to score more often than 5.8% time in the early going.